Cafe at Belle Meade
@Belle Meade Plantation, 5025 Harding Rd.
356-6229 Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.;
Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.;
Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.
Holiday exhibit runs through Jan. 3, 2000
Like many Nashvillians, just about the only time I visit our own attractions and museums is when I’m escorting out-of-town guests. Having lived here for 18 years, and with a large family and an army of friends spread across the country, I can honestly say I’ve done it all, from Cheekwood to the Museum of Beverage Containers.
Additionally, there are dozens of shopping opportunities in this town, from the Farmers Market to art galleries. That said, I am not looking forward to the opening of Opry Mills. I’m morally opposed to such crass monuments to conspicuous consumption, so I’ll probably just hand over a map and my car keys to any guest who expresses interest. On the other hand, I can’t wait until the spring of 2001, when in quick succession we will celebrate the opening of the new downtown Nashville Public Library, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and the new Country Music Hall of Fame.
When entertaining out-of-towners, it is also incumbent upon the hostess to take her guest to some eating establishment that gives the visitor a taste of our town. In Nashville, my reliables include Rotier’s, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, Arnold’s, Provence, Carl’s Perfect Pig, Dozier’s Catfish in Ashland City, and just about any ethnic eatery on Nolensville Road.
I count my parents, Joyce and Jay, among my most frequent out-of-town visitors. While there’s no denying their deep and abiding love for each of their five children, they have never been more than momentarily sorry to see us move away from the family nestso long as their kids moved to a place that has some redeeming value as a vacation destination. As big fans of country music, they were pleased when I moved to Nashville. After 18 years of biannual visits, though, I am hard-pressed to offer them novelty anymore.
Joyce and Jay were here for a quick visit last week; we spent one entire day in Franklin, mostly at The Factory, which now counts about 20 shops in its historic home, including the fabuloso Viking Culinary Institute, a must-see for anyone with any interest in food. One warning: Eat before you go, as the only available sit-down dining option, Bluewind, has been quite dismal on two different occasions.
With a nod to the encroaching holiday season, I planned an outing to the Belle Meade Plantation, which has just opened its “A Turn of the Century Holiday” exhibit. Not only that, but in the year since I have last been there, the Cafe at Belle Meade has opened for lunch on weekdays, Sunday brunch, and dinner on Thursdays through Saturdays.
Begin your visit to the plantation at the fairly new Museum Shop and Visitor Center, which also houses the Cafe. We arrived at the shop around 6 p.m. and were greeted by the charming septuagenarian and retired Eakin schoolteacher John Simpkins, who led our little tour dressed in formal period garb. If you’re lucky, he’ll lead yours as well; he’s so amusing and engaging that even rambunctious children will be completely captivated. The tour is of The Queen of Tennessee Plantations and took about 30 minutes.
We walked back to the Cafe and after perusing a menu, it became immediately clear that The Cafe at Belle Meade is not a place to take childreneven if you could convince John to join your table. Not unless your progeny’s taste runs to pecan barbecue of rack of lamb or pappardelle pasta with beef tenderloin, mushroom, and red wine demi-glace. Not only that, but the warmly lit room, with linen-covered tables and a Judy Garland song playing softly in the background, was definitely adults-only. I made an executive mother decision to send the four children home with an adult supervisor, and the remaining four of us sat down to what was one of the most surprising meals I have had in some time.
I was surprised for good reason. The Cafe at Belle Meade is majority-owned by George McCabe, whose family owns the Loveless Motel. Long ago, after two meals distinguished by their sheer awfulness, I banished the Loveless from my repertoire of restaurants for out-of-town guests. I was fully expecting two things from The Cafe at Belle Meade: a menu that would mirror the Loveless and an execution that would reflect its kitchen. Boy, was I wrong.
Aside from the infamous biscuits and the country ham, available at lunch and brunch, there is no resemblance whatsoever to the Loveless menu. The fortunate discrepancy may be due in large part to the presence of chef and minority partner Dave Cook, who before his Cafe assignment spent several months training under Rick Farmer, the acclaimed chef-owner of Memphis’ inventive restaurant Jarret’s. Farmer also lent his expertise to the Cafe, coming to Nashville to consult on the menu.
Any of the appetizers, with the exception of the too-smoky chicken spring rolls, will get your meal off to an excellent start. I’d pick the rich lobster bisque, the Tennessee trout ravioli in beurre blanc sauce, the spicy crab and crawfish cakes, or the lobster quesadilla, which carries a bonus of an incredible mango-papaya relish.
Just eight entrees and two pastas compete for diners’ attention. The linguine was chock-full of succulent scallops, highly seasoned shrimp, and mussels. The garlicky white wine sauce was just right for this dish.
The filet of tenderloin was peppery in taste, buttery in texture, and cooked exactly to order. The horseradish-encrusted grouper was fat and sassy, perfectly flaky, with a crisp, golden crust. The meaty pork chop with apple jack sauce tasted like something guests at the Belle Meade Plantation might have enjoyed a century before. Kudos to the kitchen for teaming each of the entrees with complementary side dishes: sweet potato puree with the pork, colcannon potatoes with the grouper, and creamy scalloped potatoes with the beef.
A short wine list includes the obvious, though popular, choices; cocktails are also available. Desserts, which we were too full to sample, are made on-premises and include raspberry crème brûlée and chess pie.
The Cafe at Belle Meade proves two things: You can teach an old dog new tricks, and no matter how deeply you have mined Nashville’s undeniable treasures, there’s always a surprise waiting to be found. Even better, you don’t have to wait for the arrival of out-of-town guests to discover it.
Those pesky independents are stirring things up again in the coffee world. Eight Nashville coffee shops and roasters have banded together and are selling a T-shirt touting the merits of local ownership. On the front is a coffee cup with the words, “There is a difference.” On the back, the message, “Think Globally. Drink Locally,” with the names and logos of the participating shops: Portland Brew, Sam & Zoe’s, J.J.’s Broadway Coffee & Tea, Bongo Java, Union 5 Coffee, Joe’s Bean Central, Radio Cafe, and Fido.
Joe Dougherty, owner of Joe’s Bean Central, has particularly felt Starbucks’ coffee breath down his neck. He opened Nashville’s first coffeehouse in 1986; his second location, opened about three years ago in Green Hills, is less than 100 yards from one of two new Starbucks locations in town. “Starbucks is a mass-brand phenomenon,” he says. “There are people in Nashville who have driven by my store and others like it a million times and would never think to stop for a cup of coffee, but they see a Starbucks sign and pull over to stand in line for corporate coffee roasted 2,000 miles away. Some people need a brand-name to validate their choices.”
Meanwhile, the Bongo Java Roasting Company will soon be expanding to East Nashville. Early next year, roasting will move to Five Points at 11th and Woodland Streets. With the recent arrival of roasting maestro Mark Johnson from California, Bongo’s wholesale bean operation continues to expand. The new Wild Oats Market in Green Hills stocks four bulk bins from BJRC, as well as prepackaged bags of its beans and ground coffee. While the coffeehouse will initially concentrate on setting up the roasting operation, owner Bob Bernstein says he hopes eventually to develop retail space in the 3,200-sq.-ft. building, which formerly housed a television repair shop. “We were looking to get into a neighborhood, and this part of East Nashville is the right move for us.”