Fusion Gone Awry 

The ambience at Criallo's is wonderful...if only the food weren't a starch-heavy mishmash of styles and ingredients

The ambience at Criallo's is wonderful...if only the food weren't a starch-heavy mishmash of styles and ingredients

Criallo's Bistro & Bar

1935 Mallory Lane, Franklin. 771-0101

Price range: $$$

Last fall, I spent one of the most glorious days of my life in the most unexpected place: a backyard in the Belmont-Hillsboro neighborhood. The occasion was a luncheon for a diverse gathering of people hosted by a wine seller and his vivacious wife. They made the main course, a robust daube of beef, served with big hunks of crusty bread and laid out with a selection of artisan cheeses. The other guests brought a side or dessert; that several were some of our town's best chefs elevated the repast to a feast any gourmet would revel in. Each contribution was beautifully in harmony with the season, rich, hearty and intensely flavored.

After aperitifs on the back deck, we all walked to a wooded place at the rear of the yard, where a rustic table was laid with mismatched pieces of painted china, colorfully printed linens, heavy antique silver and stemware in every possible shape and size. From one end of the table to the other were lined, like soldiers at attention, a dozen bottles of wines contributed by the hosts and one of the guests, a noted collector. It was unseasonably warm, and the midday sun dappled through the trees. We sat down at 2 p.m. and began passing dishes, pouring wines, telling stories. Hours later, twilight was slipping into dusk, and still we remained at the table. Dessert and jackets were fetched from the house, candles lit all around. Occasionally, I closed my eyes and cosseted myself in the supernal fantasy that I was somewhere under a ciel de France. It was absolutely magic.

As foodies are wont to do, we talked about memorable meals, talented chefs, beloved restaurants past and present. Eventually, the inevitable question came my way: is there anything new and good out there?

At the time, there wasn't much news to report. But, I said, I did get an email from a reader about an independent restaurant that had opened in Cool Springs—an announcement met with surprise from this group of urban dwellers. I had gone on the restaurant's website, and the cuisine sounded rather intriguing: "A vast, eclectic menu taste for every palate hints of Alsatian influence both subtle and distinctive."

While "vast" used in partnership with "menu" is a red flag to me, we all were taken with the notion of "Alsatian influence" (particularly the sublimely handsome native Frenchman sitting to my right). So, caught up in the moment—and, by that point, nearly 18 bottles of wine—we made plans right then and there that when it came time to see for ourselves, they would accompany me south of the Davidson County border.

Which is how we found ourselves one recent Saturday night navigating the neon-pumped arteries of Cool Springs, which certainly deserves the word "vast." The glaring lights, the clusters of commercial development, the huge parking lots and the wide ribbons of asphalt can be disorienting, but finally locating the Cool Springs Wine & Spirits store on Mallory Lane, I turned into the lot, drove behind the wine store, and there was Criallo's Bistro & Bar.

My guests were at the bar and already into the first bottle of four wines they'd brought to complement the Alsatian cuisine; they reported that their greeting had been warm and friendly. Though Criallo's will not take reservations for parties under 10, the person who took my call told me the best times to come on a Saturday night to avoid a wait that might run anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes: 5:30, or 8:30 and after. When I suggested we might convene at 8 in the bar and have a drink, she said she would put our name on a list and accommodate us as close to our arrival time as possible. And that is exactly what happened.

But honestly, once we settled ourselves in Criallo's bar, we were reluctant to leave. Separated from the main room by a half-wall, the exposed brick, dark woods and low lighting make a comfortable yet sophisticated setting for a getting-to-know-you drink or for catching up with a group of friends; the warmth and intimacy make it one of those perfect bars at which to eat a solo dinner and not feel alone. The piano, played every night at exactly the right volume and with a repertoire that leans more to Cole Porter than Billy Joel, can be a subliminal bonding experience for guests.

Eventually seated—at our leisure, no rush—in the center of the main room, we were perfectly happy there as well, with our panoramic view of the five high booths on one side, a curl of bistro banquettes on the other, warm colors on the walls, tasteful art, attractive people and panels of sheers over the plate-glass windows. Even with the live music and our center-stage position, we were able to engage in conversation without straining our voices or our ears. The room hummed with the cheerful energy of a busy night.

Our service, while far from classically trained, was earnest and attentive. The wines on the list are well-selected—not surprising, considering the owner's husband is proprietor of the adjacent liquor store. Bringing your own, as we did, will cost you a $20 corkage fee per bottle, higher than the $10 to $15 our wine importers were expecting, but that didn't prevent us from enjoying our select stash.

Really, there was just one problem: the food. Unfortunately, in a restaurant, that's a major problem.

Presented with what indeed is a vast menu—far bigger than is necessary or manageable by the diner or the kitchen—we searched in vain for any hint of Alsatian influence, subtle or distinctive. Alas, we could find not a one.

Instead, we puzzled over concoctions such as these: Lime Zucchini Cheese con Queso—cheese with cheese? Calamari comfit—did they mean confit, and what could calamari possibly have to do with confit? Cannelloni pasta stuffed with lobster and ricotta, mozzarella and reggiano cheeses, served with pesto, tomato and alfredo sauces. Pity the poor lobster. Wouldn't boiling him to death be more humane than suffocating him in an ocean of cheese? French filet of sirloin, crusted and seared in lemongrass? French-Vietnamese is a culinary partnership I adore, but the sirloin crashed this wedding like a bull in a china closet.

A post-op conversation with the general manager a few days later at least cleared up the missing Alsatian: while it once was true, the website has not been corrected since the arrival of a chef who spent a good deal of time in Hawaii. This accounts for the vaguely Asian dish, the orchids on every plate, and the sweet sauces, which permeate nearly every plate. Though described differently on the menu, the sauce on the tuna tasted the same as the sauce on the lamb, which tasted the same as the sauce on the pork tenderloin. Conformity was an issue as well in the side dishes, close to identical on every plate and quite reliant on starch: a softball-sized pile of mashed potatoes accompanied by a baseball-sized pile of mashed sweet potatoes and a slightly smaller ball of couscous. A pool of sautéed vegetables swathed in the same sweet sauce and a handful of broccoli florets thrown on the side completed the pile-on. With the exception of the main item, our plates looked as if we had all followed the same path at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The lunch dishes were even more peculiar—though no smaller than the gigantic portions served at dinner. One special left me dizzy: Up Country Chicken Breast with a Hawaiian blend of Cajun spices over pasta alfredo and pesto, served with a Caesar salad.

Hawaiian, Cajun and Italian? This is fusion gone terribly awry, with a menu that is hopelessly lost and—much like Criallo's chain restaurant neighbors—kowtowing to America's dangerous predilection for cheese, sugar, fat, starch and criminally excessive portion sizes.

Our delightful fall feast in a Nashville backyard was likely a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of the sun, stars, moon, spirit and karma. We didn't expect to re-create that at Criallo's. Still, we were expecting more than we got.

Criallo's owner Jackie Woodard is to be commended for her genuine efforts in creating such a charming room and winning environment and staking an independent claim in the vast chain morass of Cool Spring. Though the advertising and marketing materials promise that "it's all about the food," regrettably the food has far more in common with Criallo's corporate-owned neighbors than the restaurant it inhabits. That we nonetheless had a marvelous time says a lot for the room, the ambience and the folks running the front of the house. Now all they have to do is get the food right. I have high hopes that they will.

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