Best Restaurant

Vivek Surti of Tailor Photo: Daniel Meigs

Ties are for quitters. It’s a fact that, like all time-honored facts, is upheld by NFL playoff protocol. And yet ... 2020. This heinous beast broke 1,000 rules, and she’s forcing us to break another by awarding a tie for Best Restaurant.

How did it happen? To quote fellow selection-committee member Megan Seling, “These restaurants are very different, we can’t choose one, and they’re both super good at what they do.” Also, we got tired of arguing. The good news: This is the only contest in 2020 where both candidates are a win for the people.

Tailor

If there’s one thing a meal at Tailor will teach you, it’s that you might not know Indian food as well as you thought you did. Or South Asian food. And definitely not South Asian American food, which is what Vivek Surti cooks there. At Tailor, you’ll try things like dal vada — deep-fried lentil fritters smothered in a sweet yogurt sauce perfumed by tamarind and pomegranate. It’s kind of like a fruitier, earthier cornbread and buttermilk — except not all all, and that’s the point.

Most Indian restaurants don’t serve things that Indian people would eat at home. Tailor is the ultimate remedy. Give Surti 10 minutes and he’ll teach you why India is the most diverse region in the world, yet their food is the most misunderstood; or why the word “curry” isn’t even Indian. Better yet: Give him two hours and he’ll teach you those things in seven courses.

In every dish, there will be ingredients you know and ingredients you’ve never heard of. Think Bells Bend sweet potatoes studded with cashews, scallion and garlic; melt-in-your-mouth salmon sauced with garam masala and ghee (Indian clarified butter); or mouthwatering Bear Creek Farm pork loin served with turmeric-and-coconut veggies and a fragrant pot of black-eyed peas, spinach and basmati rice. It’s South Asia by way of the American South, and it’s like nothing else.

The Tailor experience feels deeply personal because it is. The surroundings are chic, the food fine-dining and the pairings modern, but the vibe is cool and comfortable, just like Surti himself.

“Part of the fun of this restaurant is we’re not trying to make a huge statement,” he says. “We just want every person who comes in to understand there’s so much more to learn and to taste.”

Cafe Roze

Finesse is underrated. Every year, we talk about novel fine-dining concepts as the best restaurants in town (and some are; see above). But what keeps actual Nashvillians coming back is often much simpler: delicious food, a pleasant space and good people. Cafe Roze hits those marks, and makes it look easy.

First, the food is flawless — fresh, precise and seasoned to perfection. Roze can turn out a sloppy, satisfying smashburger (Dijon-crusted patties, baby!) and then turn on a dime to give you a shaved celery salad with ricotta salata and preserved-lemon dressing that wouldn’t be out of place on a tasting menu. The pork schnitzel with sauce gribiche, the grilled halloumi, the savory oats — all of it is sophisticated yet familiar enough you could eat there every day.

None of this is surprising if you’ve met chef Julia Jaksic. Her low-key confidence makes every diner who pulls up a stool feel like a neighbor. Whether she’s drawing inspiration from her time in Singapore or her father’s Croatian heritage, she makes it all feel effortless, which is the vibe you need to make metropolitan comfort food work.

Another crucial 2020 development: the bodega. Having spent years in New York City where bodegas do exist, Jaksic was always ready, on some level, to bodega-ize Cafe Roze. It showed. Days into the pandemic, she made her menu portable, got it online and launched limited delivery using staff members. The takeout was immaculate. Brown-butter chocolate-chip cookies; strong cocktails; miso-ranch dressing; the umami-est smoked trout salad on the planet! We finally got to take it all home.

In a time that was dark for restaurants, East Nashville and the world, Roze was a bright spot. I believe 2020 was Cafe Roze’s year, if no one else’s. ASHLEY BRANTLEY

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