Anyone who claims they never have paused to assess their coolness factor before walking into Virago — either the old or the new one — must be one of the following:
a. Hipster disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger from Community
b. Socially tone-deaf
c. A liar
Let's be honest, most of us still suck in our gut a little as we approach the decade-old nameplate that raised sushi to an art form in Nashville and gave the city one of its sleekest cocktail scenes. The new incarnation of Chris Hyndman's landmark, which relocated this winter to a cavernous former Tennessean warehouse, is exponentially more stunning than the original quirky retrofitted house on Division. Housed in a monolithic brick building at the top of Hyndman's M Street complex, which includes Whiskey Kitchen and the long-anticipated Kayne Prime steak house, Virago blends subtly into the industrial streetscape. But brace yourself for a blast of beauty as you open the door: Women are thin, men are well-dressed, walls are clad in exotic lumber, candlelight plays off textured surfaces of stone and wood, sushi-grade fish dazzles like gems behind jewelry store vitrines. By the time you reach the hostess stand, your deepest insecurities are bubbling to the surface: "I am too [insert a personal shortcoming here] to hang in this temple of cosmopolitan sophistication."
But venture into the sprawling complex of rooms and bars twice the size of the original restaurant, and you'll quickly change your self-deprecating tune. In this glowing labyrinth of sushi counters, cocktail lounges, dining nooks, patios, cozy banquettes and large tables, there is surely a place for everyone. Furthermore, everyone is there. Over two visits — one weekday, one weekend — we consistently marveled at the size and diversity of the crowd. (Is that a Titan at the bar? Is that table conducting a corporate board meeting?) On Saturday, we called for a reservation and were told that the book was full but if we walked in we would most likely get a table. We prepared for a long wait but were seated immediately.
At some point in your dining experience, take a moment to tour the premises. No matter which angle you approach from, the build-out is dazzling, from the austere wall of river rocks confined behind wire grates to the half-wall plastered so delicately as to feel like suede. See how many kinds of lighting you can identify. (Wooden pendant shades, blue wave patterns, ruby up-lighting, illuminated flowering branches ... )
On the other hand, when it comes to approaching the menu, you'll be well-advised to come in from the sushi side, because it's there that Virago puts its best culinary foot forward.
On one visit, we concentrated on the non-sushi repertoire of pan-Asian-inspired items. Small plates of Japanese-style grilled meats, including duck and bacon-wrapped scallops, were succulent and smoky, but when each order arrived with the identical trio of dipping sauces, the dishes began to run together in our minds.
While the minimalist still-life of smoky, unctuous pork belly and tangy, crisp apple "kim chee" was a brilliant contrast of textures, temperatures and flavors, the juxtaposition of petite portion and husky price tag ($14) was decidedly less satisfying.
To fill in the gaps between small items, we ordered a bowl of lamb lo mein, and while the tender lamb hunks and bountiful noodles and vegetables provided necessary ballast, the greasy finish drowned out fresh flavors from the more delicate dishes.
Much of the menu works well for sharing, and our server commented that staff is beginning to encourage communal dining. Smaller plates and sushi indeed lend themselves to a tapas-style meal.
Meanwhile, the so-called Angry Chicken makes for a better individual dish. Marinated in yogurt and blackened on the grill, the succulent half-chicken in a pool of spicy and floral curry was excellent but unapproachable. Served on a nest of fried rice noodles with all the taste of packing peanuts, the chicken would have benefited from one of the à la carte side items.
If cooked items fell below the bar set by Virago's exquisite architectural packaging, sushi lived up to expectations. Even at $17, the Red Dragon Roll delighted the table with its enormous and dramatic half-moon of rice-wrapped softshell crab tempura and asparagus, cloaked in ruby-tinged tuna. Another pricey blockbuster, the Bomb ($19) married crisp tempura shrimp with sweet lump crab, accented by a custardy layer of avocado. Finished with a fluffy mayonnaise-based dollop, the decadent roll was an intriguing medley of crispness and cream, though when it came to the mayo topping, perhaps less would have been more.
If $19 sushi makes your stomach turn, stick with the Aloha Roll, which clocks in at $10. The creative catch-all of lump crab, toasted coconut, bacon, pineapple, shrimp and macadamia nuts, with accents of ginger, soy and peanuts, is as deliciously schizophrenic in its salty sweetness and cool heat as its Hawaiian name, which conveys both "hello" and "good-bye."
When it comes to the send-off, Virago certainly doesn't belabor the point of dessert, offering a short and sweet roster of bread pudding, crème brûlée, gelato and sorbet, and a particularly memorable confection known as Chocolate Between the Sheets. Sexy in its simplicity, the sultry packet of whisper-thin pastry oozed with a molten core of dark chocolate. The golden brown layers simultaneously melted and crackled, leaving not the slightest hint of grease. As elegant as a beautifully wrapped roll of sushi, it's a dessert that complements a meal without overwhelming.
But in our experience, the atmosphere overwhelmed the cuisine at Virago. Admittedly, it would be hard to build a menu that lived up to such a fully developed visual experience, but we'd love to see it happen. Until that day comes, as you savor your sushi and swirl your sips of ginger-lychee or wasabi-infused cocktail, pause for a moment to drink in the carefully crafted atmosphere of contemporary Nashville's newest showplace. Take in the skyline view from a rooftop patio. Behold the city's beautiful people. Enjoy the fact that — despite any insecurity you may have had walking in — you are, in fact, one of them.
Virago opens daily at 5 p.m.
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