More Than Flash 

Virago caters to the young and restless set, but offers genuine substance for the diner who wants well-executed, adventurous food

Virago caters to the young and restless set, but offers genuine substance for the diner who wants well-executed, adventurous food

Virago

1811 Division St. 320-5149

5 p.m.-1 a.m. Mon.-Wed.; 5 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Thurs.-Sat.

On the first Saturday night in October, Nashvillians were engaged in all manner of activity. Football fans were watching or listening to UT, Vanderbilt and TSU battle it out on the gridiron. At Starwood, party boys and girls were getting rowdy with Kid Rock. Six different plays were in their opening weekend around town, and alt-film lovers were sitting at the Belcourt, watching actress Chloê Sevigny share a tender moment with Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny. Around the corner, Zeitgeist Gallery was greeting the visual art crowd with a reception for its new show, "Rituals." Downtown on Church Street, the city's well-heeled, well-connected and well-read enjoyed cocktails in the courtyard of the Main Public Library before strolling into the Reading Room for a sit-down dinner to celebrate the Nashville Library's 100th birthday.

Meanwhile, at Virago, the bars, lounges and dining room were chic-to-chic with the unabashedly young, beautiful and seductively dressed, an exuberant tableau vibrating with pulsating music, throbbing energy and the myriad possibilities of last call still hours away. I suppose it was the very embodiment of a description you'll find in the Scene's Best of Nashville readers' poll: Best Bar That Makes You Feel Like You're Not in Nashville.

Ever since 2002, when this category was introduced to the poll (Virago took second that year), it has always puzzled me. Which Nashville are we referring to, anyway? Belle Meade Nashville? East Nashville? Jefferson Street Nashville? Downtown, Hillsboro Village, Sylvan Park, 12 South, Nolensville Road, Germantown? And, given the unique treasures so generously offered by any of these neighborhoods, what's so bad about being in Nashville?

As our city becomes less stereotypical and more diverse, the whole concept of feeling "like you're not in Nashville" makes less and less sense—if it ever did. No one would ever mistake Nolensville Road for Sylvan Park, or West Meade for Germantown; the personality of each neighborhood is apparent in the places where its residents gather to socialize, be it a church/temple, market, park or restaurant. But if you're young, restless and on a constant search for the next new thing, then Nashville's many and varied charms may never be quite enough. Bars and restaurants catering to this hip, youthful demographic can't risk being seen as predictable and comforting, but instead must be attention-grabbing, exciting, one bold step ahead of the game.

No one has succeeded at this better than Chris Hyndman, the 30-ish creator and owner of Virago, who transformed a building that once housed a sleepy vegetarian restaurant into a modern, sophisticated grown-up playground for Nashville's heat-seeking missiles of hormonally charged young professionals. At its opening in September 2000, much of Virago's original attraction was clearly based on the notion that patrons could feel they weren't in Nashville anymore.

Luring members of the Ritalin generation in the door is one thing; keeping them is another altogether. To his immense credit, Hyndman has consistently managed to do this by tempering flashy style with genuine substance: attractive and professional servers, a succinct yet highly creative menu, a youthful veneer with mature expectations. Hyndman was one of the first to stake a claim in the once commercially stagnant area of Midtown just around the corner from Music Row, and he paved the way for Division Street neighbors including Patrick's, Red Door and Rack Room. A number of wannabes have cropped up recently on the other side of the Roundabout on Demonbreun Street, but through it all, Virago has maintained a steady burn.

But maintenance is not in Hyndman's playbook. Recently detecting a slight slowing in the pulse of his restaurant, he went on the offensive, and in early spring, he reintroduced Virago. The exciting transformation includes an expansion in the front of the restaurant, where customers now make their entrance through a sexy sunken lounge with dramatic lighting, wrap-around booths, custom-made suede sofas, a sensory sound system cueing global lounge music and a 100-inch HDTV.

The intimate starter bar remains to the immediate left of the entrance; the service area connects to and offers a view of the larger bar and second lounge area, which has been fully refreshed. Though food is available in the entire restaurant, serious diners usually make their way to the cozy room in the rear of the building, which has also been re-outfitted and redesigned. Tables and booths line the walls; a high table that comfortably seats eight centers the room.

What remains is an unwavering attention to professional service, directed by new general manager Heather Southerland, who cut her management teeth at Fleming's and Sunset Grill. Ratcheted up several notches, the menu is now under the direction of executive chef Daniel Suh, who was recruited from Chicago, where he logged time at several Asian fusion/sushi bars—a crucial entry on his résumé. Virago was Nashville's first non-Japanese restaurant to include sushi as part of its regular menu, and last year it was voted Best Fusion Restaurant in the Scene readers' poll.

Sushi remains a key component of the new menu, which has at least doubled in size. There are 10 different sections on the tri-folded bill of fare, with conventionally sized entrées among the slightest. My party barely glanced at those, we were so taken with the other options: maki, specialty maki, nigiri, sashimi, tempura, hot appetizers, cold appetizers, salads and specialties. Sharing is encouraged at Virago, and most diners seem happy to follow the suggestion.

Narrowing the possibilities down to a representative sampling was tough, so we bypassed the standard rolls for more outlandish creations, which included the Ecuador (tuna, hamachi, cilantro, cucumber, avocado, green onion, massego cheese and tempura crumbs heated up with jalapeño and wasabi mayo) and the Black Dragon (spicy scallop, asparagus, soy tobikko, unagi sauce and fire sauce wrapped in eel sashimi). The flash-fried Japanese River Sawa crabs, served in a martini glass, looked marvelous but failed the taste test. That disappointment was saved by the outstanding tempura lobster tails, in which the delectably sweet, firm meat was golden-fried and presented with a crunchy kaiso salad and sesame-yogurt sauce.

If you like to play with your food, keep going to the stoned steak in the specialty section; slices of sirloin steak are delivered to the table with a trio of hot rocks on which you cook your meat to desired finish, then dip into a trio of sauces. Other rolls and specialties making big impressions on our party were the warm kobe beef and asparagus maki, the ahi sashimi tempura, the monkfish foie gras octopus nigiri, and the Golden Dragon, Red Dragon and Godzilla rolls.

When it comes to targeting and catering to its audience—young, stylish, stimulus-seeking—Virago hits the bull's-eye. And even if you have no desire to feel as though you're not in Nashville, go ahead and step off your well-worn path and out of your comfort zone. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and your adventurous spirit will be rewarded with mature service, excellent food and something to talk about. You might not want to live there, but Virago sure is a fun place to visit.

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