In Full Bloom 

Bouquets for Magnolias

Bouquets for Magnolias

When I called Magnolias, the restaurant that opened in February in The Factory, the entertainment-retail complex in the old Jamison Bedding factory in Franklin, a pleasant woman took my reservation for eight on a Friday evening. Then, logically enough, she asked, “Is this a special occasion?” I told her, no, this was just a group of friends getting together for dinner. What I was thinking, however, was, “Anytime I drive nearly 30 miles for supper, it had better be a special occasion.”

After eating twice at Magnolias, I can assure you that it is the perfect place for special occasion dinners—birthdays, anniversaries, the celebration of a promotion. Even if you are just joining some friends for dinner, the experience will be special.

Everyone at Magnolias is eager to please, from the hostess, Shannon Hamilton; to the servers; to the man in the kitchen, executive chef and co-owner Richard Hamilton.

Born in Oklahoma City, Hamilton, who’s just 31, comes from a restaurant family and began cooking at an early age. He spent time in New Orleans, studied at cooking schools in France, and cooked at the Hotel Ritz in Paris and the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Nigel, Calif.

I’ve been aware of Chef Hamilton since he came to town in late 1991, and he’s always struck me as being a little bit—how do you say?—cocky? Actually, I like that in a chef, but only if he can walk the walk to back up the talk.

After getting to know Hamilton a little better, I’ve learned that he’s like so many of the rest of us who moved to Nashville from somewhere else. He only intended to stay for a little while; then his catering business, The Ritz, took off, particularly in the entertainment industry.

A chance meeting with Calvin LeHew, developer of The Factory, led to Hamilton’s reserving the space formerly occupied by the Jamison company’s front office. Magnolias opened in early February with an A-List preview party.

At Magnolias, the buck stops with Hamilton, chef de cuisine Emile Labrousse, sous chef David Bernstein, and executive pastry chef John Kraus, who work with a full-time kitchen staff of 30. And God knows there’s room for them. Magnolias’ 6,000-square-foot kitchen spreads over two floors and is modeled on the kitchen at the Ritz in Paris. The lower level accepts deliveries, provides office space, and serves as the mise en place, or prep area. Dishes are plated upstairs before they go out to the dining room.

And the dining room, by the way, is just lovely. The look, devised by designer Missy Gentry, is contemporary yet elegant. Thick carpeting mutes footsteps and allows for intimate conversation, while the upholstery brings in shades of taupe, beige, dark chocolate, and aubergine. The main dining room’s support columns are wrapped in translucent lighting to suggest a champagne flute. It’s a decor that is professional enough for business dinners, yet soft enough for romance.

The menu has been revised several times since Magnolias’ opening, and it will be subject to even more dramatic changes when the spring/summer season gets under way. The nightly Taster’s Menu offers five courses, and must be ordered by everyone at the table. We regretfully declined to take that option, since it would have allowed us to sample the herbed polenta with roasted lobster meat, the baby greens with ragout of escargot and red-skinned potatoes, and a grilled venison saddle with shallot sauce.

But there were so many other temptations on the main menu that I hardly felt short-changed. Hamilton’s influences are obviously très français, with a touch of Creole and a nod to Southern regional. There’s also a touch of the Mediterranean and a little bit of the Asian, leaning more to subtle Vietnamese flavors rather than the fiery Thai. The results are dishes like Maine lobster bisque with a fricassee of Louisiana crawfish tails; risotto of fresh gulf shrimp, oyster mushrooms, and country ham with Italian cheeses; lamb chops crusted with Creole mustard sauce with roasted garlic and potatoes; sautéed Muscovy duck breast, confit of duck leg with wild-mushroom bread pudding, and reduction of Port wine; fried Louisiana soft shell crab with a sauté of crawfish and shrimp in an etouffée-style sauce with tomato over fettuccine. Whew.

Let me just say a few key words here: domestic Colorado lamb; line-caught, day-catch fish; truffles. Those standards, my friends, suggest an insistence on quality that translates into big price tags. (Perigord truffles sell for $850 a pound.) And Magnolias’ entrées run from a low of just under $20 all the way up to $33 for lamb chops. Starters average $8, and salads, for the most part, are in the same range. But, if you’ve got the deep pockets for this kind of meal—or if you’ve got a special occasion to celebrate—it’s absolutely worth it.

Presentations are exquisite. I’d love to watch the kitchen prepare the delicate summer vegetable Napoleon. They must use tweezers to assemble the little architectural masterpiece. Delectable sauces are meted out in exactly the right portions. Side dishes are perfect complements to the leading player on the plate. Desserts are showstopping productions; the understated crème brûlée was among the best I’ve tasted.

If they’re still on the menu when you visit, don’t miss the Maine lobster pudding drizzled with white truffle oil, the shrimp risotto, or the popular barbecued shrimp with biscuits. The Boston bibb lettuce salad is a buttery delight, fragrant with truffle-sherry vinaigrette; but, for something more extravagant, indulge in the jumbo lump-crab salad or my favorite, the cold Maine lobster with avocado, green apple, tomato, and itty bitty slivers of pungent black truffle.

All our entrées—including the quail, the veal chop, and the scrupulously fresh red snapper—were standouts. But I’ll probably be drawn back to the poached salmon in coconut broth, a paradigm of simplicity and a harmonious marriage of flavors.

Magnolias strives for perfection, which isn’t a bad goal, given the pressure on Hamilton right now. As time goes by, and the kitchen relaxes and matures, I’m looking forward to a little less controlled perfection and a little more unfettered passion. I have no doubt they can do it, and, when that happens, the results will be very special indeed.

Magnolias is located at 230 Franklin Rd. in Franklin, Tenn. (791-9992). Lunch: Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Tues.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5-11 p.m. Sunday brunch: 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Stogies Cigar Bar & Bistro(with live jazz): Tues-Thurs. 5-11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight.

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