Good food, great service and an intriguing crowd can all contribute to a positive dining experience. But a lovely setting can be a double-edged sword. Obviously, a gorgeous environment can underscore an exquisite meal, as is the case at places such as Watermark and Radius10, where the pairing of world-class food and stunning architecture yields a consistently elegant experience. But the most glamorous setting in the world can’t make bad food taste good, and can even serve to set overly high expectations.
Take, for example, the 6-year-old Frist Center Café. The airy, glass-enclosed room, with a view of the museum’s manicured courtyard, is one of the loveliest places in all of Nashville. Centrally located within walking distance of downtown and Cummins Station and housed in a structure that became a landmark of swelling civic pride from the minute it opened, the Frist Café draws a vibrant, diverse crowd of politicos, media types, moms, tourists, artsy-fartsies and suits who for various reasons need a place to eat, and who assume the Frist’s food will live up to its architecture and the artistic treasures on display. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
For the last year, the place has been under the stewardship of chef Kevin Kimmel—a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America—and a friendly staff of noir-clad twenty-somethings with piercings, dye jobs and angular haircuts that preclude any sense of preciousness that could potentially infect a café in a palace of fine arts. Kimmel & Co. deliver a menu of sandwiches, soups and salads with rotating feature items such as salmon, flank steak, quiche or pizza.
Since its logistically challenged launch in 2001, when folks stood in different lines to order different foods and often lost track of their food or their party, the café has streamlined its ordering process. Now guests intuitively proceed from the entrance to the two cashiers, then to their seats, where servers—four of whom you might recognize from the band Enjoy the Zoo—deliver their trays and drinks.
Having not lunched at the Frist for several years, we found ourselves still delighted by the setting—the gleaming stainless steel tables, comfortable woven chairs and the courtyard view. We still rejoiced at the tall, heavy-bottomed water glasses—a simple, elegant detail that elevates the whole experience from rushing lunch line to relaxed luncheon. And we still enjoyed the homespun touch of house-made potato chips dusted with a sprinkling of lemon pepper.
But all these years later, the food still didn’t consistently match up to its exquisite environment.
In fact, over several visits, we scored about 50 percent when it came to finding things we’d order again. For starters, the shrimp pizza was dry to a fault and covered with a dense tomato paste, reminiscent of heat lamp ’za from a ballpark. Likewise, our other shrimp dish, a salad of peeled shrimp on a bed of cold spaghetti and greens with a lemon-caper remoulade, was so pale and bland that we were tempted not to eat a second bite. On that same trip, we ordered a thick lentil soup with virtually no flavor. At that lackluster meal, the standout was a wrap of marinated and grilled vegetables with pesto inside a whole-wheat tortilla.
So it was with lowered expectations that we returned a few days later. And when we ran into some of the same people we had seen there earlier in the week, we couldn’t help but ask why they had come back. “Try the turkey Saga sandwich,” they advised.
The turkey Saga sandwich was indeed a step in the right direction. Served on soft flatbread, with avocado, bacon, a schmear of blue cheese and a slathering of spicy chipotle cheese, the sandwich was tasty, if a little over-flavored. Meanwhile, the broccoli-cheese quiche special fell flat—lukewarm and with little flavor to enliven the tepid egg.
It was the portobello burger that turned things around. The well-flavored, toothsome disc of mushroom served with chunky pesto, red onion and fontina cheese on toasted focaccia was a hearty, warm lunch and delicious by any standards. With a choice of homemade chips, fruit salad or green salad with matchsticks of squash and carrots, it was a vegetarian meal that would leave a carnivore wanting for nothing.
Buoyed by that success, we returned a third time. We ordered two sandwiches and again tried our luck with the special. The Buffalo chicken sandwich on focaccia was a delicious concoction of pulled meat with red-pepper mayonnaise, baby spinach and fontina cheese. As with the portobello burger, the layering of toasted focaccia with multiple textures and a warm filling made for a satisfying and flavorful combination.
The Mongolian beef wrap layered tender slices of teriyaki-glazed flank steak on a whole wheat tortilla with mixed greens, crisp basil leaves, roasted red peppers and broccoli spread and came with a sesame dipping sauce. The meal was fresh, clean and colorful.
The special—basil-encrusted salmon—barely missed the mark, not due to flavors or preparation, but as a consequence of kitchen logistics. With a thick topping of roasted pesto, the salmon, served on a fluffy bed of couscous dotted with almond slivers and caramelized onions, was well-seasoned. But the fish was slightly dry, a consequence of lingering in a warmer.
On the other hand, we waited about a nanosecond for lunch, which was priced below $8, so it’s hard to complain—which leads us back to the equation of food, setting, price. Everything about the Frist Café is so gorgeous, reasonably priced and efficient, you just want the food to be a world-class work of art.
If chef Kimmel shares that goal, he’s got some work ahead of him. But his success in creating a handful of creative and well-executed items bodes well. If Kimmel fleshes out the menu with a few more offerings on par with the focaccia sandwiches and wraps, the Frist just might begin to live up to some very lofty expectations.
The Frist Café is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and noon to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday.
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