Everyone has a favorite place to eat, but few restaurants inspire the kind of loyalty that Parco Café has earned. For years, from their tiny lunch counter in the Nashville Farmers Market, owners Chun Fu and Tsuo Chuan Fu raised sandwiches, salads and desserts to something like an art form, thanks to their keen attunement to quality and the little touches that can render a simple meal extraordinary. For those customers lucky enough to snag one of the five stools at the counter, there could be no better definition of comfort food than a meal spent in the Taiwanese couple’s company. Each sip of Mrs. Fu’s warming teas and coffees, each bite of Mr. Fu’s unmatchable veggie burger has been known to possess curative powers that can heal a nagging cold or brighten a gloomy day.
Most amazing is that the Fus were able to turn out their impeccable fare in a space smaller than most walk-in closets, but they yearned for a full-service restaurant where they could stretch out—literally and figuratively. They spent several years in search of the right location, nearly landing in the Gulch, then later in SoBro, but each time their plans never quite worked out. Then last year, the Fus signed a lease on a basement-level space in Printers Alley, directly beneath a developing high-rise condo.
The couple quickly transformed what had once been a smoky black hole of a nightclub into a restaurant that feels like no other in town. With its low ceilings and subdued lighting, the room now has a cozy ambience that makes diners feel as though they’re tucked into a secret hideaway. Tables and chairs are snugly arranged, but not so tightly as to induce claustrophobia. At the front of the room, a glowing display case boasts a selection of Mr. Fu’s exquisitely crafted desserts, while another case is packed with a museum-like array of beautiful Chinese teacups and teapots.
But the location seems to be so tucked away that many Nashville diners have yet to discover the joys of eating at the new Parco Café. Which is a shame, because in a town with so many worthy dining options, the Parco experience remains unique, at once down-to-earth and marked by a sense of occasion, the food a singular blend of French, Asian and American influences.
The lunch menu carries over the most popular items from Parco Café’s counter at Farmers Market. (That location is currently closed, though the Fus are giving consideration to reopening in the market after long-anticipated renovations get under way there.) The sandwiches and salads make for unfussy but fulfilling meals, and though the veggie burger comes strongly recommended to anyone who’s never ordered it, Mr. Fu’s vegetarian ham rates just as highly. Both transcend their meatless designation by virtue of their distinct, complex flavors and their firm texture—anyone who’s turned off by the saltiness or fattiness of ham will find Parco’s vegetarian version far superior to the real thing. Aside from the fillings, it’s the bread that makes the sandwich, and at Parco, everything comes on lightly buttered and toasted Tuscan slices that add a pleasing crunch; the same bread accompanies the salads.
For those familiar with Parco’s longtime offerings, the newly added entrées provide a glimpse of Mr. Fu’s global range and consummate skill. Some are available at lunch and dinner, while others are limited to just the daytime or the nighttime menu. Foremost among the lunchtime options are the Chinese casseroles, which bear no resemblance to the stereotypically gooey, breadcrumb-topped muck that passes for a casserole in this country. Available with tofu, seafood or green tea-infused shrimp, they’re small clay dishes filled to the brim with Chinese vegetables in a thick, mildly seasoned broth; served with rice or bread on the side, it’s the ideal meal for a rainy day.
Aside from the mushroom pesto pasta and the lightly crispy pan-fried tofu (both available only at lunch), the other entrées are divided between meat and seafood, with the former tending toward more robust flavors, as in the marinated pork chops, the Frenched lamb rack and the confit duck. In this last dish, the preparation—slow-cooking the salted meat in its own fat—allows the full, fragrant taste of the duck to come through. On repeated visits, the seafood dishes proved remarkably fresh, marked by subtler, though no less rich, flavors. Dressed in a simple butter sauce, the steamed cod was cooked to perfection, the fish both moist and flaky.
Seafood also figures in two of the soups. The baked seafood soup with puff pastry is hearty enough to be a meal unto itself, with pieces of fish, crustacean and more in a creamy broth that arrives at the table still boiling underneath a covering of doughy pastry; crack the top and then plunge hunks of it into the soup. For diners seeking a less hefty starter, there’s the shrimp-and-fish wonton soup, with its clear broth a precise balance of soy sauce, sesame oil and green onion flavors. It may look like the same thing you’d find at a Chinese restaurant, only it’s infinitely better.
For a light meal, the wonton soup pairs nicely with the dinner salads, which depart from the lettuce-based offerings at lunchtime. The mushroom salad is the most unusual, with thin black mushrooms deep-fried and then tossed in a sweet sauce; for anyone expecting a more savory dish, the execution may come as a surprise, but once the shock wears off, the mix of crusty fried texture, earthy mushrooms and slightly sticky sweetness is hard to resist. The other two salads also mix sweet and savory in equally pleasurable combinations, with avocado, mango and tuna teaming up in one, and peach and shrimp pairing in the other.
But when it comes to pleasure, nothing may be more satisfying than Mr. Fu’s desserts, each one so artfully prepared that it looks ready for a magazine photo shoot. Individual chocolate truffles are filled with delicate flavorings like Earl Grey tea or passion fruit, while the cookies include crumbly lemon Madeleines and aromatic rosemary shortbread. Mr. Fu likes to decorate some of his pastries, like the dense chocolate-and-coffee layer cake, with edible gold foil; it’s the perfect hallmark of quality, an indication that you’re about to bite into something special. For those paralyzed by so many choices, the chocolate ganache comes particularly recommended, the smooth exterior giving way to a mound of creamy filling and spongy cake.
Though business is slowly picking up for Parco Café, it’s clear that the restaurant remains overlooked by many diners, even those who work downtown during the day. But once people find the place, it’s a good bet that they too will become loyal Parco customers. As Mrs. Fu moves among the tables with her warm, solicitous smile, and Mr. Fu toils devotedly in the kitchen, diners can’t help but feel at home. And yet they can be certain that their meal will be anything but ordinary.