While the Dow plummets and the global economy wobbles like a house of credit cards, consumer confidence and appetites appear strong in Sylvan Park, where chef Jimmy and Seema Phillips recently launched the sultry French-themed eatery Miel. Over the last year, Seema—a Realtor by day—and Jimmy, an alumnus of Midtown Café and Wild Boar, transformed and expanded the tiny cinder-block building in the backyard of Bobbie's Dairy Dip into an elegantly industrial space with an open kitchen and a serenely landscaped garden patio.
On a recent Friday night, the sparely appointed rooms—with creamy white walls, acid-stained concrete floors, warm woods and servers carrying silver trays—took on the air of a cocktail party, albeit a cocktail party with wine only. A chummy clique of diners chatted among tables, gushing over the metamorphosis of Johnson's Meat Market into the city's newest dining destination. If there was any stock-market malaise in the room, it was sufficiently salved with red wine, foie gras and chocolate mousse.
With a roster of classics, including frog legs, rabbit confit and escargots, Miel recalls the traditions of French cuisine, a genre that has been largely absent from the Nashville repertoire since the closings of Julian's and Wild Boar.
But while Miel—which means "honey" in French and Spanish—reprises many idioms of la cuisine française, it infuses venerable European style with contemporary "green" vernacular of eating locally and sustainably. Best of all, Miel delivers the elegant dining experience sans attitude.
For example, Miel pours filtered tap water from pitchers, reducing the waste associated with bottled water. Gone is the formality of tablecloths that must be professionally cleaned. Less visible is the fact that chef Phillips and company begin every day in the fields of local farms, selecting produce and working with growers to plant crops that will ultimately land on Miel's 33 wood-topped tables.
Dinner at Miel opens with a twee amuse-bouche, a tiny teaser from the chef, whose résumé weaves through Chicago restaurants Gordon, Marché and Charlie Trotter's. On one visit, the chef sent out roasted baby Japanese eggplants, like large caper berries, which made for a single savory bite. Another evening, we received a canoe-shaped bowl filled with three dice of watermelon. Each sweet pink cube was garnished with coarse salt and a stain of Balsamic vinegar, like a trompe-l'oeil watermelon seed, that vanished across the tongue in a tangy whisper.Next arrived a basket of fresh boules—individual baguettes the size and shape of softballs—with a small tub of soft butter. The golden, glossy crust tore apart to reveal an airy cloud of chewy bread, which, far from a starchy time-killer, was a worthy pre-prandial indulgence. In fact, we broke from habit to ask for more bread to soak up delicious pools of sauce from various plates throughout the meal.
One appetizer combined the garlic-and-parsley-infused staples of French food, with two tiny frog legs crossed over a thin crouton, encircled by six snails and topped with an airy whiff of herbed foam. The legs melted off the minute bone—like the most tender, moist pieces of, yes, chicken—and the delicate grape-sized snails were accented with roasted garlic and salty lardons of Benton's prosciutto.
Our favorite appetizer by far was the foie gras, a slice of seared duck liver—imported from France—whose thin caramelized surface gave way to a seductively unctuous texture somewhere between a solid and liquid. Served on a light homemade crouton, with slices of roasted peach and a drizzle of spicy tomato gastrique, the restrained portion delivered enough rich flavor to satisfy the palate without overwhelming the stomach.
Having enjoyed our appetizers so much, we expected the entrées to fall short by comparison, as happens all too often when a chef trades precision for bulk. On the contrary, our dinners matched our starters for creativity and execution, in some cases exceeding them in both flavor and beauty.
Two dishes stood out: Scottish salmon and seared duck breast. The former is chef Phillips' signature, with a large slab of slow-roasted pink fish topped with apples and plated on a decadent bed of braised cabbage infused with bacon. The entrée was finished with reductions of port and apple cider, which echoed the sweet fruit and added depth to the color and flavor of the light meal.
The duck breast was seared and cooked sous vide, then seared again before slicing and plating. The result was tender, jewel-colored meat with a crisp patina. Phillips makes use of the whole bird, finishing the plate with a garnish of confit—meat from the leg that has been slow-cooked and pulled. Served over a nutty bed of quinoa, topped with wild mushrooms and roasted squash and finished with a cherry reduction and sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, the sultry dish never leaned too heavily on any one element, and each forkful was a delicious medley of flavor and texture.
Seared tuna arrived as a traditional salade Niçoise, with faintly cooked medallions over a bed of greens with green beans, a variety of salty olives and red potatoes. A simple marriage of fresh ingredients, the meal offered a substantial but light alternative to the heavier presentations. Similarly, the chicken from Ashley Farms was a laudable execution of a simple rustic staple: half a bird marinated in garlic, herbs and olive oil, roasted until the skin was crisp and served with sweet root vegetables.
Chef Phillips' menu showcases both the complexity of French technique and the simple extravagance of fresh ingredients, from warm bread to flowering dill blossoms and pungent thyme sprigs. The same could be said for pastry chef Angela Reynolds' dessert list, which presents icons such as chocolate mousse and tarte tatin with a hint of whimsy. Most notable among the presentations was the inverted crème brûlée, a fluffy dollop of custard served inside an amber globe of caramelized sugar—like the most caloric of Fabergé eggs.
If all goes according to plan, Miel will be the cornerstone of the Phillipses' nascent culinary company, Two Peas in a Pod. The umbrella business will ultimately include Miel's to Go—scheduled to open next summer in the neighboring building. In this challenging economic climate, the couple have their work cut out for them luring skittish customers to spend money on high-end dining. For now, economy not withstanding, Miel is not without its challenges. We heard complaints about cosmetics—lights too bright and walls too echoey—about slow pacing of meals, and about the lack of liquor. To put things in Wall Street jargon, though, such complaints are not about the stock's fundamentals: Miel's culinary potential is blue chip all the way. Lighting and sound are remediable, chef Phillips is already working on preparation issues, and a liquor license is a possibility, though it would require enclosing the patio.
So if the economic downturn serves to separate the wheat from the chaff, Miel stands a good chance of making the cut, as it admirably fills dining niches in both genre and geography. Meanwhile, as the economy roils and investors swallow the bitter medicine of a market slowdown, chef Phillips' tiny parting spoonful of local honey with a pod of fennel caviar helps it all go down just a little smoother.
Miel serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
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