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At Etch, Deb Paquette makes an encore culinary performance

Indelible Deb

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For people who love words, there's much to appreciate in the names surrounding Deb Paquette's latest endeavor. First, there's the restaurant title itself: Etch. It's perfectly apt for a project that hopes to make its mark alongside the landmark Country Music Hall of Fame and Schermerhorn Symphony Center, whose freshly etched edifices have recently redefined the district south of Broadway.

Then, of course, there's the backstory. At the drawing board for the long-anticipated project, Paquette — who partnered on Etch with Amerigo veterans Doug Hogrefe and Paul Schramkowski — originally used the name Echo. The working title resonated, since Paquette's many fans thought they had heard the last of her a few years ago when she shuttered her beloved Zola and announced she and husband Ernie were goin' fishin' in the Caribbean. In the end, Echo didn't stick, but the restaurant's location on the ground floor of the Encore condo tower rings aptly of a triumphant return.

When the first flights of conventioneers flood out the doors of the Music City Center in search of a nearby meal, they likely won't have the benefit of all that local etymology. Nor will they be able to tell from looking in the windows of Etch how colorful a dining experience is in store. Paquette's new digs are the sleek, earth-toned opposite of Zola's quirky Sahara-muraled Bedouin-tent vibe. The soaring neutral walls are hung with botanicals — not predictable etchings of delicate flowers, but bold oversized canvases of monochromatic bromeliads. The tables are set with votives containing river stones and jade plants.

So impersonal and angular is the décor that when the plates start to come out of the open kitchen and land in the front of the convention crowd, out-of-town diners won't know what hit them. Contrary to what the cavernous and tailored setting would suggest, Paquette's latest act (we would never say "final" for such an energetic entrepreneur) is signature Deb — unique, playful, over-the-top, and as the address at Encore implies, ovation-worthy.

Paquette's fans (can we call them DebHeads?) will recognize the sprawling palette of global flavors she has injected into so many projects over the years. There are hints of the Mediterranean-and-North African legacy of Zola, found in dishes such as Moroccan-spiced duck breast with carrot-pear sauce, ginger grits, cranberries and cinnamon crumble, and Moroccan lamb sausage with ginger grits, pickled cherries and fig mustard. Her French Laundry salad of arugula tangled with fennel, green apples and pistachios re-emerges in the Etch Salad, as does a memory of Zola's Beet & Heat salad, reimagined with candied beets, blackberries, cranberries, ginger goat cheese, pistachios and pomegranate balsamic vinaigrette.

In dishes such as shrimp pupusa with corn cake, manchego, butternut slaw, smoked tomato sauce and avocado pesto, and chorizo eggroll with mango tequila sauce, hibiscus relish and lime crema, there are creative hints of Latin fusion, reminiscent of Paquette's stint at The Local Taco in Brentwood.

Longtime right-hand man Kenji Nakagawa helped Paquette build an Asian-influenced repertoire of dishes such as Chinese braised pork belly with smoked tofu, leeks, peanuts and raisins; Japanese pork pasta with sweet potato noodles; seared tuna salad with eggplant and smoked tofu; and a Wagyu Reuben hot dog that elevates a slice of Americana with premium Japanese-style beef, Brussels sprout slaw and sweet-pickle aioli.

But while the flavors — from pesto to ponzu — dart all over the map, they inevitably circle back through a gleaming open kitchen where Chef Deb wrangles the diversity into beautiful combinations balanced in color, flavor, texture and temperature.

Among the most arresting plates that arrived on our table was the understated octopus-and-shrimp bruschetta. If we had preconceptions of jawbreaking toast with muscular hunks of mollusks and shellfish, they were shattered by a fluffy mattress of lightly grilled bread cradling a pink medley of seafood tossed with arugula, fennel, roasted tomato, manchego, capers and bacon. The centerpiece proteins had been prepared sous-vide, resulting in a texture akin to warm cheese and rebooting our understanding of what octopus should feel like.

With many items appearing on daytime and dinner menus — and common flavors and preparations running through night and day — Etch offers a welcome opportunity to explore Paquette's cuisine at lunch — and at lunch prices. The sandwich menu — with prices starting at $10 for a burger with cheddar, crispy chicken skin and pickled daikon — underpromises and overdelivers, with combinations such as Bacon & Egg (house-cured lamb bacon, sliced tomatoes and pea pesto on rosemary bread, topped with a fried egg) and Duck Press (confit duck with andouille sausage, gruyere and cassoulet hummus.) For $15, it would be hard to find a more splendid meal than the cobia sandwich, though we would argue that the buttery Caribbean-spiced fish and mango salsa, plated with tamarind hot sauce, tangerine butter and warm cranberries (all on an elephant ear of fried donut bread) was far too sophisticated to fit under the self-deprecating rubric of "sammies." Then again, Paquette is not one to take herself too seriously.

She does, however, take vegetables seriously. At Etch, Paquette gives seasonal crops from local Green Door Gourmet their due, with dishes such as quinoa salad and ratatouille crudo, which are so rich and layered in flavor you might not notice the absence of meat. (You can add chicken or shrimp for $4.) Made with shaved squash, carrot and fennel, the ratatouille is a cold deconstruction of the French classic, yet the velvety texture of the garlic-red-bell-pepper sauce is so soothing it gives the effect of eating something warm and comforting.

The same could be said of Megan Williams' decadent desserts. The Provence and Capitol Grille alumna prepares a roster of cool indulgences — fluffy mousse, silken panna cotta and crystalline sorbet. But the notes of chocolate, caramel, almond, plum, pear, raspberry, hibiscus, lemongrass, peach, white chocolate and chai that swirl in and out of the various dessert selections leave a taste memory that is undeniably sultry.

The level of creativity and execution at Etch will come as no surprise to Paquette's fans, who are used to seeing her leave her mark on Nashville's dining scene. Meanwhile, for out-of-town visitors venturing outside the convention center, Etch will make an excellent and lasting impression.

Etch serves lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and dinner Saturday. Valet parking is available.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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