In Mexico, agave provides a major cash crop for farmers who extract sap from the succulent plant to produce tequila. At the corner of 12th Avenue South and McGavock, Agave provides a chic gathering place for the young and beautiful, who spill onto the patio in a tide of colorful cocktails and $200 handbags.
When Music Row veterans Ken Levitan, Ross Schilling and Chris Ferran, along with Scott Sherrill and Gulch developers Steve Armistead and Bill Barkley, staked their claim on the address that formerly housed the Pie Wagon meat-and-three, they undertook a full-scale overhaul of the building. Taking it back to the studs, they added a steep red-metal roof, a front patio and flickering gaslights. A block off Broadway in the backyard of Radius10 restaurant, Agave Tequila Lounge stands like a glowing gatehouse to the emerging Gulch dining district.
As the full name implies, Agave is first and foremost a bar. With a handful of deep booths, a wall of tall banquettes and a facade of garage doors opening onto a patio on 12th Avenue, it is almost an outdoor room. At times, Agave is a sports bar, with two theater-sized TV screens and a standing-room-only audience of politely rabid SEC fans. High ceilings, star-shaped pendant lights and a dramatically lit display of tequilas rising behind the long bar lend an air of contemporary sophistication to the Mexican-themed establishment, which trades the hackneyed images of haciendas and sombreros for the striking iconography of lucha libre wrestling masks. (The masks are for sale—just make an offer.) When the TVs aren’t broadcasting sports, Spanish-language films of the ilk that inspired the Jack Black comedy Nacho Libre play silently in the background.
Just as Agave brings a new twist to the tired decor of so many local Mexican restaurants, so does it present south-of-the-border cuisine with a flair seldom seen in Nashville. Veteran chef Stan McDonald’s tight tapas menu diverges from the predictable taco/burrito/fajita repertoire of refried splat-Mex. Instead Agave delivers a creative and fresh assortment that includes lobster quesadilla, brisket rolls, house-made chips and chorizo-studded queso dip.
A good opening salvo at Agave is the salsa, which arrives with a wire basket of warm red, green and yellow tortilla chips. On one visit, the chunky salsa was disappointingly mild, but on the next visit, it was significantly spicier. While inconsistency is not necessarily a good thing, in this case it was a telltale and welcome sign that the salsa was homemade. Likewise, the guacamole was very chunky and fresh, though we were sorry to learn that the much-talked-about tableside presentation has been suspended because it takes too much time on crowded evenings.
We enjoyed the lobster quesadilla stuffed with cheese, onion, tomato and green chili. The juxtaposition of textures—buttery guacamole, toasted tortilla and luscious fruit—and the balance of zingy-hot mango salsa and cooling sour cream made for a delicious meal. (That said, it was not a good vehicle for the delicate and expensive flavor of lobster. The quesadilla would have been just as appealing—and likely more affordable—with crawfish.)
Along with the quesadilla, we ordered brisket nachos and a Baja tortada. Essentially a pizza of tiny shrimp, cilantro-garlic drizzle and roasted red peppers on a tortilla crust, the tortada did not hold together in any way that benefited the combined ingredients, and we end up picking the toppings, one by one, off the soggy crust. Meanwhile, the brisket nachos—a dozen small tortilla chips topped with gray meat and melted cheese, arranged in a circle around piles of sour cream, salsa and guac—were a far cry from the generous mound we envisioned.
Overall, the meal suffered from a disappointing flatness: the table overflowed with two-dimensional plates, with only the lobster quesadilla having any remarkable flavor or texture.
On our second visit, we ordered better.
A small cauldron of queso with chorizo and chili spices, topped with broiled cheese and three thinly sliced rings of jalapeno pepper, was a hearty, warm opener on a chilly evening when the garage doors remained up. Chorizo chicken layered plump, tender breast meat with deeply flavored and moist minced sausage, peppers and onion, and was plated with a crisp hay of tortilla strips, tangles of fresh cilantro, lettuce, salsa and sour cream. The composition was both attractive and generous, more of an entrée than an appetizer.
Our favorite meal at Agave was the brisket roll. Actually three sandwiches of brisket on yeast rolls, the dish is an ample meal for one or a good item for sharing. Chef McDonald’s thick slices of tender beef, served on warm, soft yeast rolls, really shone in this presentation, unlike the miserly tags of brisket on the nachos. Piled with a bright yellow tomato, a thin slice of pink onion and a layer of chipotle mayo, the sandwiches were pretty, moist and light. Topped with a tangle of prickly pear cactus fries—with a texture somewhere between onion rings and fried eggplant—the brisket roll could become both Agave’s signature dish and the preferred nightcap for soaking up the excesses of an evening in The Gulch. (Gracias to McDonald & Co. for not calling the dish “sliders,” a trendy reference to fast-food burgers that is popping up on high-end menus to describe virtually any kind of meat served on rolls, buns or biscuits, usually delivered in threes.)
Given Agave’s menu of 100 or more tequilas, nine specialty margaritas and as many cocktails, including sangria and mojitos, there will be plenty of soaking up to do. When we heard there was a West Coast-style tequila bar finally worming its way into town, we held our breath to see if it could live up to its name when it came to mixing a decent margarita. But our fears of another neon-green disinfectant-flavored cocktail were unfounded. Instead, Agave delivers a broad array of unique tequila-based drinks flavored with fresh limes, interesting juices and liqueurs—everything from amaretto to prickly pear cactus juice.
Of the margaritas we sampled, including the Wiseguy (tequila, Cointreau, amaretto, sour and lime) and the Cadillac (tequila, Grand Marnier, Cointreau and lime), our favorite experience came from the drink we liked the least. When we sipped a Ginger Pama, which sounded like a delicious blend of pomegranate and ginger, our grimace had barely taken shape before a server appeared instantly at our table. “I just want to tell you,” he said, “that drink is not a staff favorite, and it’s going away when the next menu comes out.” We gratefully accepted his offer to trade it out for a blend of tequila, cactus juice and other fruit juice. The gesture was consistent with our experiences at Agave, where the service was friendlier and warmer than we expected to find at the Next Big Trendy Night Spot. And we were equally surprised and delighted to learn that Agave has opted for a no-smoking policy in the indoor area, even though its garage doors provide a loophole to the smoke-free law that took effect Oct. 1.
We’re looking forward to the next few months as Agave fine-tunes its menu, perfects its margaritas and adds entrées to its selection of tapas. If things go smoothly, McDonald says he hopes to start serving lunch in December. So the early birds—as well as the night owls—will get a shot at the worm.
Agave is open 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
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