OK, OK, I get it. You can stop calling now. And emailing. And leaving voice messages about the marvels of Cool Cafe, a low-key meat-and-three slotted into the Harpeth Village strip mall between Green Hills and downtown Franklin. It's not that I was ignoring you, the numerous and enthusiastic boosters who wanted to spread the word about Cool Cafe's made-from-scratch menu. It's just that every time I happened to pass by the object of your affection at mealtime, it happened to be Saturday. And you forgot to mention, among all your gushing correspondence, that Cool Cafe is closed on Saturday.
That's when owner Tim Ness focuses on his growing catering operation and ekes out a few minutes for himself after a week of peeling potatoes and frying drumsticks. From the diner's point of view, the reward for the Saturday hiatus comes on Sunday, when Cool Cafe rolls out a spread that would make Grandma cash in her cast-iron skillet and prop her feet up in front of the Sunday broadcast of A Word on Words. It is a wise woman who lets someone else do the cooking — and the dishes — when that someone can do it as admirably as 5-year-old Cool Cafe.
On a recent Sunday the cheery shotgun room buzzed with diners who, if wardrobe was any indication, were matriculating in equal numbers from church and Home Depot. Cool Cafe's ambiance is casual enough for the latter, while its food is wholesome enough for the former.
On the off chance that you are the first person in line and you're not quite sure where it all starts, head for the salads — just past the baking station where someone might be frosting a fresh double-decker chocolate cake. It's worth noting that while Cool Cafe delivers all the buttery, carb-loaded-and-protein-packed favorites you'd expect in a Southern-style smorgasbord, there's fodder for a relatively light, fruit-and-vegetable-infused meal. We opened with a classic salad of crisp broccoli florets punctuated with chewy raisins and zesty pink onion strips, laced with a light mayonnaise-based dressing. More surprising was the medley of tiny white corn niblets, grape tomatoes and spring onions in balsamic vinaigrette.
Just around the slight bend in the counter, the hot section steamed with creamy chicken casserole, plump meatloaf and fried chicken. While the tomato-sauce-lathered meatloaf scored high on all aspects of portion size, texture and meatiness, it was the chicken that made us cluck with satisfaction. Cloaked in a bronzed seasoned-flour coating that glistened (but was not greasy) and crunched (but was not dry), the chicken perched only a moment on the steam table and arrived fryer-fresh and juicy on our plates.
Such fine fowl deserves the right trimmings, and creamy mashed potatoes with brown gravy lived up to expectations. The rotating roster of sides also included hand-breaded okra, mac-and-cheese, creamed fried corn, green beans with salty strands of pork and a choice of yeast roll or cornbread.
Rare is the buffet line where we have asked the server to stop ladling food onto our plate, but at Cool Cafe, the servings are large enough to stress-test both your Chinet plate and your cardiovascular system. And if it turns out you've got room for more, Ness says, he's happy to give you an encore.
On Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Cool Cafe strutted its stuff with a buffet that set a high bar for the holiday. In addition to sliced turkey and cranberry salad, Ness & Co. served sage dressing made of familiar yeast rolls and cornbread, riddled with celery and onion and ladled with turkey gravy with bits of meat bobbing in the silky sauce.
The diner ahead of us in line endorsed the sweet potatoes with a reverence generally reserved for the favorite foods of childhood. Whipped with butter and brown sugar and flecked with generous doses of cinnamon and nutmeg, the potatoes were simultaneously earthy and sweet — a welcome departure from the sticky marshmallow-laden cliché.
Arriving at approximately 11:30 a.m., we squeaked in just ahead of a hungry crush of diners. In the blink of an eye, the restaurant went from calm to fever pitch. Maybe that's where the restaurant gets its name — from the cool heads displayed by the servers, who processed the midday influx with the efficient sangfroid of a pit crew.
The feeding frenzy sparked a sense of urgency in us, however, and we reflexively ordered more desserts than we needed, just to prevent having to get back in the ever-growing line. (For good measure, we also ordered a half-dozen deviled eggs to go. One bite and we realized we should have ordered a dozen.) Among the carrot and chocolate cupcakes and the fruit cobblers, it was the banana pudding — layered with a perfect ratio of house-made custard and vanilla wafers and topped with a gently elastic cloud of airy meringue — that made the biggest impression. It was enough to make us want to call or email someone to share the delicious news.
By the way, thanks for recommending Cool Cafe, y'all.
Cool Cafe serves lunch and dinner daily, and is closed all day Saturday and Sunday night. Catering is available.
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