Shaken, Not Stirred 

Nightspot knows how to mix a drink, but needs help in the kitchen

Nightspot knows how to mix a drink, but needs help in the kitchen

Martini’s Nashville

3009 West End Ave. 329-0100

Hours: 4 p.m.-3 a.m. daily

When I was a young girl, I spent many weekends with my grandparents. At night, while my grandfather sat on the front stoop listening to Phillies baseball games on the radio, my grandmother and I sat in the kitchen watching old movies on their black-and-white portable television. The screen was tiny, but the lives of those leading men and ladies, almost always New Yorkers, were filled with glamour, sophistication, and excitement. None of them seemed to work, and they were impeccably groomed, dressed with an unstudied elegance. They engaged in clever and witty conversations, danced with remarkable grace, smoked cigarettes, and always had a cocktail in their hands. Mostly they drank martinis and champagne. I could hardly wait to get to New York and do it myself.

By the time I moved to Manhattan in the mid-’70s, little of that sophistication and elegance remained. Singles bars had taken over First Avenue, and discos were in their heyday. People were drinking cheap Chablis instead of champagne, but still, I was excited to have my first martini—until I actually had one, that is, and discovered that I didn’t care for martinis. Convinced that my distaste indicated a distinct lack of sophistication, I tried over the years to acquire a taste for them, but never was successful.

When the time came to visit Martini’s Nashville, which opened a few months ago on West End Avenue, I decided to assemble some knowledgeable martini lovers for what I suggested might be an elegant and sophisticated evening of witty repartee, drinking, and dining. Thanks to the lively company, we accomplished the first objective easily. Thanks to the more than 40 martinis listed on a separate martini menu, the second objective was also a snap. Unfortunately, when it came time to eat, we encountered a total meltdown.

The concept of Martini’s proved puzzling to all of us, although the martini savants in the group assured me that the cocktails were quite good (save for some nitpicking about the itty-bitty generic-brand olives). But our confusion mounted as we tried to determine exactly what Martini’s is: Is it a bar? Is it a music club? Is it a restaurant? After two visits there, I’d argue that it succeeds on the first two accounts, but would have to argue pretty emphatically that it fails on the last.

Martini’s has a polished, undulating bar with more than a dozen seats, as well as several cocktail tables for small parties. On both visits, the area was well-attended and lively; nearly every patron had a martini glass before him and seemed to enjoy sampling the different potions. I admired the Titan Tini, which had a deep-violet hue thanks to combination of Blue Curaçao, cranberry juice, and vodka.

A smoker-friendly place, the bar offers cigars for purchase but doesn’t provide any smoke-free areas for patrons, suggesting that Martini’s is indeed dedicated to a drinking/smoking/bar crowd. Early in the evenings, a gentleman with an enormous repertoire of Barry Manilow and Billy Joel songs holds court at a large piano located just inside the entrance to the back of the room. His endurance is impressive; he rarely took a break during both of my visits there. But his performance, while enthusiastic, intrudes mightily on the conversations of those seated nearby. Customers wanting to exchange bon mots—which tend not to be as effective when repeated twice—are advised to ask for a seat at the front or to stick to the bar.

If the piano music can be relinquished to the background, there is absolutely no ignoring the full bands that set up in front of the piano and begin playing at about 9 p.m. every night. Once the musicians start, they effectively cut off any possibility of conversation.

Patrons going to Martini’s simply for the drinks and the music will find it a serviceable establishment—but if they’re coming for the food, the question becomes a lot more problematic. In its initial marketing thrust, Martini’s announced itself as a sophisticated, elegant dining room, and the chef declared the menu to be “classic bistro fare.” On both visits, however, we found oilcloths spread haphazardly over tabletops, and some of the larger tables had no tablecloths at all. (When we inquired about this on our first visit, we were told the restaurant didn’t have the right size linens.) This didn’t strike me as elegant or sophisticated, nor did the cheap white votive candles stuck in highball glasses, the mismatched chairs, the institutional flatware and china, the stingily upholstered banquettes covered in vinyl leopard print, the messy bathrooms, or the laminated menus.

As for the menu, it didn’t offer what I’d call classic bistro fare. Instead, there were salsa and chips; coconut-beer-battered shrimp; stuffed mushroom caps, which had come straight out of a box; and artichoke-spinach-dip-smothered brioche, a fatal victim of the microwave. On our first visit, the Korean BBQ chicken wings were an unpleasant shade of brown and carried the distinct flavor of freezer burn that couldn’t be disguised by the coconut-cilantro chutney. On our second visit, the same dish was swathed in that alarmingly pink Chinese-restaurant hot-and-sour sauce; when we asked for the chutney, our waiter insisted it did not come with the wings, despite the menu’s assertion otherwise.

And these were just the starters. The salad, with its softball tomatoes, had clearly just come out of a bag—even though the Farmers Market, 2 miles away, is overflowing with fresh homegrown tomatoes. Other items, such as the pinwheel flank steak, were also obviously prepackaged and supplied by a mass food distributor. The filet was mysteriously devoid of any flavor and delivered to the table stone cold. The BBQ shrimp were so oversalted on both visits that the dish was inedible; on our second visit, the waiter noticed that we’d barely touched it, yet failed to take it off our bill. One member of our party, just returned from France, volunteered to sample the “authentic” coq au vin; I thought we were going to have to call the paramedics when the poor fellow went into culinary arrest.

In all fairness, not all the dishes were this terrible, though few of them were at all consistent. On the plus side, the broiled salmon was quite good; the prime rib was OK, but the promised horseradish sauce was missing; and the pan-fried catfish was very good, though the accompanying rice was a soggy mess. The desserts, on the other hand, were disastrous; they all came from somewhere far, far away, and their arduous journey to Martini’s sucked the very life out of them.

Both our dining experiences proved disappointing, to be sure, but the final affront came with the delivery of the bill. On the first visit, for our party of seven, including martinis (ranging from $6.25-$7.75), three bottles of wine ($34 each), and an automatic 18-percent gratuity (notice of which is posted nowhere on the menu), the check was $459.03. The check for my second visit, for a party of three, with three glasses of wine, was $118.20 before gratuity. To all indications, Martini’s culinary concept has been downscaled since the restaurant actually opened, but it isn’t reflected in the pricing.

Try as I might, I have never been able to acquire a taste for martinis. And given the unpleasant aftertaste that still lingers on my tongue, and my credit card, I haven’t acquired a taste for Martini’s either.

American pie

E.W. Mayo’s mama taught him how to make fried pies as a young boy. Now 82 years old, he has a lifetime of experience, and it shows in the fried pies he and his cooks turn out every day in his little store at 2618 Buchanan St., also the home of Mahalia Jackson’s Fried Chicken, a brand name he purchased some years ago.

I’ve had better fried chicken, but I’ve never tasted a better fried pie than the ones from Mayo’s, which come in three varieties: peach, sweet potato, and apple. My panel of discriminating testers agree. The crust is light and flaky, the filling sweet but not cloying. They are made fresh every day, cost $1 apiece, and frequently get taken away in batches. The nearby NES office orders more than 100 at a time.

Mayo’s other specialties are chicken hash, which resembles chicken and dumplings, but with potatoes substituting for the dumplings, and a tripe sandwich. The tripe is cleaned, boiled, battered, and deep-fried, then served on bread with mustard and pickles. He says it’s a taste treat. As culinarily adventurous as I am, I don’t have the stomach for stomach, so I’ll have to take his word for it.

Mayo’s is open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun. To get there, take 28th Avenue North from Charlotte, then turn right onto Buchanan Street. The phone number is 742-1899.

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