Le Cou Rouge
2201 Bandywood Dr. 292-7773
Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Tues.-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m.
As its name implies, Le Cou Rougewhich, translated from French, means “The Red Neck”has a sense of humor. The clever advertising campaign that preceded and accompanied the new restaurant’s opening in October only confirmed that sense of humor, posing such whimsical questions as, “Cassoulet or casserole? Baguette or biscuit? Pommes frites or potato skins?”
The answers lie in its menu, which is not so much a fusioncan we please strike this overused and misused word from culinary dictionaries?as an adaptation of classic French techniques to regional influences and products. And while the chef partners, Richard Graham and Kevin Alexandroni, may have their tongues firmly in cheek when it comes to their name, they are serious about their food. And that is good news for Nashville diners seeking a unique, innovative culinary experience.
Le Cou Rouge is Graham’s brainchild, born of his rearing in tiny Union City, Tenn., by a mother who was self-taught in classic French cuisine. He began cooking in his youth, using local ingredients in traditional French recipes. His first professional experience was in the kitchen of a meat-and-three in Martin, where he began subtly introducing his inventive concepts to an intrigued clientele. From those humble beginnings, he moved to an established Memphis restaurant, Café Roux, before being admitted to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. His work experience continued during and after CIA at La Tourelle in Memphis, then under Emeril Lagasse at the renowned chef’s eponymous restaurant in New Orleans.
Ready to strike out on his own, but not in a prime-time food city like New Orleans, Graham returned to Tennessee in 1998 and opened Le Cou Rouge in Dyersberg, a small town located between Union City and Memphis. The restaurant was enthusiastically embraced by locals, and word quickly spread to Memphis, where foodies began making the 90-minute trek to sample Graham’s concept. Within the year, he invited fellow CIA grad Kevin Alexandroni to join him.
Alexandroni’s emigration to Dyersberg was considerably lengthier than Graham’s. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he grew up in a family that blended traditional Jewish cooking with Mediterranean influences. After completing his Israeli military requirements, he moved to Tel Aviv to pursue his goal of becoming a professional chef. He worked for a year in the city’s most upscale kosher catering company before landing a position in Yo-Ezer, a wine bar and restaurant owned by Israel’s most famous food critic and writer, Shaul Evron. Price was no object in this kitchen, and the chefs were encouraged to experiment and to create lavish, unique dishes for the discriminating diner.
Eventually, Alexandroni came to America to enroll in CIA, where he met Graham. He first moved to Martin, Tenn., to help another classmate open a catering business, but after frequent guest-chef stints at Le Cou Rouge, he came on board full-time.
Soon after, the two young chefs decided that a move to a larger city was in order, and with their eye on Nashville’s explosive growth, they packed their knives and came here. After scouting several midtown locations, they settled on Green Hills and took over the space recently vacated by Sylvan Park’s outpost on Bandywood. What better place to introduce Music City to the notion of French-Southern food than in a former meat-and-three?
They took possession of the building in mid-July and spent the next three months scraping grease, reworking the kitchen, and remodeling the interior. Their efforts are immediately apparent upon entering the small foyer that divides the cozy bar on the left from the main dining room to the right. The former is drenched in deep, rich shades of color, with crimson walls, an emerald bar, and dark wood. The latter is reminiscent of an elegant country farmhouse in the south of France, with washed yellow walls, pale-green woodwork, copper-covered beams crossing the high ceilings, and French provincial antiques. Dining accoutrementsglassware, silver, linen, and chinaaugment the casual sophistication of the room.
All of it serves as the perfect setting for the intriguing menu, which with some exceptions changes daily. Along with their dedication to classic cooking techniques and fresh, quality ingredients, Graham and Alexandroni adhere to the KISS philosophy: Keep It Simple, Stupid. They prove that less is more by allowing the main player to take center stage, with complementing flavors performing strong, supporting roles.
