The Factory at Franklin, 230 Franklin Rd., Franklin, 599-4995.
Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Sunday jazz brunch with The Gypsy Hombres 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
I cut out four or five different watermelon salad recipes this summer from the Wednesday New York Times “Dining In, Dining Out” section and a couple of other food magazines. Tomato, watermelon and goat cheese salad. Watermelon, fennel and arugula salad. Watermelon gazpacho. Watermelon, fresh herbs, thinly sliced onion, oil and red wine vinegar. Watermelon with feta cheese and spiced pecans on greens.
They all sounded like they would be the perfect thing to serve with a simple supper on my screened porch, particularly on a sultry August nightcool, refreshing, juicy, sweet. And most of them were fairly simple, taking no more than 15 minutes of preparation time. I added them to the basket of recipes that sits on the side of my stove.
Somehow, every watermelon I bought didn’t quite make the journey from fruit to epicurean fruition. Instead, I cut them into wedges or scooped them with a melon-baller, on the side of my children’s plates, or in a bowl at breakfast; sometimes I just split the melon into quarters and took them out onto the deck so the kids could missile-spit seeds at each other and let the juice run pink, sticky trails down their arms and chins. It was all fun and delicious, but not quite what I had envisioned while leafing through Gourmet. As watermelon season rapidly drew to a close, I sighed and thought, maybe next year.
Imagine how happy I was when we sat down to dine at SaffireScott Alderson and Tom Morales’ restaurant that opened in April in The Factory at Franklinand there on the menu was Summer Watermelon Salad: cubed and seeded, then tossed with a squeeze of lime, a drizzle of lemongrass oil and fresh basil, and piled atop a jicama-cucumber slaw.
For my money, one of the primary lures of restaurant dining is that there be someone in the kitchen who makes the thing that I most want but that I have either been too lazy, or too unskilled, to make myself.
Why in the world would I pay someone else to slice a wedge of iceberg lettuce, then ladle on a half-cup of ranch dressing? Or to boil up some water, throw in some pasta, heat up a jar of alfredo sauce, toss it together, throw in some grilled chicken breast and sprinkle dried parsley flakes around the rim of the bowl? If you ask me, that’s just nutty.
But throw around some tantalizing descriptions like leek fries, avocado-sushi rice salad, andouille-corn bread pudding, or citron-balsamic tuna with sensual risotto and I am so there: knife and fork in hand, here’s my credit card, take whatever you want. I would rather eat out once every six weeks in a restaurant like Saffire than every six days at one of the inexplicably popular chain stores just down the road in Cool Springs.
Still, my party of inner-loop Nashvillians were whiningas we are wont to doabout the drive to Franklin, the city that could be forgiven for gloating over its good fortune to land this restaurant. Maybe it was my imagination, but I swear many of our neighboring diners were sporting smug, self-satisfied smiles on their faces, as if to say, “We know what insufferable snobs you Nashville people are about Cool Springs, but we have Saffire and you don’t.”
Saffire, in the back of the Factory where Bluewind was once located, took over a nifty space and made it both cooler and warmer. A blue partial-glass divider separates the cozy lounge area in the front from the brick-walled, concrete-floored dining room, which flows right to the open kitchen all the way in the back. Wooden tables and mismatched chairs, tall windows framed by plush velvet drapes, an unfinished, industrial ceilingplus that rollicking kitchenmake for a fun, spirited, room, but one that when full (as it often is these days) ratchets the dining room dinner din to near cacophonous levels. Not the place to whisper sweet nothings in your beloved’s ear. But what’s a little noise among friends? Save the canoodling for a nightcap at home, and plunge right into the explosive gratification of Alderson’s spectacularly sexy food. Only fussbudgets will notice the noise once the plates make a landing at your table.
This ain’t Alderson’s first rodeo, nor was he entirely unfamiliar to Nashville diners; he made a memorable splash among foodies with his first local appearance at the promising but ill-fated 6örestaurant in The Gulch. Travelers to the Gulf Coast may have met the South Florida native at popular restaurants thereCriolla’s, Bud & Alley’s, and Café Thirty-Abeachside eateries where fresh seafood is a given.
