Atlantis, the restaurant in the space formerly and briefly known as Casablanca, formerly and briefly known as Trilogy, formerly and very briefly known as something Italian-esque I have long since forgotten, and formerly and most famously known as Maude’s Courtyard, is riding a wave of changeagain. Chef Josh Weekley is out, and a new chef has taken over the kitchen as owners Susan Cone and her father, Tom, try to steer the restaurant in a new direction.
Atlantis dates back to October 1999, when the Cones took possession of what some consider a hexed building from the owners of Casablanca (who included Mario Ferrari of Mario’s fame). Susan was the on-site boss; an avid diner, she was a rookie restaurateur, relying on her many old friends in the business for advice. One of those friends, Loews Vanderbilt Plaza chef Josh Weekley, consulted with her on a brand-new menu, and in January 2000, Casablanca became Atlantis, a fun but fine-dining restaurant with an emphasis on seafood. Six months later, Weekleyacclaimed for his acumen with all things of the sea, lake and rivercame on board as partner and executive chef; two months after that, he and Cone took their personal love boat to the altar.
Though Weekley did superb food, and Cone’s warm and gracious Southern personality made guests feel at home, Atlantis suffered something of an identity problem. The bar had a terrific half-priced drink and appetizer happy hour, and live music on weekends kept the lounge hopping. But to older and well-heeled customers, the “club” ambience in the back overshadowed the fine-dining experience in the front. Prices were high at a time when expense accounts were being cut and people were becoming more cost-conscious. Most problematicallyin my view, anywaythe stark, white-painted exterior of the low building, with its covered drive, potted plants and side entrance, resembled less a restaurant than a funeral home, a somewhat gloomy prophecy for success in the hospitality industry.
When the Cone-Weekley marriage hit stormy seas, eventually breaking apart on the rocky shoals of divorce court earlier this year, Weekley jumped ship (or was thrown overboard), and the now former Mrs. Weekley was left to navigate the treacherous waters of restaurant ownership. A few months ago, she and her father enlisted another old friend, Patrick Hamill, to captain the family vessel. A 42-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Hamill spent 20 years at the helm of Mario’s, one of Nashville’s most famousand, at times, infamousrestaurants. He has come on board with the mission of righting the good ship Atlantis, which he professes had gone dangerously off-course.
“Among people wanting a fine-dining experience, Atlantis had a reputation as a nightclub,” Hamill said last Wednesday, just before the dinner hour. “To be honest, when I first came on two months ago, I didn’t think the food was even edible. I thought we needed to get back to the original concept, an elegant restaurant with excellent, classic food.”
He spent the first month dismantling and reassembling the kitchen; he has installed a new executive chef, John Feriss, who has a long record of service at several area restaurants. Feriss has hired an all-new staff and revamped the menu, shifting the focus from seafood to a more inclusive repertoire of beef, chicken, duck and lamb, as well as seafood. The always popular veal chop has also claimed a position on the new Atlantis menu, which is currently in planning stages for a fall rollover. He has also introduced a new Seafood Sunday brunch, starring dishes like Oysters Benedict and Eggs Atlantis (poached eggs served on a bed of crabmeat and topped with crawfish étouffée). The lounge music will focus on jazz from 6:30-9:30 p.m. nightly, offering a more subdued soundtrack to dinner than the previous R&B and soft rock.
Atlantis is at 1911 Broadway. Phone: 327-8001.
Man about Midtown
Randy Rayburn is most famously known for Sunset Grill, one of Nashville’s most pioneering and enduring restaurants of the modern era. But for the last year or so, he has been answering the phone at Midtown Café, another popular and tested restaurant that he purchased in 1997. In 2002, the restaurateur moved Jimmy Phillips from Sunset Grill, where he was working under executive chef Brian Uhl, to Midtown, and directed him to “broaden the scope of the menu without scaring off any of our longtime customers,” as Rayburn explained at the time. “We wanted to create a casual yet elegant bistro, with one foot in contemporary cuisine and the other in traditional.” Phillips did so with verve, skill and grace, in the process helping to increase restaurant traffic by a very healthy percentage, which made Randy Rayburn very happy.
Rayburn was thus very surprised when Phillips gave two weeks’ notice mid-summer, but he thinks he has found an able replacement. About five weeks ago, Sunset’s big dawg, Brian Uhl, moved over to Midtown and has taken over the kitchen there. “I’m just trying to learn the ropes,” Uhl says, a tongue-in-cheek remark from a man who has been running Sunset for four years and prior to that worked under several superb chefs at The Wild Boar (including Thomas Kellor, who went on to open French Laundry in California). “It’s an opportunity to play a little more, to try some new things, which is always good for a chef. I think that Midtown clientele are looking for a more refined and intimate dining experience than Sunset people, who are there for the scene as well as the food.”
Uhl, who has kept Bob Benson as sous chef at Midtown and brought John Sharp over with him, has already changed up the menu some and will be introducing a new fall lineup within the next two weeks. The restaurant is continuing its three- and five-course chef’s tastings, which change every few days according to what’s available; the tastings can be ordered all evening long, for $39 and $49 respectively. A recent menu offered seared Hudson Valley foie gras with savory herb bread pudding, red wine demi-glace and black mission fig compote; pan-roasted halibut over lobster risotto and heirloom tomato concasse; and a puff pastry French horn with chocolate Grand Marnier cream cheese over orange marmalade sauce.
“I’m going to focus on things here for a while, then I’ll slide back and forth between the two [restaurants],” Uhl says. “It keeps things interesting, and we’re having fun.”
Midtown Café is at 102 19th Ave. S. Phone: 320-7176.
Nighttime is the right time
On a recent, sunny mid-September afternoon, Patti Myint was standing on the sawdust-covered floor of the building she owns at 2017 Belmont Blvd., across the street from International Market, the restaurant she has owned for more than two decades. All around her, construction workers were nailing, sanding, gluing, leveling and toting pieces of board and window frames. She was holding a bamboo stand in her hand, talking to her contractor, Carlos Preston of All Professional Construction. Asked when the renovation of the former Kote’s restaurant would be completed, she looked at Preston, who backed up a foot or so. “I’m afraid she’s gonna hit me with that thing,” he said, laughing, sort of. “If she had given me some plans, it would have gone faster. But she has great ideas!”
By mid-October, Myint’s ideaswhich include knocking down walls, expanding the bar and adding a side patiowill be transformed into PM, her new restaurant/bar conceived for nearby students and neighborhood residents who want to walk over for a drink, finger foods, a sandwich or a light supper. Named for the time of day it will be open, as well as her initials, PM will have happy hour from 4:30-6:30 p.m. and will begin cooking around 7, closing around 11. The restaurant will be available for private meetings during the day, and Myint is also offering catering from International Market for private parties.