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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Zola in Nashville, Tennessee

The day: 7th July 2007, Dinner.
The place: 3001 West End Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee
The venue: Resataurant Zola
Closest airport: Nashville International Airport (or if you fancy a drive, Atlanta is five hours away, and you can get there directly from London with BA from Gatwick)
The food: Modern fusion

The drinks: American wines with some European

So we wanted to try fine cuisine in the US. Probably, having had the choice, for this experiment we wouldn’t have selected Nashville, a city famous for other offerings. But this is where work brought us to, and anyway we had heard nice things about Zola, where Chef Debra Paquette (co-owner with husband Ernie Paquette) produces dishes inspired by Mediterranean (notably Spanish/Moroccan) and French cuisine.

Let us come clean at the outset: the experiment was not successful. We don’t want to play the part of the snotty Europeans (though what else are we?) so we would prefer to attribute the failure to a seemingly impassable gulf between our concept of fine dining and the Nashvillian one. We also want to point out that the amiable and professional Ernie Paquette had kindly offered us interview time with the chef, time in which we might have attempted to cross the cultural barrier and to foster mutual understanding between the races… but our time (and probably also Chef Debra’s, to judge from how busy Zola was) was too limited to take up the offer (and, also, we wanted to go ‘incognito’, as usual). So please read the negative comments below in this light. And if at all possible, please don’t bomb our countries.

The exterior is unassuming, but inside there are several environments, variedly and colourfully decorated with paintings and other objects. The room was totally full so we did not want to disturb the other customers by taking photographs. The reception involved a long wait to be seated, the first thing we are not used to, though the numerous other customers waiting with us seemed to be perfectly comfortable with it (cultural gulf number one?). After this, anyway, the service got into its stride according to the best of American standards.

The menu has a good range, offering for example from ginger pork belly to crab and potato Martini to Med Lamb salad as starters (in the range $8-$10.50, with a meze platter at $14.50), and for Paella to lobster omelette to New Zealand venison to to Angus fillet for main courses ($20-$40).

Bread was on offer from the waiter (no basket). We skipped the parmesan focaccia and we went for oat, walnut and raisin brown bread. Also olive oil in a bowl was offered (still too good to use in a car, but not the best of qualities).

Our choice of starters:

Crab and Mango Salad ($9.50) and Tuna and Avocado Charmoula ($9.50) for starters.

The crab exemplifies our cultural problems with the cuisine style: to our eyes there are many ingredients thrown in seemingly without a coherent assemblage: the complete description of dish is Bibb lettuce cap filled with mango, crab, maple, smoked bacon, pistachios and sweet potato chips, honey, tarragon vinaigrette. They are fiddly to pick up and eat, with the salad not tossed with the condiment. To top this, the crab lacked flavour, a real disappointment. The sweet note was dominant (maple, honey…), not unpleasant but excessive, completely burying whatever taste the crab might have had.

The tuna came with a Moroccan vegetable salad. Once again, the main disappointment was the amazing lack of flavour in the main ingredient. In addition, the tuna tended to be dry despite being rare. The herbs were nice. A very un-American touch was the meanness of the portion: three very fine, small slices of tuna.

OK, maybe we are snotty Europeans, but be warned that there's more to come...

Our choices of mains: Pork tenderloin ($20.50) and Grilled Vension ($22.50).

The pork came with chorizo brown rice cake topped with caramelized poblano and manchego, shrimp mole, almond vanilla relish. Again no shortage of ingredients...The pork itself was not too tasty but good, tender and cooked well. The accompaniment, though, was slightly problematic, reminding us of stodgy and bland preparations of student days.

And the venison was accompanied by ginger black bean relish, pistachio crusted sweet potato fries, blackberry sauce, mango butter. Once again, the meat's taste was hard to notice. It was New Zealand, mild venison, but as you know from our enjoyment of Franca Merz's cuisine we have no preconception on this provenance. The meat was disconnected from the orgy of other ingredients, which however in themselves gave some satisfaction. Man looked pleased by the sweet potato with nuts, while Woman by now just looked disappointed.

For dessert we shared a Warm Blueberry Cornmeal pudding with three nut brittle ice cream at $6.95 (other desserts all within the $6.75-$7.50 range).

perhaps the best dish of the evening. Nice were the nuts in the icecream, itself fatty but -at last!- tasty. And the blueberry 'cake' was satisfying.

With a bottle of Hess cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from California, Napa valley, at $36 (and free water), teh bill including taxes came to $111.93.

As you might have guessed already
the main problem for us was that the multitude of ingredients expressed only muted flavours at best. We prefer dishes with fewer ingredients, but with clear, well extracted flavour. We read in an interview with Chef Paquette (you see, we really do our research) that fun is an essential feauture of her cooking philosophy. And no doubt her cuisine looks joyful, if ungenerous in the meat portions. We wish good luck to Zola, which anyway does not need our wishes because it clearly meets the local taste.

We must confess: we were much more thrilled by our dinner the next day at the simple Ted's Montana Grill nearby, a traditional American Grill, where we had really American portions of a really American bison steak (a first for us: an interesting, gamey taste) and intriguing beers. You see, maybe we are not snotty Europeans after all: maybe we are really a cowboy and cowgirl at heart.


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