A second-generation restaurateur who grew up in the aisles of his parents' venerable International Market and later re-energized the same Belmont neighborhood with his own concepts, chef Arnold Myint has come to represent the changing face of Nashville's dining landscape. These days, Myint also typifies the changing face of the Nashville Farmers' Market, where his AM@FM brings contemporary polish and flair to the renovated market house north of the State Capitol.
Located in the northeast corner of the cavernous hall — which got a multimillion-dollar makeover after the May 2010 flood — AM@FM represents a scaled-down version of what we've come to expect from Myint's PM and ChaChah on Belmont Boulevard and his Suzy Wong's House of Yum on Church Street. Still, despite limited cooking equipment and food-prep rules that require much of the menu to be prepared off-site, AM@FM exceeds expectations when it comes to delivering a full-service culinary experience in the casual market setting.
Not since the beloved Parco Café — may it rest in peace — vacated the market hall have we encountered such dutiful attention to culinary detail in such proximity to a food court. In particular, AM@FM's poached shrimp sandwich (with Beluga-sized mustard grains and pickled okra slices on toasted buttery baguette) stirred nostalgia for Parco's grilled salmon sandwich. And Myint's vanilla bean panna cotta recalled Parco's exquisite dessert indulgences. Those similarities aside, AM@FM, which stands for Arnold Myint at the Farmers' Market, makes a much more significant physical impression than Mr. and Mrs. Fu's tiny bygone booth.
Myint's enterprise straddles the line between lunch-counter and full-service dining, with seating available at a bar by the refrigerator cases, as well as tables across the market aisle. A long elevated communal table along the windows facing Bicentennial Mall mirrors the popular chef's table at ChaChah.
With his signature panache, Myint imported a bold design aesthetic to his corner of the market hall, which features oversized graphics and sleek architectural elements, including open shelves bearing Myint's private labeled toffee, apricot grain mustard and hickory-smoked salts.
But Myint, who earned a national following during his stint on Top Chef's seventh season, is promoting more than just his own considerable brand at AM@FM. He is showcasing products of the region in general, and the market in particular. Take the excellent cheese plate, for example. Kentucky-sourced Kenny's Farmhouse cheeses, including a nutty tomme and a tangy blue, anchor a platter drizzled with honey and pepitas and accented with a pool of so-called FROG preserves (a sweet medley of fig, raspberry, orange and ginger) from Howell's farm stand across the room. It's a dish bountiful and beautiful enough to warrant frequent lunch visits, yet worthy of a happy hour. (Wine is available, thanks to updated rules regarding alcohol at the market.)
From the farm shed across the driveway, Myint sources a list of ingredients that go into items such as raw kale salad tossed with golden raisins and walnuts; chick pea salad with diced carrots, green peppers, feta, capers and pink onions; and Niçoise salad with green beans and hard-boiled eggs.
Cold sandwiches include the moo shu chicken salad wrap, with hoisin sauce, cabbage and carrots on garlic tortilla. The salad selection features berries with mint and citrus, fennel slaw with shredded carrots, and egg salad with capers, dill and shallots. There's also a limited and ever-changing array of warm sandwiches, soups and pastas.
Roasted tomato soup — dark-red, studded with chewy croutons and drizzled with crema — had a hint of sweetness and a pulpy texture reminiscent of stewed tomatoes. We particularly enjoyed a Cuban sandwich, with folds of sweet ham (cured at ChaChah) and melted cheese on toasted bread (baked at ChaChah), topped with pickles and grainy mustard.
While easily a $10-and-under event, a meal at AM@FM rings with affordable luxury, starting with the savory salvo of seasoned popcorn and concluding with a complimentary coconut brownie. In between those casually elegant touches, there's no shortage of recipes that live up to Myint's reputation for creative fare and flair, from a pimiento cheese panini studded with bacon to orange-cranberry tea served in a stemless wine glass.
On our visits, we consistently enjoyed the food and the festivity of people-watching from barstools on the perimeter of the busy market house. But we did have a few more criticisms than we generally have of Myint's other establishments. In terms of food, we were disappointed when we ordered house-made chips and received Ruffles instead. Furthermore, our hummus sandwich on naan arrived inedibly dry. On two separate visits the cutting-edge iPad payment system crashed, rendering our credit cards useless. While servers were always gracious and knowledgeable, they occasionally got so busy that we got a little lost in the shuffle. It's one thing to linger at a restaurant when your job is reviewing it, but quite another if you have to clock back into work at a nearby state office building. If you're in a hurry, consider ordering your lunch at the counter — you're welcome to sit at the tables to dine.
With those issues in mind, we won't yet rate AM@FM in the lofty ranks of its standalone siblings. Nor did we expect the relatively bare-bones operation to compare to PM, ChaChah and Suzy Wong's. But AM@FM does bring a new level of sophistication and polish to the Farmers' Market and elevates the image of a Nashville landmark. In that regard, AM@FM lives up to the Arnold Myint brand.
AM@FM is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.