When I think of France, I think of four things: romance, style, excellent food, and superior wineand not necessarily in that order. In the course of one recent evening at The Wild Boar, I had them all, thanks in large part to the talents of Guillaume Burlion, recently named the restaurant’s executive chef. Let me clarify that the romance had little to do with the heart. (Burlion, a native of Paris, moved here a little over a year ago, along with his musically inclined wife.) Instead, it was a seduction of the palate. And, though I must say Burlion looks snappy in his whites, the winning style of the evening was in the presentation of the dinner.
When it came down to the food itself, an artful amuse bouche sent a tantalizing message that we were in for an enchanted evening, and our mouths were indeed pleased by the hint of the delights that awaited us. Our petit cadeau was ingenious in its simplicity: A rolled slice of Parma prosciutto was inserted into a crescent of tart green apple. On one side, a puddle of beet vinaigrette; on the other, a trickle of curry oil. The vinaigrette was sweet, the result of cooking the beets with apples and then using an apple balsamic vinegar. The flavorful curry oil had me dreaming that very night. I was on a journey through import markets, searching for a bottle of the magic potion. But I needn’t have bothered, even in my dreams. Chef Burlion later told me that the curry oil is made in the Wild Boar kitchen.
The same goes for the bread these days. With barely suppressed, and very French, disdain, Burlion revealed that such was not the case when he arrived at Wild Boar. Finding that a curious state of affairs in such a fine restaurant, he insisted that management invest in the staff and the equipment necessary to earn his approval.
Burlion comes by his perfectionism honestly. He began his culinary education at the tender age of 13, when he apprenticed under the noted Parisian chef Patrick Lenotre. Like any other kitchen underling, Burlion did everything, from cleaning and chopping to stirring stocks and sauces. Six years later, he became a chef. After serving as sous chef at Hotel Crillon, he moved to the States, settling in California. His résumé includes stints as executive chef of Beaurivage in Malibu and Europa in Palm Springs. When his wife expressed interest in moving to Nashville to pursue her music, he knocked on the door of The Wild Boar, the one Music City restaurant he was familiar with. It was a timely move, as Wild Boar’s popular chef, Robert Waggoner, had recently departed for Charleston.
Burlion says he likes Nashville because he prefers “having four seasons to cook in,” but the transition was not without its difficulties. Moving a new chef into a close-knit kitchen is akin to moving a new spouse into a household of jealous children. He brought a refined, distinctive style to a staff that was already in place and a menu that was already familiar to The Wild Boar’s select clientele. Burlion made changes gradually, removing a dish from the menu and adding a new one every few days. In a couple of months, the menu was his.
One does not approach a meal at this restaurant casually. First, there’s the wine listit takes more than 100 pages to list the cellar’s 3,000 vintages, an inventory that earned Wine Spectator’s Grand Award. Unless you are a masochist or a true wine expert, you’ll want to confer with proprietor and wine director Brett Allen, who can narrow your options to two or three choices in your price range. We had an oenophile at our table, and, as enthralled as he was by the list, he appreciated Allen’s assistance.
Then there’s the menu. I was wishing for a pocket-sized version of Larousse Gastronomique. Fortunately, food is very much like l’amour; you don’t have to understand it to enjoy it.
At The Wild Boar, your love affair can take several forms. There is the set menu of appetizers, soups, salads, and entrées. There is Chef Burlion’s summer dégustation, featuring seafood of the season ($65 for the five-course meal without wines, $140 with). Or there is the tomato dégustationfive courses featuring everyone’s favorite warm-weather fruit.
Despite frequent forays to Farmers Market and speciality produce stores, no one in our party of six had yet enjoyed any good summer tomatoes, so we were curious about the tomato menu. We discovered The Wild Boar’s luck hadn’t been much better than ours, but the chef managed to overcome the flavorless tomatoes with flavorful accompaniments and illusory preparations. In this case, the amuse bouche was a yellow-tomato gazpacho served in a hollowed-out yellow tomato, surrounded by quartered red tomatoes centered with dabs of intense curry-saffron mayonnaise. The grape-tomato-and-potato tuile’s gratin was a very strong cheese. (We guessed Gru-yère.) And the main course of roasted red, yellow, and green tomatoes over saffron risotto was distinguished by truffle oil (summer Perigord black truffles are in) and a sun-dried tomato reduction. The Roma tomato soufflé was a revelation, mild and sweet; leaves of sweet purple basil made a surprise addition to a traditional sauce anglaise.
But unless you’re a tomato addict, you’ll want to make your selections from the set menu. Begin with the escargot in a pistou sauce; the succulent little snails are wrapped in sachets of rice paper and tied with a “cord” of chive. Or revel in the decadence of the pan-seared foie gras, served atop a potato construction in a luscious roasted-apple sauce.
One spoonful of the creamy Maine lobster bisque brought a contented sighand prompted a round of “What’s the Ingredient?” None of us guessed star anise and orange zest, a brilliant touch. A week later, I was still longing for just one more taste.
Entrées run the gamut from a fresh summer vegetable plate to the filet of Canadian elk, tender slices fanned in a bold black-currant-and-port reduction. (At The Wild Boar now, there is less focus on game than there was during the Waggoner regime, but that may simply be a sign of the season.) A quail stuffed with savory wild mushrooms, tart Savoy cabbage, and honey-sweet caramelized pears was daintily perched atop a potato basket, as if it were ready to fly away. Treat yourself with the ambrosial fricassee of Maine lobster; savor the sweet little morsels of lobster on your tongue, and you will swear you are eating food of the gods.
Desserts are spectacular; at least one person in your party should order the soufflé of the day so that everyone can have a taste.
Service was impeccableso attentive that we never wanted for anything, so subtle it was barely noticed. My sole complaint remains the same as it was five years ago when I first visited The Wild Boar: I simply do not like the room. With its stuffed heads and mounted weaponry, it is more appropriate to a Masters of the Universe power dinner than a romantic tête-à-tête.
The Wild Boar is not for everyone, but is far more accessible than many would think. Dinner for six, without wine and liquor, was just under $400. For a taste of the great passions of France, delivered right here in Nashville, Tenn., that’s not a bad deal.
The Wild Boar is located at 2014 Broadway (329-1313). Dinner is served Mon.-Thurs. 6-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 6-10:30 p.m.