tayst Restaurant & Wine Bar
2100 21st Ave. S. 383-1953
Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Bar opens at 4 p.m. Tues-Sat.
The metamorphosis of the nondescript brick building at the corner of Bernard and 21st Avenue South from a furniture showroom into one of Nashville's most delightful new restaurants took place in the dead of winter, under wraps, in carefully guarded secrecy. Always locked tight, the glass front doors were so well-covered with brown paper that even when lights were on inside the building, not a sliver of the mysterious interior could be seen through the opaque shroud. Vehicles in the parking lot during the day indicated a human presence inside, but knocking brought no response. At one point last December, I wedged a business card in the door jamb, hoping for a response, but this too went unanswered.
Call it a sixth senseI see restaurantsbut I had a strong hunch that whatever was going on at 2100 21st Ave. S. had something to do with food. Finally, desperate for information, I burst into the next-door neighbor, Davishire Interiors, interrupting their office holiday party. Shirley Horowitz asked my identity, placed a call, then told me to be at the building in 30 minutes.
I tentatively pushed open the unlocked door and came face to face with three very attractive men, one of whose faces was familiar to me. That was Dan Morrissey, a veteran of several popular Nashville restaurants, including a long stint at Midtown Cafe, which is where he met chef Jeremy Barlow, known to me in name only. Four years before, Barlow had told his colleague that if he ever opened a restaurant, Morrissey would be his front-of-house partner. Now here they werewith their beverage manager/wine guru Steve Boyerin a mess of a construction zone, predicting that their new restaurant would be open at the end of January. Good luck, I said, knowing from experience how even the best-laid plans nearly always go awry when it comes to opening a restaurant.
Thus, when I drove past the building in mid-February and saw a working valet parking stand out front, I was surprisedand a little annoyed that no one had called to tell me they were open. But since signing the lease on the building last October, Morrissey and Barlow have adhered to the policy that actions speak louder than words, and a whisper often attracts more attention than a shout.
Less is more is the classy rule at this restaurant, extending even to its lower-cased name: tayst, subtly announced on a painted sign hanging over the door, protected from the elements by a chic awning. To the right of the entry is the small, curved bar where Boyer presides, easily chatting with customers seated on the eight stools. Frequently, he ventures out to advise diners on wine choices from the list he created, which is globally inclusive but totally manageable for even the most timid wine novice, thanks to the accessible verbiage and thoughtfully categorized selections. Every dish on the menuincluding the three saladsis also paired with a suggested wine.
The building is longer than it is wide, and the front is made half as narrow to accommodate the rest rooms, hidden behind the wall that undulates from the bar to the main dining room in the rear. This corridor is put to good use, with tables set flush against both sides. In another space, these tables might be considered undesirable, but at tayst they really work and are even requested by some regular customers, who like their see-and-be-seen location and the conversational privacy they offer. Chalk it up to feng shui.
The color scheme is tanon the stucco walls at the front and on tablecloths, with burgundy napkins a slightly lighter shade than the deep-red rear walls, which are warmly illuminated by lovely wall candle sconces and hung with tasteful art. The nearly ceiling-high windows not only bring the lush trees outside in, but make the room seem taller than it is. The floors are deep-brown polished concrete, a material no doubt responsible for the one complaint I have heard about tayst: The noise level can be extremely high when the room is full, as it always is Wednesday through Saturday nights, less so on Tuesdays. Take that not for an insurmountable problem, but as an advisory (along with a recommendation to make reservations).
The minimalist decor extends to accessories and accoutrements. A happily single, pale-yellow fugi mum flirtatiously pokes its fluffy head out of a matte silver vase on each table, china is classic white bistro-style, and servers are dressed head to toe in basic black. Morrissey, a consummate professional, masterfully orchestrates the flow of the room, and his skilled and knowledgeable wait staff take their cues from him, expertly tending to every detail in present, yet unobtrusive, style. In the back of the house, Barlow, a CIA grad, is performing some skilled and knowledgeable wizardry of his own.
When I am dining professionally, I don't eat so much as just taste. How ironic, then, that I find myself at a restaurant named tayst eating as if there were no tomorrow. I am holding Barlow responsible not only for the five pounds I gained over the course of several dinners at tayst, but also for causing me to break one of my foremost rules of professional dining: never order the same item more than once. It was the very first dish on the tayst menu that shot that all to hell. Steamed mussels sound simple enough, but submerge the briny morsels in a dark, rich lobster-chipotle broth with Swiss chard and sweet red pepper, then top the bowl with a ball of herbed goat cheese butter, and what you have is culinary decadence.
Not only are the mussels so astoundingly good that I've ordered them all four times I have eaten at tayst, but one nightmy good manners having been eroded by good winesI asked to have the extra broth put in a to-go cup, so that I could loll about in it the next day with a petit pain from Bread & Company. On my last visit, I manipulated the diner sitting beside me into ordering the mussels, knowing full well he was allergic to wheat, leaving the broth for me and my bread basket, though he considered having it injected into his veins.
Sadly for my insatiable appetite, but happily for my hips, the mussels are going the way of most of the current menu: into cold storage for the summer, hopefully to reappear in the fall. Another departure I'm mourning is the pan-seared trout, a meaty, deboned fish simply seasoned with salt and pepper, wrapped in a smoky, thick strip of bacon, and plated with sauteed Swiss chard and a mound of sweet-sour rhubarb chutney. When offering tastes of the dish to my companions, I stacked each component to create an edible pedestal of the perfectly poised balance of flavors.
To the relief of many tayst regulars, the signature appetizera generous slice of foie gras laid atop tender-to-the-bone beef short ribs braised in gewürztraminer wine with oven-crisped apples in a flavorful pan reduction saucewill remain. But otherwise, Barlow's commitment is to cook seasonally, and he will debut his new menu next month. Though he will not reveal its contents, the consistently superb succession of meals I have utterly enjoyedother highlights including the grilled sea scallops with an oval of creamy avocado cheesecake and the succulent grilled rack of lamb finished with a robust port wine glaze and shavings of intense Idiazabal cheeseforecasts fine dining ahead for patrons of tayst. His treatment of fish is particulary adept. Barlow says that the best part of having his own restaurant is being able to take chances; that creative freedom is enhanced by his passion for experimentation and honed by years of experience, which include stints at The Trace, Atlantis and Ruth's Chris.
Barlow also oversees the dessert cart, which changes more frequently than the regular menu, but it was a frosty concoction from the bara root beer bourbon float using homemade vanilla ice creamthat hit the repeat button for me and my tablemates, prompting one to return for the beverage alone.
Finally, tayst maintains its adherence to modesty all the way to the bottom line: Every entree save one is priced under $20, with the aged rib-eye topping out at exactly $20.
The restaurant's first night of business on Feb. 5 was quietly observed by about 50 customers, but word of mouth since has been loud and clear: Big things are indeed found in small packages, and good tayst speaks for itself.