Here in landlocked Tennessee, where the harvest of the sea is an overnight flight away, Alderson takes several approachesfries it, grills it, or keeps it rawpaying due respect to the nature of that particular selection. From his itinerant grab bag of culinary influences come the sunny flavors of the Caribbean, a lively Cajun kick or sassy Southwestern spice. On the plate, he honors the best of the region and the season with a rock-solid supporting cast of enhancements and sides that threaten to steal the show from the headliner.
Exhibit A: the cracked conch appetizer. Alderson triumphs over the inherent rubberiness of the Caribbean mollusk by slicing it ultra thin, pounding it with a mallet and cooking it tempura-style in a vanilla-bean-flavored batter. A flawless performance, but we were deliriously distracted by the celebration of flavors taking place on the rest of the plate: an avocado-sushi rice salad with candied ginger, yuzu honey, and jalapeño juice.
The Caribbean-style ceviche is served in a smart martini glass, but no concoction of spirits is as intoxicating as this yellowfin tuna and conch in citrus juice and rice vinegar with luscious mango, sharp scallion, fiery scotch bonnet pepper and pungent cilantro. Also on the raw bar are iced half-shell oysters (the source changes with availability); Pontchartrain blue crabs claws tossed in lemon, cilantro and olive oil; and a selection of hybrid sushi rolls. And he has recently added a peel and eat shrimp cooked in a spicy boil. “I don’t care if it’s not sophisticated, it’s one of the best ways to eat shrimp, so I put it on and people are loving it.”
Alderson also deep-fries his oysters, dismissing the conventional cocktail sauce in favor of tomato-crawfish butter and an itty-bitty bottle of Tabasco sauce. The meaty low country rock shrimp cake is spiked with house chorizo and sided with a stack of sweet yam hay.
Of the three salads offered, we were most taken with the aforementioned watermelon, sadly taking its leave along with the season. Staying put are the garlicky new South Caesar with bits of Tennessee ham and herb-cheesed croutons, and the ribbon salad of sliced iceberg and romaine in a white peach vinaigrette and bleu cheese drizzle. The latter was pleasant but a little safe for my tastes.
Alderson offers diners a trio of fresh fish that change dailyon the night we visited, our choices were salmon, halibut and swordfisheach grilled in individual style. The salmon was ancho-honey glazed and grilled, then served with sweet summer double-creamed corn (a side that plays a recurring role throughout the menu, but will also soon depart for the winter) and Vidalia relish. The halibut was grilled, then teamed with rich and creamy stone-ground grits, smoky tasso meuniere and fresh green beans. The swordfish was the sugar-buster selection of the day, simply grilled, then pumped up with slender stalks of asparagus, briny roasted olives, homegrown tomatoes and a tangy feta vinaigrette. A tangle of leek fries made the most of its cameo role on that plate, provoking calls from the table for an encore. The citron-balsamic tuna, grilled rare, was tasty, but the buttery risotto studded with sweet fennel and tart preserved lemon pieces deserved a standing ovation.
Alderson rounds out his menu with two meatsduck and, for now, prime ribroasted in the big stone pit that stands center stage in the kitchen. There is also a quartet of specialties that include his infamous chicken fried chicken with Smithfield ham giblet gravy and sided by the addictive Sonoma white cheddar-n-mac, his signature comfort food.
Alderson is working on his autumn menu, which he expects to debut by the end of September. He has several local farmers lined up to provide him with fall produce, which will become new players for the crucial supporting roles.
Much to our delight, Alderson also hinted that he and his partner are looking at some restaurant property in Nashville, hoping to open another place by next year. In the meantime, let me remind Nashvillians that neither passports or immunizations are needed to enter Williamson County, and Saffire is a straight shot down Franklin Road, just a few miles across the border. I predict your effort will be richly rewarded, and you’ll be coming back for more.