2317 12th Ave. S., 383-8330
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Midday menu: 2:30-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner: beginning 5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Hours of Happiness: 5-7 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Everybody’s a critic, or so it must have seemed to Colleen and Michael DeGregory soon after they opened their new restaurant, Mirror, at the corner of 12th Avenue South and Elmwood this summer. The couple were finalists in an extensive search conducted by landlords Joel Solomon and Mark Deutschmann to come up with a winning concept for the coveted restaurant space, located in the building formerly occupied by Laurell’s Central Market. There were several aspirants, but in the end Solomon, Deutschmann, and the other investors (including Tin Angel and Zola’s Vicki and Rick Bolsom and Noshville owner Tom Loventhal) settled on the young chefs, who’d emigrated from Miami Beach.
The investors were impressed by the DeGregorys’ résumés and their cooking. Michael, a native of Delaware, earned his formal education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., then got hands-on experience at restaurants in Rehobeth Beach, Del., and Vail, Colo., before moving to the more cosmopolitan Miami Beach. There he met Colleen Belloise, a Miami native, in a restaurant where she was also working. Soon after they married, they decided to leave town. Through their friendship with fellow Miamians The Mavericks, who had moved to Nashville some years before, the couple was familiar with the city and had even lined up an investor who agreed to back them in a restaurant here. Unfortunately, soon after they arrived, the deal fell through. The DeGregorys started catering, doing a lot of work for Ocean Way Studio, then found steady jobshe as a sous chef at Bound’ry, she as pastry chef for Havana Lounge. When prospects remained dim for opening their own establishment here, they decided to move to New York. That’s when they met Solomon, who invited the DeGregorys to submit a proposal for the property at 2317 12th Ave. S.
In addition to the couple’s experience and energy, the group of investors also liked the DeGregorys’ concept: a stylish yet comfortable neighborhood and destination restaurant that would serve creative, global cuisine with an emphasis on tapas, a type of dining that features a variety of small dishes. The deal was made, and the couple took possession of the property on April 15. They covered up the windows with brown paper and worked feverishly to reinvent the interior. Neighborhood residents and Nashville foodies were vitally interested in what the unveiling would reveal, and hopes were high for the restaurant’s opening.
But there are a couple of bad things that can happen to a new restaurantparticularly an independent restaurantwhen it opens. High visibility and anticipation can draw such crowds that the resultant crush of business slams the front and back of the house; patrons get a bad first impression and never return. On the other hand, a limited advertising budget and low visibility can lead to the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one to hear it.
What happened to Mirror was a weird combination of both: Because of the DeGregorys’ popularity within a hip segment of the music industry, and thanks to their investors’ high profile in the restaurant and real estate communities, interest in the new venture was healthy. At the same time, their off-the-beaten-path location in a slowly gentrifying, though still transitional, urban neighborhood proved to be a liability. This, plus the months-late delivery of their signage, meant that many local diners barely noticed Mirror when it opened.
In addition, there was a third, more intangible and perhaps more problematic, reaction to Mirror: People just didn’t get it. First, they didn’t get the interior, which is notably different from other Nashville restaurants. Three of the four walls, unadorned by art or any other decor, are painted a startling blue, while the remaining wall is covered in a mosaic of broken mirror pieces. Long sheer curtains of white fabric cover the windows and hang randomly from the ceiling about the room. Two corners are designated lounge areas, with sofas, ottomans, and coffee tables set atop strips of live grassan affectation to folks who prefer more conservative decor. Most controversial, though, are the small fish bowls on each table, each of which contains a colorful Siamese fighting fish. On any given night, diners can be observed moving the presumably offending bowls to a neighboring table.
Thanks to the plaster and mirrored walls, concrete floors, wooden tables, steel chairs, and high ceilings, the noise level in opening months approached deafening levels, provoking numerous complaints from customers. But it was the food, or more accurately the style of food, that provoked most people’s puzzlement and annoyance. The initial feedback on Mirror was that the portions were too small, the tapas were overpriced, and diners were leaving the restaurant hungry. This was exacerbated by the fact that Nashville diners have become accustomed to he-man-sized portions, leading to the popular notion that lots of foods translates to good food.
But in Spain, where they originated, tapas are two- to three-bite tastings that usually accompany sherry and other aperitifs or cocktails. They are not necessarily meant to be shared like appetizers, though they are typically priced so that enough can be ordered to make up a grazing-style meal.
While Mirror’s original menu also offered a couple of large plates nightlymore traditional dishes like salmon and grilled flank steakmany customers remained disgruntled with what they considered too little food for too much money. To their credit, the DeGregorys and their partners heard what diners were saying and responded. Beginning in October, they introduced, in addition to the tapas menu, a new regional menu with more conventional appetizers and entrees focusing on a different country every month. First up was France, followed this month by Italy.
Beginning this week, the DeGregorys have further revised the menu. Diners can now choose between a more concise and defined tapas menu, which includes dishes like an olive assortment, bruschetta, blue-cheese polenta fries, a lamb skewer, a risotto cake, and even wings (albeit with an Asian twist). Tapas are priced from $1 to $3.50. Specialty drinks like the American Beauty (essence of roses, vodka, and a splash of champagne) are also listed on the menu.
The regional menu currently offers three Mediterranean starters: a mushroom risotto cake, antipasto, and creamy gnocchi in a lemon-sage broth. The four entrees are osso bucco, grilled leg of lamb, penne pasta with shrimp and scallops, and chicken cacciatore; in addition, there is a daily fish special, in portions that should sate even the hungriest appetites.
Now, in addition to the tapas menu and the regional menu, there is a brand-new daily menu, which offers five appetizers, three salads, and four large plates, among them a grilled New York strip and a seared tuna. For dessert, Colleen DeGregory delights the sweet tooth with a changing repertoire of wildly imaginative dishes, including blue-cheese cheesecake with candied figs, and new takes on comforting classics like the baked apple.
Finally, the entire front of the house is now carpeted, which has made a vast difference in the noise level. In the midst of all these changes, it’s worth noting that the lunch menu, popular since opening day, remains nearly the same.
The creators of an independent restaurant are often faced with the same dilemma that confronts creative people in any field: how to express their artistic vision and find some degree of mainstream acceptance without compromising their integrity. When asked if she was disappointed by Nashville’s reception to Mirror, Colleen DeGregory responded that she and her husband were surprised, but they came to the conclusion that they were not in the business to educate their customers, but to serve and satisfy them.
I have long felt that it is part of the critic’s role to educate and inform the public. While it is difficult to recommend specific dishes at Mirror when the menu has been through so many changes, I can say that I have been delighted, intrigued, impressed, and happy with almost everything that has been set before me in my half-dozen visits there. The DeGregorys and their staff are creating imaginative and innovative food with defined, bright flavors using fresh, quality ingredients in a stylish, fun ambiance. I have enjoyed Mirror for lunch, for early-evening cocktails, for dinner, and for late-night drinks. I like and admire its energy, its verve, and its daring artistic expression.
Every weekday, thousands of cars make the commute from downtown to Brentwood, Forest Hills, Oak Hill, and Green Hills. To get to their suburban havens, many drivers take 12th Avenue South until it turns into Granny White Pike. Along the way, they are passing one of Nashville’s most stimulating new restaurants. I challenge anyone who claims Nashville is lacking in exciting restaurants to leave their comfort zone, turn off the well-traveled path, and take a long hard look in the Mirror. You may be surprised at the reflection.