With so many boutique tequilas, architectural tours de force and $42 truffle tastings arriving on the local dining scene in recent months, it’s easy to develop unrealistic dining expectations. But not every restaurant can be the Next Big Thing, the place to see and be seen or the experimental kitchen dabbling in molecular gastronomy. If that were the case, most of us would go hungry at lunch.
But no one need go hungry at Fire-N-Ice Bar & Grill, the newest occupant of a building long known for an all-you-can-eat buffet of Indian food. Last fall, Sitar owner Naresh Kumar took over the long-standing Taste of India on Church Street to introduce a new Indian nameplate, Madras Bhavan. But the transformation from Taste to Madras, which included the subtle introduction of Southern Indian cuisine into the predominantly Northern-flavored repertoire, quickly gave way to a more dramatic shift. No sooner had the Madras Bhavan sign gone up over the building than Kumar brought in his nephew Benny, who formerly owned Brickstone Cafe in Nolensville, to reinvent the business as a wholly different restaurant. Thus—with a fresh coat of paint, new flooring and furniture—was born Fire-N-Ice, an American-Italian restaurant.
More precisely, Fire-N-Ice is an American-and-Italian restaurant, serving a roster of foods that are not so much a fusion of the national cuisines as a mishmash of their greatest hits. Think clam chowder and grilled chicken sandwiches on a menu with pizza and chicken Parm. Either way, our servers seemed more interested in the fact that everything was homemade than in the regional influences.
“We make everything in-house,” they told us a half-dozen times. “Even the soups?” we prodded. “Yes, even the soups.”
“Even the salad dressings?” we nagged.
For better or worse, our experience did ring a little homespun. For starters, our servers knew virtually nothing of the menu, and on several occasions Kumar’s wife came to the table breathlessly to clarify or correct something our server wasn’t sure about. Iced tea arrived without lemons, and Fire-N-Ice is one of the few places around that has not adopted Splenda. There were also some glaring shortcomings in the food, including gummy lumps of flour in the thick clam chowder and a halo of kettle crust around the bowl of tomato soup, a telltale sign of microwaving. The green salad comprised little more than colorless sheets of iceberg lettuce and flavorless tomato and cucumbers, though the honey mustard did sniff of a simple homemade mixture of…well, honey and mustard.
But overall, Fire-N-Ice offered a sturdy and affordable meal in a proverbial clean, well-lighted—and white-tableclothed—place. Among the homemade specialties on the unwieldy menu, we particularly enjoyed the generous plate of tender steak tips flavored sparingly with a tangy and sweet marinade. The bucket-sized bowl of al dente linguine with chunky tomato sauce and sausages split lengthwise was a big hit with one of my dining companions. (The same garlic-studded marinara is available on the chicken and eggplant Parmesan.) By far the best item we encountered was the barbecue chicken pizza, a bubbly, homemade thick crust topped with abundant cheese, tangy barbecue sauce, chunks of chicken and scallions.
Fire-N-Ice’s free delivery downtown and in the Vanderbilt area could be one of the best-kept secrets in town. Open since December, the restaurant has yet to develop much of a crowd, and our meals there were fairly lonely affairs. But with $5.99 specials including sandwiches and roll-ups, the price is right, and college students might take notice of $1 longnecks. As for us more long-in-the-tooth diners, we’ll stick with the pizza and steak tips.
Fire-N-Ice serves lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Bridges Café, which shares a space with Belle Meade Drugs, is serving up American cuisine of a distinctly Southern orientation. If you stopped by Bridges in its first few days last fall, as we did, you might have a wrong impression of the restaurant, which filled the vacancy left when Martha Stamps closed down the short-lived Molly P to focus on Martha’s at the Plantation. On our eager visit right around opening day, we had a fairly drab meal from a limited menu of soups and sandwiches, and frankly had little intention of returning.
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who expected more. Owners Brenda and Tom Zazzi quickly reversed course and brought in ex-Marine and former Midtown Café chef Paul Ent to right the ship, a staffing change that quickly piqued our interest.
A self-taught chef, Ent comes to the job with culinary memories of growing up on a farm and a résumé that includes Mount Vernon Inn in Virginia; Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.; Pearl’s Café in Sewanee; B. McNeel’s in Murfreesboro and The Riverfront Plantation Inn in Dover, Tenn. Most recently, Ent raised eyebrows at Midtown Café, where he tinkered with the popular 20-year-old menu, attempting to expand the repertoire to include more avant-garde presentations of Southern- and European-inspired cuisine and—gasp!—even threatening to retire the renowned lemon-artichoke soup.
At Bridges, Ent quickly implemented a meat-and-three menu that reads like a sushi order form. Using a pencil, you check the box for your meat and two or three sides. (It’s amazing that the efficiency of this DIY process hasn’t caught on as quickly as California rolls and edamame.) He also brought in Richard Radford, his sous chef from Midtown and fellow triathlete, to help.
But while their exquisite Midtown spins on Southern cuisine were flavored with ironic humor, don’t expect to see anything as clever as Deconstructed Chicken Pot Pie or Ducks in a Row on this tour of duty. The Bridges meat-and-three menu is a workmanlike roster of staples: meat loaf, chicken Parmesan, grits, potatoes, beans, squash and a few gelatin-based salads. A roulade of pork loin stuffed with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes was pretty but on the dry side, and peas and carrots did little to elevate the cliché combo. Even the green-pea salad with mayonnaise and cheddar looked completely irony-free in this comfortably beige setting adjacent to a purveyor of prescriptions and tchotchkes.
We enjoyed crawfish cakes studded with corn and okra and served with a remoulade. Meat loaf was moist and flavorful, though perhaps slightly sweet for some palates. Chicken Parm severely disappointed—a thin and rubbery breast under a heavy red sauce and shredded cheese that was more plasticky then gooey. To our surprise, the more satisfying lunch came from the regular menu of soups and sandwiches. Chicken salad had a chunky texture with a light balance of mayonnaise, and the lemon-artichoke soup just might be an inside joke for Midtown diners, a few of whom surely frequent this understated Belle Meade-adjacent location.
Sweet tooths will love the bread pudding, a rich and moist confection made with cinnamon-swirled yeast bread and topped with a heavy bourbon-ginger sauce, while less sugary palates might prefer coconut cake made from an Ent family recipe, dotted with walnuts and spices.
Everything on the menu is available for takeout until 8 p.m., making Bridges one of the best spots in town to pick up dinner and drugs.
Bridges serves lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and opens for breakfast at 8 a.m. on Saturday.
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