Take the oysters, for example, a staple of the appetizer menu, though the type changes daily according to what is freshest. On a recent visit, a half-dozen tiny Penn Cove oysters in the shell arrived in a shallow bowl of ice chips, but instead of coming with spicy and overpowering cocktail sauce, they were teamed with a delicate apple-shallot sorbet. Similarly, mussels are not cooked in a heavy garlic broth, but in a white-wine butter sauce with a kick of andouille sausagea reminder of Graham’s stint in New Orleans. Another nod to the Crescent City is the fabulous barbecue shrimp on a bed of creamy asiago cheese grits; wisely, this addictive dish is a staple of the menu, at least for now.
Ravioli and risotto also make frequent starter appearances, but in different interpretations. One evening, it was scallop ravioli with wild mushrooms and black-truffle butter sauce; another, it was scallop and white-truffle ravioli with a basil, arugula, and pine nut pesto. Other dishes are switched out regularly, but the level of quality seems to remain constant from day to day. The sweet-potato-and-brown-sugar risotto garnished with roasted breast of Cornish game hen, for instance, was changed on another night to risotto with barbecue pork, apples, and hot spiced pecans. What remained consistent was the texture of the risotto, a perfect combination of chewiness and creaminess.
The gumbo salad is one of Le Cou Rouge’s signature dishes, but was not offered the night we visited. That omission was soon forgotten with the appearance instead of a spice-roasted quail atop a scoop of couscous on a pile of pleasantly bitter frisse; the mixed mesclun greens were enlivened with a warm black-mission-fig-and-sherry vinaigrette.
Entrees will depend on what is best and freshest that day. The chefs are picking up their seafood from the airport as soon as the plane from Seattle lands. There are also several choices for the carnivore, and as winter settles in, perhaps there will be some type of game as well.
Highlights of our visit were a thick, meaty cut of halibut in a light crust of fresh ginger and scallion, circled by bright-green fresh fava beans in a golden-colored coconut-saffron sauce; grilled golden trout with a tomato-artichoke relish atop a tangle of spaghetti squash; and a duet of game birds, pan-seared duck breast and roasted game hen, both nesting on a mound of creamy spätzle with a bright-burgundy cranberry-macadamia sauce providing color and tangy-sweet flavor.
Sophisticated comfort food best describes the Creole-honey-glazed rack of lamb on braised kale with a sweet potato mash; the quality of the lamb was exquisite. Our table’s favorite dish was the phyllo-crusted pork, thanks in large part to the buttery phyllo dough and the rich, slightly spicy green-peppercorn cream sauce. Act soon if you want to sample it for yourself; its overwhelming popularity has spelled its own demise, and it will soon be removed from the menu, at least for a spell.
Desserts also change daily. Chocoholics will find something spectacular to satisfy their cocoa cravings, but equally wonderful were the bread pudding, the poached pear with brandy, and the key lime brûlée that came with a small pitcher of warmed mango-passion-fruit-tequila sauce.
While the food was beyond reproach, the service kept pace: attentive but not overbearing, friendly but not intrusive, efficient but unhurried, and above all knowledgeable. Graham’s duties lie more in the front of the house, and Alexandroni travels back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. Their presence is reassuring, and both are immediately available and eager to answer any questions that a diner may present about food or wine.
A special treat for real gourmets would be to reserve the chef’s table, in a private space with a view of the kitchen, and try the multi-course tasting menu. When paired with appropriate wines, the meal is $150 per person. Prices otherwise are comparable to Zola and Atlantis; the wine list offers a good selection of French wines, along with North American and Australian vintages.
Le Cou Rouge recently added lunch (with a fixed menu) to its repertoire, serving Monday through Friday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Green Hills Christmas shoppers will find it an enchanting and delicious respite from the surrounding hustle and bustle, but it is well worth the trip from any part of town to warm up with the superb French onion soup with apples and bourbon. Discover why the crayfish hot brown open-faced sandwich on toasted Tuscan bread, served with fresh-sliced fried sweet potato chips, has become so wildly popular; or dip a spoon into the thick cioppino stew of fresh crab meat and fish in tomato broth.
French or Southern? Richard Graham and Kevin Alexandroni offer diners the best of both worlds, and in this season of counting blessings, Nashvillians will want to add Le Cou Rouge to their list.