A lot of people dream of opening a restaurant—maybe a dinner spot with an urban-industrial décor, a sexy bar and a creative menu—the kind of place where people talk about wine without sounding pretentious, the music’s not too loud and there’s an adult book shop and liquor store just a couple doors away.
Huh? Well, that last part may not have been on the agenda for business partners Scott Sears, Scott Atkinson and chef Robert MacClure, but that’s where their dream is taking shape, in the form of Flyte World Dining and Wine, which opened in the fall at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Division Street. In a former print shop near Frugal MacDoogal Wine & Liquor Warehouse, the trio are working to lure culinary traffic to an unlikely location while building a team to expand across Nashville’s dining landscape. And judging from recent visits, their choice of site hasn’t been a deterrent.
Named for a play on the word “flight,” a grouping of wines poured for tasting, the restaurant focuses on pairing seasonal organic and humanely raised foods with reasonably priced, interesting wines that people might not have tried before. Sears and Atkinson, Vanderbilt grads who cut their restaurant teeth at the bygone Rio Bravo on West End Avenue, ruminated on a restaurant concept for four years, studying wines, locations and chefs before signing MacClure from Chicago a year-and-a-half ago.
Last fall, as the triumvirate rehabbed their industrial space by adding rich lighting, artwork and colors to exposed brickwork and beams, they fortified their manpower by hiring chef de cuisine Jake Stearn and sous chef Bobby Benjamin, formerly of the Capitol Grille. Those hires stirred enough interest to lure servers Mark Rothschild and Scott Collins, veterans of Park Café and The Acorn, and hostess team Soraya Kashani and Kim Collins, also Acorn alumnae.
Just three months into the business, the Flyte team is already looking ahead. “We want to be an incubator for new restaurant concepts,” says Atkinson, a former banker and bond trader, who returned from Chicago to take on the restaurant project. “We’re trying to bring people on who’ll want to create new restaurants. We’ve offered to write anyone a business plan for their concept, and we’ll underwrite someone with a good plan.”
Sears earned his share of the restaurant’s $600,000 startup investment when Telalink, a local Internet service provider that he co-owned, was sold in 1999. After developing a customer service team for the telecom firm, Sears knows the value of professional development. “Our success hangs on whether we keep our employees happy,” he says. Of course, the same must be said for keeping customers happy. To that end, the owners are working to train and empower their staff to make decisions on their own—decisions like whether to give a guest a free appetizer, or whether to recommend a Shiraz or a zinfandel to go with lamb. It’s on-the-job education that involves a lot of tasting and a lot of talking about wine.
On a recent Saturday, the busiest night since the soft opening in October, the training showed. Even with a packed dining room and bar, service was nearly flawless. After Sears welcomed us with a quick explanation of the à la carte antipasti and the various wine flights, our server comfortably fielded our many questions about food and wine and gracefully handled our slow decision-making by taking orders for appetizers and leaving us alone until we finally got around to entrées.
Overall, the wine list aims to include varietals from their native regions—for example, Rieslings from Germany or pinot noirs from France. The result is an eclectic list of not-so-household names that range from $24 to $125 (for a bottle of 2000 Altesino on the so-called “Celebration” menu). A menu of flights—each comprising three 2-ounce pours and priced around $12—features playful titles like “The Golden Rule” chardonnay sampler and “The Sideways,” a merlot-free homage to the pinot-loving characters in the movie of the same name.
The menu opens strong with playful appetizers that set a high bar for the dinner. Fried calamari, which often serves as a barometer for how the rest of a meal will go, passed the “cheese test.” The lightly fried rings retained the soft, fresh consistency of, say, a Monterey Jack, rather than the resilient spring of surgical tubing, and a smooth Thai cream dip was a refreshingly subtle alternative to the ubiquitous marinara. Buffalo chicken spring rolls stood out for the tangy dipping sauces, and short ribs melted off the bone.
The real showstopper of the meal was the shrimp-and-grits appetizer. Once a coastal vacation treat, the combo is swimming into cliché territory on so many menus these days. But Flyte delivered a memorable interpretation in which large, four-bite shrimp, cooked to a perfect consistency, lolled on a bed of creamy grits laced with bacon and dried cherries. The decadent still life arrived dramatically in an oversize glass bowl, which, it is worth noting, you could conveniently fit your whole face into to lick the bottom.
While the shrimp was the unequivocal high point of both visits, the main course lived up to the expectations the starters set. Chef MacClure composes his plates with enough items and flavors to intrigue, without the redundant mounds of starch and super-sized hunks of meat that so often lead to food fatigue. Nearly all the meat we tried—including the humanely raised venison and filet from New Zealand and beef from Oregon—was flavorful and tender, accented, but not overpowered, by creative sauces.
One exception was the herb-encrusted lamb loin. The balsamic reduction eclipsed the succulent rack’s grilled flavor, and the monochromatic plate—brown lamb, brown sauce, brown black-eyed peas—lacked the diversity of color, flavor and texture of many other entrées.
One particularly attractive dish, the swordfish sided by lightly sautéed leaves of Brussels sprouts, married unexpected flavors and textures of lemon curd and whole blackberries with a light sprinkling of crunchy granola. (While the presentation was striking, the shot glass of lemon soda did little to complement the flavors and was arguably a little distracting.)
The gingersnap pork tenderloin, two delicate globes of the other white meat, seared and balanced beside a spread of pumpkin wild rice, was so pink it may as well have been served with a waiver. But one bite of the meat, with rich undertones of coffee and mustard and a dusting of gingersnap made by pastry chef Brooke Woffinden, would induce even the most litigious eater to sign away any potential claim for food-borne illness.
“It’s something we’ve had long discussions about,” Sears says, referring to the rareness of the meats across the menu. “We tend to err on the side of rare, so you might want to order a notch up.” He is quick to explain that all preparation complies with food-safety standards, adding that, with the high quality of the humanely raised meats, he hopes people will try them at their best advantage. (At our table, medium-lamb eaters were satisfied with an order cooked to medium-well.)
The theme of flights carries through the menu, with salads, cheeses, soups, vegan offerings and desserts available in threes. In fact, a flight is the perfect medium for the soups, so rich that a whole bowl of one variety could be too much. On our visit, the array of demitasse cups—white bean and micro-chives; sweet potato and house-made marshmallow; and butternut squash and maple syrup—could have almost stood in for dessert.
In general, the dessert offerings did not live up to the high standard set by the shrimp, pork and other dazzlers. The Bananas Foster cake sacrificed the defining caramel ooze of the standard New Orleans delivery, and the Pumpkin Flyte, three treatments of the gourd, went a step too far with a shot glass of something best described as iced coffee with pumpkin juice. Similarly, the lopsided Orange Dream Flyte saddled a divine demitasse of citrus-tinged white chocolate with two gelatinous orange extrusions.
But the adventurous nature of those shortcomings speaks well for chef MacClure and his team, who clearly know how to handle and present food. While not all experiments will succeed completely, most will, and the near misses will often yield something fruitful—like the jewel of a caramelized orange section atop the otherwise disappointing orange custard. A team as nimble as MacClure’s should be able to winnow the triumphs from the missteps and recombine as necessary. One delicious way to start would be to eighty-six the orange jigglies and the pumpkin cocktail, consolidate the remaining pumpkin crème brûlée, toffee brownie and hot white chocolate into a decadent troika, top it with a caramelized orange and serve it in a bowl big enough that you can conveniently lick the bottom.
Flyte is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.