1811 Division St., 320-5149
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Mon.-Sat., late-night menu until 1 a.m.
“Bitch no more” were the opening words fired in the advertising campaign that announced the arrival of Virago last year. My response was spontaneous Travis Bickle: “Are you talking to me?”
Well, yes and no, confesses Chris Hyndman, the co-owner, with chef Anthony Bates, of Virago. He was, he says, simply addressing a common complaint often voiced around town: that we are still lacking new, fresh, and imaginative restaurants. With the ad, Virago was announcing its intention to do its part to fill the void.
In reality, the two 27-year-olds are among a posse of young chefs/restaurateurs making their mark on Nashville’s dining and entertainment habits. More specifically, they are catering to their peers25- to 35-year-olds with plenty of time, disposable income, great hair, fabulous clothes, and a desire to try livelier and more adventurous cuisines.
In this new generation, I would also include Greg Shockro and Herb Allen at the Trace (almost old-timers by now); Sasso’s Corey Griffith and Anita Hartell (veteran chefs but new restaurant owners); Michael and Colleen DeGregory at Mirror; Daniel Maggipinto at Caffe Nonna; Richard Graham and Kevin Alexandroni at Le Cou Rouge; Sylvia Harrelson and Gregg Fox at Cibo; Kevin Boehm and Scott Alderson at 6-degrees; and Margo McCormack, most recently of F. Scott’s, who is preparing to open her own place in East Nashville.
So how does Virago fit in? Quite nicely, or so it would seem from the attractive, youthful, and hormonally charged crowd that flowed through the 120-seat restaurant on a recent weeknight. Virago also began serving lunch in December and offers sushi and alcoholic beverages all afternoon (and into the wee hours)a response to Music Row neighbors pleading for more midday dining and late-afternoon cocktail options in the area.
Hyndman and Bates were childhood friends; Hyndman began working in local restaurants when he was just 15 and recruited Bates to join him. After high school, they went their separate ways. The former spent time in New York and Los Angeles before returning to Nashville with the idea of launching a publication, while the latter went on to culinary school and then to Atlanta, before coming back to Nashville and stints at Bread & Company, Capitol Grille, and Wild Boar.
About a year ago, Hyndman shelved the idea of a career in journalism and started thinking about restaurants. “I like putting concepts together, and I know the restaurant business,” he says. His idea was to open a place that would appeal to his demographic by offering several things: a lively bar, fine dining in a hip and edgy setting, and sushi all the time. “There are 21 sushi restaurants in Nashville,” he reports, “and they are all pretty much the same. In L.A., there are places like Club Sushi and Rock and Roll Sushi that serve sushi in non-typical settings. For my generation, sushi is nothing unusual, it’s pretty much the norm. We wanted to offer it...in addition toand complementingour regular menu.”
With the concept in place, he contacted his old friend Tony, and the two began looking for a location and investors. On April 1, 2000, they signed the lease on the building that formerly housed Peaceful Planet and began work on the build-out, most of which they did themselves. They employed a minimalist approach, using paint and lacquer to great advantage, particularly on the startling cobalt-blue walls, deep-aubergine exposed brick, and black-lacquered tables and chairs. Local artist Paul McLean contributed some intriguing light boxes and other work.
Virago describes its food as “fusion cuisine”; in execution, its menu relies on simple preparations and distinct flavors, with primary influences from Asia and the Southwest. The lunch menu, which I did not sample, includes five salads, two sandwiches, and six entrees, most under $10.
The dinner menu is divided, for clarity’s sake, into three typical categories, but most of Virago’s diners don’t order according to restaurant tradition. Many make a meal out of two or three starters, which is what I would do, or some go for a salad and sushi. Still, with a nod to their clients’ emphasis on socializing and schmoozing, Hyndman and Bates have kept the menu admirably simple, which makes choosing easier, and allows the kitchen to produce quantity and quality.
On the night our party of eight dined at Virago, we found more hits than misses. We began with a selection of smaller plates. Of particular note was the ceviche of the day, a gorgeous presentation of scallops with a silky texture and divine flavor crowning a bright-green cucumber salad dressed in rice wine vinegar. I admit to hogging most of that dish. Other starters I could make a meal of included the crispy vegetarian spring roll with an addictive spicy peanut sauce; the tempura shrimp, calamari, and soft-shell crab combo with chipotle or soy dipping sauce; the glistening mold of tuna tartare on a spicy seaweed salad; and the mixed seafood eggroll with black-bean sauce and hot-and-sour pineapple salsa. The empanada was too heavy, and the house-smoked salmon bland, though we scooped up every bit of the wasabi crème fraîche that came with it.
We tried a couple of sushi rolls, which are huge, two-bite affairs at Virago. They were not as good as those at Shintomithe sushi standard-setter in townbut they were squeaky-fresh. We sampled just one salad, the baby spinach with a petite log of pumpkin-seed-encrusted goat cheese and a fiery chipotle dressing that should have carried a consumer warning.
Among the large plates, the delectable honey-banana sea bass has deservedly become Virago’s most popular dish. We also loved the shrimp and scallops over udon noodles with a coconut peanut sauce; the grilled free-range chicken, which sported a perfect char of blackberry barbecue sauce; and the pan-seared duck breast in a plum sauce reduction. The filet was very disappointing, with the mealy texture and lack of flavor that indicates a quick thaw.
We arrived at Virago at 6:30 p.m. when it was still relatively quiet, though the noise level in the room is high even when it is nearly empty. By the time we left, all three rooms were teeming with the young and the restless, and we found the noise level nearly painfula pretty good sign we are too old for Virago. Are Hyndman and Bates talking to me when they say bitch no more? No, but for that alluring demographic of 25- to 35-year-old singles and DINKs, their concept is speaking loud and clear and is certainly worth listening to.