For whatever reason, it seems that when people tell me they've dined at 360 Bistro, they do it with a hint of apology. If you listen, you can hear it: a hesitant lilt that vaguely implies embarrassment. I'm not sure what they're being sheepish about, but I assume they're privately chagrined they didn't venture out a little further from the suburban ganglion where Belle Meade meets West Meade meets Bellevue, to try their culinary luck in the bustling dining nodes of Germantown, East Nashville or The Gulch.
Far be it from me to judge anyone for sticking close to home, especially if you're going to throw back a few drinks with your meal. But more importantly, if you've got a restaurant as excellent as 360 within a short radius of where you live, don't apologize for patronizing it — spread the word.
Somehow the 4-year-old 360, which began its life as an outpost of the Atlanta-based Grape wine-bar chain before emancipating itself to become a chef-driven independent restaurant, has kept relatively mum in the swelling conversation about food that has consumed the city. Maybe the folks who rely on 360 for creative cuisine, an exhaustive wine list and a short drive home don't want to call too much attention to their neighborhood gem, lest they not be able to snag one of the sleek amethyst-purple armchairs the next time they're craving steak frites, a burger with Benton's bacon or pan-roasted striped bass.
Or maybe it's because, over the past few years, 360's kitchen has hosted such an ever-changing cast of characters that owner Nic Jacobson and longtime manager Brett Allen never had time to get a consistent message out before the next chef came in.
Then last fall chef Sal Avila arrived, toting a resume rich in rustic Italian experience, from as far away as Portland, Ore., and as nearby as City House restaurant in Germantown. That curriculum vitae, coupled with Avila's Mexican heritage, has resulted in a menu of global flavors and exquisite ingredients that should elevate the dining room at the Highway 100/70 split to the list of Nashville's top dining destinations.
Avila's menu changes daily — depending on what's fresh and available locally and across the country — so it might be impossible to step into the same river twice, so to speak. But the items we sampled over several weeks painted a consistent picture of a creative and fresh repertoire.
Most memorable among the dishes we explored was an octopus appetizer. If landlocked dining has taught us anything, it has taught us to expect a glistening-and-sandy tangle of tiny eight-legged deep-fried rubbery mollusks. But no. In chef Avila's vernacular, "octopus" implies a single muscular coil of grilled tentacle, surprisingly succulent and accented with a salty medley of olives and thin disks of potato.
Avila also bucks the cliché when it comes to carpaccio. Forget the gauzy sheets of shaved raw beef draped across a plate and drizzled with olive oil. His version arrives as a circle of layered paper-thin Mishima Ranch New York strip, lightly warmed and topped with a confetti of caramelized white onion. (Paired with a salad of buttery Foggy Hollow Farms lettuce, blue cheese, apples and hazelnuts, the carpaccio makes an ample light entrée.)
The mussels appetizer was remarkable both for its bodacious plump shellfish and its seductive salty broth of white wine laced with Pernod and saffron, perfect for sopping with warm boules of house-made French bread.
Tuna ceviche — with Meyer lemon juice chili oil, micro-basil, kumquats and fennel-salted flatbread — arrived like a vibrant watercolor on a pristine white canvas, perfectly balancing the sweet, salty and tangy elements. (Its only shortcoming was the dollop of avocado purée that had turned slightly brown.) A puck-sized stack of sweet Dungeness crab with Marcona almonds, chili oil and a cool drizzle of sweet pea soup was plated with similar artistic flourish.
While rack of lamb usually does not qualify as a light meal, Avila's preparation with spaghetti squash, Swiss chard and walnuts satisfied with its variety of textures and colors, even without the bulk of potatoes or other heavy starch. To our surprise, skirt steak in red wine jus with Yukon Gold potatoes, oyster mushrooms and shaved parmesan was more reminiscent of a plump succulent filet than of a flat, tough hanger steak.
On the dinner menu, half a Springer Mountain chicken comes with a braised thigh and leg and a roasted breast for $25, while at lunch, the quarter-bird is roasted to a bronzed perfection and served over a bed of buttery greens, toasted hazelnuts and blue cheese for $15.
The marriage of Avila's Mexican and European influences finds no greater expression than in a Mexican chocolate soufflé. Puffed up over the top of a searing-hot ramekin, the elegant cinnamon-tinged confection is pierced with a spoon upon arriving tableside and flooded with caramel crème anglaise. Like 360 Bistro, it's an indulgence that demands no apology.
360 Bistro serves lunch Monday through Saturday and dinner seven days a week.
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