The words “starving” and “Belle Meade” don’t often find themselves in the same sentence, but when dinnertime rolls around in Nashville’s richest suburb, the casual fine-dining cupboard is unexpectedly bare. At least that was the case earlier this year when Nathaniel Beaver and Gary Cormann took over operations at Whitfield’s Restaurant, on the fringes of the Belle Meade Country Club golf course.
Having watched Whitfield’s—with its clumsy all-things-to-everyone approach—try in vain to become Belle Meade’s dinner table over the previous two years, employees Beaver and Cormann bought the place and set out to recast the cozy little spot into a neighborhood restaurant for grown-ups. Rather than change the name and risk imposing a Bermuda Triangle reputation on the location, which previously housed Club 106 and a later incarnation of Belle Meade Brasserie before ultimately donning the Whitfield’s title, they kept the name and worked from the inside out.
First order of business was to close down for a week to reconfigure and expand the bar area. (They kept the warm honey-amber-mahogany scheme in the dimly lit dining room, but replaced one of the long family-friendly banquettes with tables and chairs.) Step two was to 86 the chicken fingers, a relic of the schizophrenic menu that failed to solidify a base among either families or sophisticated adult diners. The end result is an understated, comfortable restaurant where well-heeled guests banter about the SEC, the PGA, BMCC, MBA (Beaver’s high school alma mater) and other such privileged alphabet soup, without having to think too hard about what they’re eating.
Cormann, who trained under F. Scott’s chef Will Uhlhorn in the Brasserie days, crafted a menu that might be described as the kind of food Belle Meaders would cook—if they cooked. The Whitfield’s menu needs no glossary. It’s a terse list of familiar, high-dollar dining vocabulary: filet mignon, baseball sirloin, pan-roasted chicken, slow-roasted prime rib. There are a wedge salad and crab cakes, French onion soup and crème brûlée—the predictable comfort food of extremely comfortable people. Cormann updates the dozen or so entrées with nightly specials to mix things up for the regulars, a group that he and Beaver are eager to court and expand.
On a recent Saturday evening, Beaver—dressed in Big Orange—graciously manned the front of the house, including a busy but hushed dining room and a reservedly festive bar. Vols were glued to one flat-screen TV, Auburn fans focused on a second screen, and a headphoned diner in the center of the room periodically broadcast the Vanderbilt score.
We started the evening with a generous bowl of mussels with lemongrass, coconut and tomatoes. The Asian twist was a nice departure from the standard wine-garlic-cream combo, but the broth could have been more satisfying as soup or sop had it been slightly thicker—along the lines of a Thai tom kha—with more pronounced flavors of lemongrass and coconut. And the buttered baguette that preceded the meal lacked the crusty integrity required in a good dipping loaf.
French onion soup with caramelized onions and a voluptuous coating of gruyère was refreshingly unsalty for its species, but the standout soup was the corn-and-crab chowder, a velvety bisque poured tableside over a chunky pile of grilled niblets and lump meat.
We also enjoyed the savory cheesecake made with goat cheese and sweet chunks of lobster, an item that lends itself well to sharing—it’s large and rich enough to overwhelm a single diner. (A hint for sharers: in our slice, the lobster meat was concentrated in the tip of the triangle, as if the meat had been dropped into the center of the cake. So get your fork poised to spear the first decadent bite. All’s fair in love and lobster.)
Crab cakes were the disappointment among the starters. They went virtually uneaten at our table after we picked through them in search of crabmeat, to little avail.
On a menu rich with sturdy, earthly delights, the seafood items sounded most enticing—little surprise since Cormann spent nearly a decade in Florida. Raspberry barbecue shrimp arrived in a striking tower of jalapeño-cheddar polenta cakes and asparagus. The unusual pairing of asparagus with raspberry barbecue glaze was surprisingly successful when the polenta cakes absorbed some of the syrupy sweetness, and proved the adage that you can’t go wrong by combining fresh ingredients and preparing them delicately.
The sockeye salmon delivered a drier, meatier texture than we usually find—or want—in salmon dishes, and its Dijon mustard crust would have better flattered lamb or a stronger flavor. Better to stick with the pan-seared rainbow trout. I could not finish the first bite before I quickly lurched for a second forkful of the tender, silky fish, accented by a gently gritty pan finish. Digging into the two piping-hot filets, I discovered paper-thin slices of grilled pears between them. If the shrimp was a composition of bold contrasts—hot peppers, cheddar, raspberry and barbecue—the trout was a study in subtlety, with a smooth lemon-caper sauce accenting the pear without overwhelming. Toasted almonds added texture, and the thin green beans—a triumph of restraint—retained a healthy vernal crispness.A sucker for anything with the modifiers “chocolate” and “molten,” I applauded the offering of an immodest hot-and-chocolaty dessert. Served in two bulging cups—one with the cake and one with vanilla ice cream—the chocolate molten cake could stand to be a little more molten. An unlikely winner of the dessert stakes was the fried cinnamon cheesecake, a decadent, cream-filled, deep-fried sculpture best described as the lovechild of a funnel cake and a blintz.
Whitfield’s represents a growing genre on Nashville’s culinary landscape: the upscale neighborhood restaurant. The year-old Sophie’s Bistro on Nolensville Road aims to serve the sprawling suburbs south of Old Hickory Boulevard. Wildwood Oak-Fired Kitchen will seek to fill the niche out Highway 100 when it opens later this year. Every once in a while, a neighborhood favorite transcends the neighborhood designation to become a dining destination—like Margot Café in Five Points, Mirror on 12th Avenue South or Park Café in Sylvan Park. While Whitfield’s may not become a landmark on the gastronomic map of Nashville, it just might become the epicenter of dining in Belle Meade.
Whitfield’s opens for dinner at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
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