You'd think the best thing about being the Scene's restaurant reviewer would be getting to explore Nashville's growing culinary landscape while the company picks up the check. But actually what makes this column a plum assignment is the opportunity to dine with the Scene edit staff every now and again. Not only are these devastatingly attractive people (who sign my paycheck and approve my expense forms) some of the most insightful and amusing characters you'll ever meet, they also have impeccable taste. So when the guys at the office suggested on multiple occasions that we meet at the humbly named Joe Natural's, I figured there must be something special going on in the tiny cafe in Cummins Station. It turns out there is.
The only "Joe" in the place is the whole-bean coffee, roasted in Franklin with a filtered-water process that qualifies Joe Natural's house brand java for the USDA rating of "organic." Otherwise, the key name is "Paul." That's Paul Schertz, who moved to Middle Tennessee six years ago, trading a career in Florida real estate for 30 acres of farmland in Leipers Fork. Schertz and his wife, Deborah, spent a couple of years rehabbing the soil on their farm before they sowed crops, and when Roaring Creek Farm began to yield a harvest — including produce and eggs — the Schertzes hatched an idea to put it to use. They opened the first Joe Natural's farm-to-table restaurant in 2010 in Leipers Fork, just down the road from the original Puckett's Grocery.
In February, they launched a second store in Nashville's Cummins Station. In the urban entrepreneurial warren, Joe Natural's is a breath of fresh country air. The sunny two-story breakfast-and-sandwich shop is one part New York deli, one part hayloft, with a menu that equally reflects country life and diner eating.
Take the burgers, for example. At Joe Natural's, the short-order staples get the slow-food treatment. Grass-fed beef from Triple L Ranch in Franklin (the same farm that put the blockbuster Burger Up on the national map of farm-to-fork favorites) is cradled in a brioche bun from local baker Bobby John Henry and topped with lettuce and tomatoes from Roaring Creek. Meanwhile, ground turkey from Applegate Farms in North Carolina gets stuffed with Noble Springs goat cheese and topped with a Roaring Creek-sourced relish of roasted red peppers and caramelized onions.
Such homespun ingredients infiltrate creative spins on deli classics, including grilled and cold sandwiches. On the grilled roster, the Miss Mary Bobo layers turkey with roasted garlic-fig chutney and grilled onions on honey-whole wheat bread. In the case of the Newman — grilled turkey and cheddar — a slathering of house-made apple butter adds sweetness to the tangy cheese and helps unite the generous fillings with crisp slabs of toasty bread.
The cold side of the sandwich section lists chicken salad with mayo, celery, fresh tarragon; turkey with avocado and Swiss; turkey with mayonnaise, cranberry sauce and brie; and a vegetarian medley including avocado, cucumbers, tomatoes, pesto, provolone and sprouts. We enjoyed the bountiful Santa Fe Kick, with an inch of thick-cut roast beef between inch-thick slabs of honey-whole wheat, brushed with chipotle goat cheese and sprouts.
If one section of the menu emerges as Joe's signature, it will likely be the so-called Bowl Foods. Think ice cream sundae, but trade ice cream for warm quinoa, fruit toppings for fresh vegetables, and chocolate sauce for vinaigrette. If salad could be reworked into comfort cuisine, it would be this abundant and nourishing vessel of whole food. Between the Organic Veggie Bowl (quinoa, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocado, hummus, sprouts and balsamic dressing) and the Fork Bowl (quinoa with sauteed kale, peppers, mushrooms and broccoli), we preferred the former, because the dollop of creamy hummus and buttery avocado helped unite the flavors and bind the disparate ingredients.
For all our admiration of the concept, we did not enjoy everything equally. Asian salad — greens, cucumbers and almonds — was overrun by insipid mandarin orange sections, overwhelmed by soy sauce and overwrought by the confusing inclusion of provolone triangles. Tomato soup, prepared with heirlooms and house-made vegetable stock, was painfully bland. (On a second visit, a bean soup ruffled with kale was much richer in flavor and texture.) Summer squash salad, with strips of yellow crookneck and diced red peppers, was inedibly woody, even if it was endearingly similar to the texture of summer squash salad made from my own challenged kitchen garden.
Finally, we are still scratching our heads over how we agreed to pay $1.50 for "Joe's Special Water," which turned out to be water steeped with — but not significantly flavored by — citrus, cucumber and mint leaves.
But all was forgiven after one bite of a strawberry cupcake, baked by Aunt B. in Leipers Fork and infused with the summery pink perfume of locally grown berries. And we swooned over warm gluten-free cookies oozing with molten chocolate chips. The cookies' ethereal texture, somewhere between shortbread and pudding, reminded us of the children's toy Space Sand, in a good way.
Overall, we enjoyed our lunch outings so much that we wanted to share with the guys who were stuck on deadline at office. So we carried half of the hulking roast beef sandwich and turkey burger back to the newsroom. But when I made my offer, I was rebuffed by a sheepish editor who had just returned from a ubiquitous red-and-yellow fast-food franchise. Fair enough. My regionally sourced turkey burger and so-called Special Water cost upwards of $13 after tax and tip and required a leisurely 15 minutes on the grill. Meanwhile, my colleague grabbed his lunch in minutes, for less than a fiver. Time and money being limited, lunchtime decisions can be hard. Still, as diners weigh the choice between value menus and menus of value, Joe Natural's offers a welcome and encouraging option.
Joe Natural's in Cummins Station serves breakfast and lunch, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The Leipers Fork store is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and is closed Monday and Tuesday. Catering is available.