Chef Debra Paquette’s start in Nashville was an inauspicious one. Her first job was in the revolving restaurant atop the old Hyatt Regency.
In the dozen-or-so years since, however, the career of the Florida native and Culinary Institute of America graduate has taken her to some of Nashville’s most innovative restaurants. After leaving the Hyatt Regency, she worked for the esteemed Walter Thrailkill at Walter’s and then teamed up with another visionary, Randy Rayburn, at Third Coast. ”Randy gave me plenty of room,“ she remembers. ”I was allowed to be creative for the first time.“
Unfortunately, Third Coast wasn’t long for this world. When Rayburn departed, Paquette left also, heading for Cakewalk, a new restaurant owned by Rick and Vicki Bolsam.
Cakewalk had begun as a bakery that served breakfast and lunch. By the time Paquette came on board, its focus had shifted to lunch and dinner. ”Rick had a lot to offer me,“ Paquette recalls. ”He already knew what kind of food I was doing and was willing to give me an opportunity to do my thing. I had my own little kitchen and lots of freedom.“
During Paquette’s tenure in the kitchen, and with the Bolsams’ guidance, Cakewalk gained a reputation for fresh, creative, quality food and became one of Nashville’s most enduringly popular and reliable restaurants.
Paquette describes Cakewalk’s clientele at the time as ”people who traveled all over the country and the world. They brought me menus from places they had been and told me what was going on around the country. It was a great time for food, and we had people here who supported us venturing into places no one else here had been.“
No one would deny that Paquette, in her unassuming way, has been at the forefront of the crusade to move Nashville toward more innovative cuisine. And three years ago, when she left Cakewalk for Bound’ry, it was very big news in food circles.
”I needed a change,“ she explains. ”I felt like it was time to do something new and be with new people.“ She describes Bound’ry co-owner Jay Pennington as ”very creative, a real source of inspiration“ and says that she and co-chef Michael Cribb ”hit it off right away and really complemented each other. He likes that Pacific-Caribbean thing, and I’m more Mediterranean, Greece, India. It was a good balance.“
Bound’ry took off like a rocket, becoming known as much for its bar scene as for its eclectic culinary repertoire. Meanwhile, Paquette discovered its success didn’t really match her style. ”I loved it there,“ she says, ”but I’m not really into that bar scene. I’m a small restaurant person. I like knowing my customers. I like taking care of them and knowing what they’re eating.“
After a kitchen fire in October, Bound’ry closed for several months. At about the same time, Rick and Vicki Bolsam started talking with Paquette and her husband, Ernie. Before long, a deal was struck and the Paquettes formed a partnership with the Bolsams. Cakewalk closed for a week while Ernie Paquette and a few helpers redid the interior. He brought along his sleeping bag and literally slept on the floor.
Meanwhile, Debra had been sitting on her sofa, surrounded by a stack of books about the Mediterranean. She also drew upon a two-week trip she had taken to Barcelona, the Pyrenees, the French Alps, and Arles. ”There isn’t just any one flavor to the Mediterranean,“ she explains. ”There is a lot in common, but the flavors change ever so subtly. As people traveled through the region and settled in different places, they brought their influences to wherever they landed, and they left a trail behind them.“
You can follow that trail through Paquette’s new menu, which debuted with the opening of the brand-new Cakewalk on Nov. 10. Visually, you will find no souvenir of the restaurant’s past life. The cool teal is gone, replaced by golds and bronze and tobacco and ocher; the walls have been painted to resemble aged stone. There are bits of ironwork and pottery and ivy, gauzy fabric drapes languidly from the ceiling, and a wall-sized mural is in the works. The feel is warm, welcoming, and sensuous.
And then the aroma envelops you. It’s as if you had been whisked away to some exotic location in Spain or Turkey or Morocco.
The little touches that make this experience special begin almost immediately. Bread is served from a large basket, the server boasting that all the varieties are made in the kitchen by pastry chef Renée Kasman. In this case, the boasting is fully justified. The breads, especially the olive bread, could make a meal in themselves.
On the menu, you can begin in Spain, France, or Syria; you can mosey on over to Italy or Greece and settle for a while in Morocco. Wherever you land, you will be held hostage by the sights and smells and flavors, and you’ll be so reluctant to leave that you will linger over every morsel.
For review purposes, we did the whirlwind tour, sampling nearly everything on the fairly short menu. On future visits, I would prefer to concentrate on just a couple of items at a time; the layers of flavor and texture and spice are so complex that each dish deserves and demands individual attention.
Consider, for example, the Moroccan lamb loin, grilled in ras el hanout spices, served with tangine gravy, mint lemon feta, pumpkin risotto, and fall greens. Or the Bella Portogrilled portobello seared in a walnut-brown sage butter sauce, then stuffed with cornbread-caramelized-onion pudding and served with roasted-garlic-pimiento sauce, large limas, and green-tomato-caper salsa.
The limas also made a surprise appearance in my favorite dish, the exquisite Seafood Operetta, a Spanish-style bouillabaisse with big chunks of fresh fish, huge scallops, shrimp, mussels, and rings of calamari in a hearty seafood broth with just a hint of cinnamon.
Among the appetizers, we loved the Spanish cheeses, the lamb kefta filo, the Duck of Arle plate with its foie gras and toasted fig bread, and the blockbuster Antipasta Meze Platter, big enough to feed four. I loved the little surprisesthe caper berries that have a unique, pickled taste, the cappicola ham rolled and tied with strands of green onion, and the bright-red cranberries, tossed in, Debra Paquette says, ”just for color. We were tired of red peppers.“
I am normally a model of self-control, but I couldn’t stop eatingand picking and tasting and savoring. When it was time to go, I was happy to pack the rest of my bouillabaisse in a take-home box, anticipating the next day’s supper before I even walked out of the restaurant. When I got home and realized I had forgotten the leftovers, I didn’t hesitate one bit before I went back into the bitter cold and retrieved them. It was worth the trouble.
Don’t go to Cakewalk these days if you’re looking for a bite to eat or a little something before the show. And you won’t find the wiener schnitzel anymore either. It’s gone. The new Cakewalk is a challenge to some taste buds and an unmitigated joy to others, but however you approach your trip, it will be a delightful and unforgettable journey.
A few months ago, after a trip to Birmingham sampling their fine restaurants, I asked why Nashvillea city of about the same sizedidn’t have as much to offer. I came to the conclusion that the difference was chef-owned restaurantsBirmingham has them, we don’t. I couldn’t have asked for anybody better than Debra Paquette to prove me right.
Cakewalk Restaurant is located at 3001 West End Ave. (615) 320-7778. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Fri. & Sat. Closed Sundays. Not open for lunch. All major credit cards accepted. Reservations strongly recommended.