About three weeks ago, a friend emailed to ask for a suggestion of a place to take a group of women for dinner. “Something new, something cool, something totally different,” she requested. “These girls aren’t real adventurous, so I’d like to do something really unexpected.” At the top of my short list was Layl’a Rul, the restaurant nightlife impresario Chris Hyndman opened in 2005 in the space formerly known as Chu. Hyndman, the mastermind behind Virago, envisioned the two-story building as a “boutique restaurant within an ultra lounge,” a place that would serve a great meal, then morph into a nightclub.
He recruited one of Nashville’s most boldly interpretive chefs, Scott Alderson, who debuted locally when he opened 6º with Kevin Boehm in 2000. Though the food at the Gulch establishment was a triumph, sophisticated diners could hardly make their way to the dining room through the teeming crowd of 20-somethings massed nightly in the bar. Less than a year after opening, 6º closed, as much a victim of the fickle nature and short attention span of youthful Nashvillians as its premature entry into the urban redevelopment district, which was then still a gritty landscape of railroad yards, deserted streets, zero residential inhabitants and no other nightlife save the adult bookstore and peepshow on the corner. Boehm moved back to his native Chicago to open another restaurant (BOKA, and most recently, Landmark). Alderson took the position of executive chef at Franklin’s chain-breaking restaurant Saffire, in the Factory, where he remained until a brief tenure overseeing a menu overhaul for B.B. King’s nightclubs.
The opportunity to flex his creative muscles proved irresistible to Alderson when Hyndman challenged him to design a menu suggestive of the romance and mystery of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. In both the five-course prix fixe dinner and the less structured à la carte selections, Alderson brilliantly succeeded, his tantalizing dishes beautifully complementing the sensuous, exotic and provocative décor. Together, they made for Nashville’s most distinctive dining experience.
The ultra lounge was an immediate success, swarming with the young, beautiful and fervently hip, a favored hang of Titans, Predators, visiting celebrities and their aspiring groupies. In my endorsement of Layl’a Rul, I strongly suggested that my friend’s party reserve to dine around 7, so they would be departing by 10, which is when the Sex and the City spawn begin a stylish ascent of the undulating staircase to their luxuriously outfitted playpen.
Last week, I emailed my friend to tell her she needed to change her plans. Though restaurant business was growing, it remained a struggle to entice more conservative segments of Nashville to overcome their diner anxiety about an experience so radically different from anything else here. Once they did try it, says Hyndman, they were won over, but the effect of the unique experience earned the restaurant the dubious distinction of a special occasion place. “Nashville isn’t quite big enough yet that a restaurant can succeed as a special occasion kind of place. When there were fewer restaurants, places like Arthur’s could specialize in that, but not any longer.” Adding to the challenge is the building of the nearby Adelicia, one of the scads of condo buildings currently in development. The construction has turned virtually the entire midtown area into a mess of yellow machinery while making parking very difficult. Ultimately, Hyndman and Alderson mutually and amicably agreed to pull the plug on dinner service. “I feel really good about what we did there, so it was very frustrating, particularly for Scott, who is an amazing talent,” Hyndman laments. Before leaving, Alderson whittled down the complex menu to one that a solo cook can manage. Now chef Tim Hanley is keeping the Mediterranean flame glowing with small plates priced at $9. Layl’a Rul is now open Thursday through Sunday from 8 p.m., with food service until 1 a.m. The two-story building is available for private dinners and parties, and Alderson is on call as chef. Other than that, his future plans are yet to be determined. He will remain in Nashville, at least until December, at which time his girlfriend graduates from MTSU and they will choose a place to settle. Until then, he will probably do some consulting and freelance cooking while pursuing a multimedia cooking concept.
