It's Best of Nashville season, so over here at the Scene we are speaking in superlatives in advance of the 20th annual BON throwdown, which is sure to be the best one yet. Imagine all that best-ness crammed into the Parthenon. With hundreds of the city's finest entrepreneurs, performers and professionals in one place, it makes you wonder what might happen if some of those honorees were to exchange business cards. It could be the beginning of some beautiful friendships—or at least some efficient vertical integration: Best Bar meets Best Gym, anyone? Best Place to Buy an Engagement Ring meets Best Divorce Attorney? Imagine the possibilities.
Just look at Suzy Wong's House of Yum. The new Asian tapas restaurant on Church Street is the joint venture of perennial Best Of Nashville winners Arnold Myint and Zeus Entertainment. Myint is the culinary mastermind behind PM (Best Hamburger 2008) and ChaChah (Best New Restaurant 2009). Meanwhile, the Zeus team—comprising David Taylor, Keith Blaydes, Joe Brown and Todd Roman—has transformed Church Street into a pantheon of late-night entertainment. The establishments Tribe and Play repeatedly take honors in the categories of Best Bartender, Best Martini, Best Gay Bar, Best Pickup Bar, Best Lesbian Bar, Best Place to Meet Single Men and Best Place to Dance.
Needless to say, with such an elite pedigree, expectations for Suzy Wong's are high.
And the first impression is a dazzling one. An unassuming front door opens into a narrow shotgun dining room, with a stunning hand-painted multi-section Chinese dragon kite suspended along the length of the ceiling. With chic low tables in the front, a gleaming granite bar and vintage films playing silently on a flatscreen TV, the dark room projects a sultry late-night vibe. But at the tail of the dragon, the room opens to an unexpected multi-tiered terrace, with lush landscaping, private cabanas and luxurious low lounge areas—a sumptuous scene for sipping blackberry mojitos.
While Suzy Wong's predecessor, Red, fed the crowds that stumbled in from sister nameplates Play and Tribe, the food never earned accolades along the lines of the cocktails and atmosphere. Enter Myint, who has twice proved his culinary creativity on Belmont Boulevard, where his PM and ChaChah anchor a budding dining district and his artisanal cocktails have attracted the admiration of editors from GQ magazine.
The son of International Market founders Patti and Winn Myint, Arnold comes naturally by his fluency with Asian cuisine. Suzy Wong's—which takes its name from the 1960 William Holden film The World of Suzie Wong—is a playful pan-Asian paean, riffing on traditional dishes from Korea, Japan, China, India and beyond. The succinct menu lists a smattering of soups, salads and single-bowl entrees, but the focus is squarely on the list of shared plates, which range in price from $3 to $9.
While the presentations at Suzy Wong's reflect the characteristic whimsy of an Arnold Myint production, don't expect the exotic culinary drama of ChaChah. There's no deep-fried bone marrow delivered in hollowed-out bison bone here. Suzy Wong's offers prettied-up versions of familiar foods, from dumplings to ribs to stir-fry.
The shrimp-and-avocado maki is a standard crunchy shrimp roll dolled up with scallions to look like a dragon snaking along a white plate. Chicken katsu bites are nuggets by another name (but very good nuggets). Asian nachos substitute deep-fried wonton wrappers in place of tortilla chips and replace the Tex-Mex clichés of salsa, jalapenos and ground beef with cilantro pico de gallo, sriracha sauce and pulled pork. Coconut-Thai chili wings are Asian-flavored versions of an all-American bar staple. The only disappointment we encountered was the pork-and-chestnut shu mai, so mushy that our table unanimously rejected them.
While our server steered us toward shared plates, it was the Yum Bowls—family-style dishes—that we most enjoyed. Kung pao green beans stir-fried in spicy oil and studded with crisp shallots, garlic and peanuts were the surprise star of the meal (though we would have preferred a lighter touch with the oil, which pooled at the bottom of the bowl). Chicken penang tossed in peanut sauce with rustic hunks of carrot, sweet potato, pink onion and red and green pepper balanced the spicy sting of red pepper with the soothing balm of coconut milk, without drowning the fresh vegetables and tender meat. (Our twee red-and-white box filled with leftovers of brown rice, penang and kung pao beans bodes well for Suzy Wong's takeout service, as the leftovers were even better the next day at lunch.) We'll look forward to working our way through dishes such as pineapple red curry shrimp and Indian crockpot beef with rice and ginger.
But when we return—and we will definitely return—we'll call ahead to reserve a table outside. More than anything else, it was the surprising open-air retreat—with landscaping lights illuminating the trees as the sky darkened overhead and a flirty soundtrack of "Moon River," "Whatever Lola Wants" and "Mack the Knife" crooning in the background—that will seduce us back to Suzy Wong's. Myint and the Zeus team might want to clear out some space in their trophy case, because their new venture is an early frontrunner for the Scene's 2010 Best of Nashville title of Best Patio.
Suzy Wong's serves dinner Monday and Tuesday 5 to 11 p.m. and Wednesday through Sunday 5 p.m. to 4 a.m.