With French toast by the fire, Tee's Fireside Cafe in Bellevue offers a cozy place to chat 

Where the Hearth Is

Where the Hearth Is
Chicken Salad Sandwich at Tee's Fireside Cafe

Eric England

Chicken Salad Sandwich at Tee's Fireside Cafe

The bountiful and varied assortment of foods on the Sunday buffet at Tee's Fireside Cafe could be a metaphor for owner Tee Kravec's busy life. The fast-talking Atlanta transplant has done it all, she says — catering, restaurants, a decade at Disney. Three years ago, she hung her many hats inside a storefront in the strip mall at the corner of Old Hickory Boulevard and Highway 70, and set about making the room look French. On one wall, there's an artistically composed black-and-white shot of the underside of the Eiffel Tower. On other walls, there are placards with cheery French sayings and canvases with bistro scenes. There's a touch of rustic ironwork and a Provençal yellow paint treatment. A carpeted floor, accented by a hardwood pathway, eliminates the drafty echo that often plagues such commercial spaces.

Of course, the full-size American flag flanking the wall-mounted flat-screen television by the cash register detracts a little from l'atmosphere française, but as far as the French theme goes, you really only need to know one thing: On Sundays, Tee's Fireside Grill serves a French toast nonpareil, and I mean that in the French sense of "having no equal," not in the American sense of "topped with candy sprinkles."

To make the so-called crème brûlée French toast, Kravec caramelizes brown sugar and butter in the bottom of a baking pan, then paves the pan with a layer of thick cross-sections of baguette. Over the top, she pours a batter of egg, cream, vanilla and Grand Marnier. The rich custard penetrates the bread, but also fills in the spaces between the rounds. The end result is a self-contained confection with crisp-toasted edges and a fluffy core, interspersed with flan-like custard laced with caramel sauce. To add maple syrup would be overkill.

This over-the-top delicacy is the pinnacle of a sprawling brunch buffet that includes scrambled eggs, crisp curly bacon, shredded potato-and-cheddar casserole, fresh fruit, biscuits and gravy, quiche, sausage and an ever-changing array of soups.

While many buffet items are made from scratch, Kravec throws in a few usual suspects from the freezer section, including potato skins, deep-fried mushrooms, corn dog nuggets and jalapeno poppers stuffed with cheese. Purists may buckle at the inclusion of such prepared foods, but try arguing the point with a 5-year-old who is quietly munching away on an all-he-can-eat brunch of breaded favorites — including exceptional crisp and juicy hand-battered buttermilk-dipped chicken fingers — for $4.95.

Throughout the week, Kravec varies the menu and the specials, which appear on a chalkboard in the center of the snug room. Monday is burger day, when the price of the 11-ounce angus burger is cut from $8.69 to $4.99. On the weekends, she prepares ribs, which she marinates overnight in a tomato base with vinegar, brown sugar and liquid smoke before grilling and baking.

Little about the restaurant's name, Francophile décor or hand-painted seasonal murals on the plate-glass windows suggests a roster of Italian-styled grilled sandwiches, yet the panini menu is indeed one of the highlights of Tee's repertoire. Nota bene: At Tee's, the term panini loosely describes a lightly grilled sandwich on a hoagie roll or sliced bread, not the traditional Italian ciabatta. Nonetheless, our warm sandwiches — including the tuna melt with Swiss cheese, the Italian combo and the French dip — were consistently and generously laden with high-quality ingredients, with the turkey-pear-brie earning highest praise for its layering of crisp and creamy textures and sweet and tangy flavors.

Tee's offers a rotating array of soups, including French onion, chicken-tortilla and chili, but in our experiences, the soups were overly thick and intensely salty. In the future, we would opt for a whole sandwich in lieu of half-sandwich-soup combo.

While there were plenty of ladies — and by ladies, I mean a lovely and kind group of women who chat between tables and stop to say nice things to strangers — lunching at Tee's, nothing about the menu is diminutively ladylike. Large salad bowls overflowed with enough ingredients to deliver a healthy meal without leaving anyone hungry. The mandarin-chicken salad, piled high with tender slices of grilled breast, strawberries, pecans, green onions and blue cheese crumbles, was a memorably large and fresh salad for $10.25 and could easily feed two people.

Speaking of ladies who chat between tables and stop to say nice things to strangers ... that's what made the biggest impression on our visits to Tee's. The restaurant has the rare coziness and hominess often associated with meat-and-three dining, and yet, the food has a slightly more contemporary — if not exactly European — edge that is a welcome departure from country cooking.

As we were concluding our lunch with oversized slices of carrot and coconut cake, plated with abstract drizzles of chocolate and caramel sauce, a diner at the next table leaned over and asked, "Is it as good as it looks?" By that point, I had eaten all I could handle, and more than half the buttercream-coated wedge remained on my plate. "Would you like to try it?" I offered.

"You are the sweetest thing!" she said, but demurred, adding that she was trying to lose some Thanksgiving weight.

As I stood up to leave, I pushed the cake toward her and reassured her that I didn't have a cold. "Really, please have some. Your son might like it." Then I left the restaurant. There's no telling if she took me up on the offer. In almost any other place — outside of a home — I'm sure she wouldn't have. But Tee's feels more like a home than most places. I hope she did.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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