Layl’a Rul 909 20th Ave. S. Phone: 620-6015.Pushing the Bound’ry
Meanwhile, next door at Bound’ry, owner Jay Pennington—whose ill-fated venture Chu preceded Layl’a Rul in the Gaudí-esque space—has been quite publicly embroiled in a protracted and oft-times hostile legal battle with landlord Jimmy Lewis. Since opening in 1994, the Bound’ry kitchen has been home to a veritable Hall of Fame of Nashville chefs, most notably opener Deb Paquette (who left to open Zola in 1998 with husband Ernie), then Willy Thomas, who opened Park Café in Sylvan Park in 2001. As Pennington anguished over Chu—and spent more and more time in lawyers’ offices and courtrooms—his attention drifted from Bound’ry, which consequently slipped dramatically from its stature as one of Nashville’s favored and most reliable contemporary dining spots. The menu, once one of the city’s more stimulating, became mired in familiarity and predictability, virtually on culinary life-support. With a heated legal battle currently simmering in mediation, Pennington is hoping to resuscitate the ailing restaurant. One of the key specialists called in to administer CPR is Ted Prater, recently promoted to executive chef. Prater expanded the East Nashville dining border in 2003, when he and Fred Grgich opened Chapel Bistro, which picked up several nods for best new restaurant the following year. Prater’s departure not too long afterward was the beginning of a tumultuous period for Chapel (which continues to this day), and for Prater, who drifted about for a while before taking a position as sous chef at Bound’ry under Theresa Everett. When Everett departed in January, Prater took the wheel. He now is intent on steering the kitchen on a more direct path from point A to point B. “I like simple flavors,” he says. “I don’t like a lot of verbiage on the menu, and I don’t think people should need Food Lover’s Companion to figure out what they’re ordering.” His first mission was to pare down the lengthy menu and establish order in the kitchen, which had been negatively affected by the uncertainty in the front of the house. He brought in Guerry McComas as his sous—whom he first met in Steve Scalise’s kitchen at Corner Market, and whose credentials include a CIA diploma and stints in Nantucket, Napa Valley, San Francisco, Blackberry Farm and Switzerland. Prater has also hired “kick-ass pastry chef” Sam Tucker for bread service and desserts.
By the end of May, after several weeks of running their ideas out as specials, a new menu will be in place, though Prater promises seasonal revisions. While the basic structure of tastings, pizzas, salads and large plates remains, each category will be reinvigorated with new items from the team. Already in place are a calamari Tuscan bread salad, a wood-roasted artichoke stuffed with brie fondue and lump crab, ancho-dusted shrimp with jalapeño blue-stone-ground grits and sorghum butter, crayfish-stuffed trout, Blue Ribbon chicken (chicken brined in PBR, then smoked at South Street) and cedar-planked wild salmon cooked in the wood-burning pizza oven.
Bound’ry, 911 20th Ave. S. Phone: 321-3043.Book report
Professional journalists belie the notion that there is no such thing as a free lunch; freeloading food and booze is an expected and competitive part of the job description. Pat Embry, whose byline reaches all the way back to Nashville Banner days and who has also served as an editor at that paper, The Tennessean and The Rage, has been eating and drinking in this town for more than 20 years. With the publication of Where The Locals Eat: Nashville, he is putting his admittedly biased expertise to worthy advantage, writing and editing capsule reviews of more than 300 of our town’s restaurants, from down-home dives to upscale dining rooms. Compiled by Brentwood-based Magellan Press, the book is the latest of a series of pocket-sized guides offering insider tips on restaurants in mid-sized markets. Embry and his fellow editor Rachel Lawson, who has cooked at local legends like Bishop’s Pub and Gold Rush, will lead a Q&A about Nashville’s past, present and future dining profile on Saturday, May 20, from 2-4 p.m. at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in The Mall at Green Hills. Several restaurants will be offering samples of their fare at the book release party, which is free and open to the public.
Bye bye, American pie
The challenge in creating a dining guide is keeping up with openings and closings. Simultaneous with the party celebrating the release of Where The Locals Eat, Vandyland—one of Nashville’s most historic and beloved eateries—will be singing “Thanks for the Memories.” On May 19, the lunch counter will serve its last biscuits, burgers and shakes, victim of the expiration of a 30-year lease and rocketing real estate values on West End Avenue. The following day, owners Bea and Mitchell Givens, iconic cook and goodwill ambassador Mack McGee and the rest of the staff will be accepting condolences and saying goodbye during a customer appreciation party from 2-4 p.m. Cake and ice cream will be served amid stories, tears and hugs, and another irreplaceable piece of Nashville will be lost forever.
Vandyland, until May 20, 2916 West End Ave. Phone: 327-3868.