If you could open a time capsule of Nashville nightlife from the ’80s, the first things that would fall out would probably be a menu and a matchbook from Faison’s, the eclectic bar/restaurant that kick-started the revitalization of Hillsboro Villagelong before it became the buzz neighborhood it is today.
Opened in 1981 by Vanderbilt graduate Jody Faisonthen just a young buck himselfFaison’s attracted a vital, fresh, energized wave of twentysomething music bizzers, junior ad execs, hacks, flacks, fledgling lawyers and doctors, artists, musicians, and Vandy students. A generation of Nashvillians cut their culinary teeth there, delighting in exotically named creations such as Broken-Hearted Fettuccine, Pasta 32, and Chicken Jerusalem. They drank and smoked and discoursed long into the night. At the bar they sparked affairs, found romance, ended relationships, solved the problems of the world at large, and tackled the trials and tribulations of their own little insular universe.
Then they grew up. And moved on. To marriages and mortgages and savings accounts and children and PTA meetings and buyouts and sellouts and tenure and all the other accouterments of maturity. If, on an occasional night out, they ventured back to the site of those glory days, they foundif their experience was anything like minesomewhat bittersweet memories of days gone swiftly by.
I have little desire to revisit the past; I prefer to believe that my best days lie ahead. And I think that’s true for Greg Shockro and Herb Allen, the youthful duo who purchased Faison’s late last summer and undertook the challenge of dismantling a legend and replacing it with The Trace, their vision of what might work for their generation right here, right now. The steady dinner crowds and bustling bar scene during the week, the one- to two-hour wait for a table on weekends, and the line of twentysomething music bizzers, junior ad execs, hacks, flacks, fledgling lawyers and doctors, artists, musicians, and Vandy students that stretched outside the door at 11 on a recent Saturday night may well be early signs of success. Can they maintain that energy at least as long as their predecessor did? Time will tell.
Suffice to say that for now, they have a winning combination of hip atmosphere and good food. The front room, transformed by architect Patrick Avice du Buisson into a soaring space with big retractable glass garage-door walls framed by gleaming mahogany, is cool and contemporary, but it is warmed with textures of polished wood and rough concrete. Unfortunately, all that glass and hard wood results in an ear-splitting cacophony when more than four people are speakingor even breathing heavily. Turn up the music, as the staff does in the later hours of the evening, and the effect is deafening. The bar is sleek and comfortable. The small dining rooms in the back are quiet ports in the storm.
Shockro and Allen have assembled a winning team; they apparently put to good use the time they spent hanging out at the Faison’s bar while they were undergrads at Vandy. Early reports came pouring in about horrendous service problems, but James Weathers, director of operations, is now managing the frenetic activity with a steady hand. If barely controlled frenzy isn’t your idea of a good time, stick to weeknights at The Trace. Let’s be realisticif you mount a bucking bronco, you can’t expect a smooth ride.
Executive chef Freddy Brooker has devised a menu that mixes comforting bistro classics and light Tuscan fare. Relying on fresh, quality ingredients, it is refreshing in its simplicity. Thus far, Brooker displays an admirable devotion to the less-is-more theory.
A no-reservation policy on weekends guarantees a wait. We arrived at 7 and while we could have been seated around 7:30, we preferred to wait for a table in a quieter back room. The hour-plus we spent at the rear bar was pleasantly passed with icy martinis and a good house merlot.
Bread is presented in wooden cigar boxes lined with linen. (The peasant bread and the breadsticks were fine; the focaccia was too airy and dry.) Butter, olive oil, and a biting pesto spread are waiting on the tables.
In my four visits to The Trace, I’ve sampled six appetizers. You can’t go wrong with any of them. Next time I order the fried calamari, I’ll ask for the marinara sauce on the side, since the squid is perfectly fine on its own. The char-grilled portobello mushroomrapidly becoming ubiquitous in Nashville restaurantswas a better version than most, fanned out over a bed of wilted arugula. The filet mignon carpaccio was a hearty interpretation of this standard, served with crispy triangles of fried pita. A special of escargot under puff pastry was fabulous and provoked much tangling of forks in an effort to get the last bite. Kudos for the fresh mozzarella on the bruschetta and the mozzarella frita.
The house saladwith sweetened orange slices, walnuts, and kassari cheeseis excellent. We also loved the vinaigrette-dressed baby spinach and endive salad with strips of sun-dried tomato and little rosettes of prosciutto. The kitchen uses a temperate hand with the parmesan vinaigrette on the Trace Caesar.
The entrées were uneven on a Saturday night, perhaps a result of the slamming the kitchen was taking that evening. The tuna special was cooked through and through instead of very rare, as requested. The pan-roasted salmon was also overcooked. The big broccoli crowns in the much-touted broccoli linguine were hardly cooked at all, and the pasta was fairly swimming in balsamic vinegar. On the other hand, the filet special with a rich demi-glace and blue cheese, the signature lamb shank (so tender it was falling off the bone), the garlicky shrimp scampi topped with buttery slices of avocado, and the veal scaloppini with a delicate lemon piccata sauce were all superbly executed. The kitchen had run out of the herb-roasted potatoes that usually accompany entrées; we were rewarded with truffle mashed potatoes instead. I was wild for the mushroom hash side dish on my special; it’s not on the menu, but ask for it, by all means. Dishes are beautifully presented on heavy white plates; portion sizes promote overeating.
Extra points for the fresh pastas; after four visits, my favorites are the orecchiette“little ears”with grilled garden veggies and the earthy wild mushroom fettuccineif you’ve got a fever for funghi, this dish is for you.
Desserts were nothing special, and there’s no espresso or cappuccino for the time being. The wine list offers the usual suspects at the expected prices; there is also a list of specialty martinis, single-malt scotches, ports, and bourbons. The beer list is surprisingly pedestrian. Cigars are available for saleif you must. Dinner for sevenincluding appetizers, salads, entrées, desserts, and four bottles of winewas $387.
Those on the far side of 35 looking to rekindle an old flame at the restaurant formerly known as Faison’s may suffer a midlife meltdown when they visit The Trace. But in Hot Young Thing circles, this place is the hottest thing going, and nobody seems at all concerned about getting burned.
The Trace is located at 2000 Belcourt Ave. (615) 385-2200. Open 4 p.m. daily. Dinner served until 10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., until 11 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Late-night menu until 1 a.m.; bar closes at 2:30 a.m. Most major credit cards accepted.