If you are wondering why it took so long for Cummins Station to get a sleek, elegant tablecloth restaurant the ilk of M., which opened this fall, take a short walk with me. Let's stroll through the ground-floor corridor of the entrepreneurial warren, which now houses some 140 businesses, from legal services to hairstyling. A few bays down from M., we will reach M. Meat Market & Delicatessen. The quaint deli, which replaced the short-lived Joe Natural's, is the restaurant's little sister. Here, we can buy some knickknacks, soup and a sandwich, a fruit smoothie, maybe a package of honeycomb and some artisanal cheese. The deli's menu board isn't exactly going to shed any light on M. Restaurant's more highly evolved repertoire of full-service fare, but walk with me, if you will, to the front door of the shop.
There, now. Can you see it? A few blocks in the distance? That's no moon. It's not even a space station. It's the Music City Center.
And while it may seem like that nascent tourism galaxy is far, far away from the hyper-local workspace of Cummins Station, the convention center is rapidly changing the neighborhood.
You can see it all around. Not just at the two M.'s. There's Coffee, Lunch across the street and Salsa Puerto Rican and Latin Cuisine on the way. Then there's the array of new restaurants closer to the Music City Center — most notably Etch, The Southern Steak & Oyster and Arpeggio inside the Schermerhorn — which are garnering national accolades. Eventually, chef Sean Brock's much-anticipated Husk will join them, up on Rutledge Hill.
To say the dining options south of Broadway are improving is an understatement. And it is against this rapidly maturing culinary backdrop that we view the arrival of M.
There's a lot to like about the restaurant, which wears a bold high-contrast palette of black and white, with splashes of red and tufts of plant life. At night, the room glistens with stemware beneath the television at the open bar. And while the West Elm-style trimmings differ from the softer polish of sister restaurant Macke's in Green Hills and the coziness of country cousin Mack & Kate's in Franklin, there's a familiar friendliness that is the signature of owners Jan and Bernie Strawn.
The menu, too, rings some bells, with lobster BLT and Southern staples such as fried chicken and Hot Browns dotting the succinct roster. (As of this writing, truffle mac-and-cheese is going on the new menu, as is the Portuguese chicken from the early days of Mack & Kate's.) At lunch, the Cummins Station workforce turns out for blue-plate specials including Salisbury steak, spaghetti and meatballs, beer-braised brats, and beef Stroganoff.
So far, when someone mentions M., the next thing we hear is, "Have you tried the kale salad?" Yes, we have, and it is noteworthy, with soft bubbled leaves lightly coated with apple cider vinaigrette and tossed with golden raisins, candied pecans, gorgonzola and Granny Smith apples. But we're less enthusiastic about another headliner, the so-called Controversial Chicken sandwich. If we had to decode the enigmatic title, we'd wager the controversy had something to do with too many competing flavors: gorgonzola and bacon piled on an overcooked white balsamic-marinated breast, all enclosed by ciabatta.
Dismayed by the notion of a $15 burger at lunch (albeit one with caramelized onions and local cheese), we opted instead for the chef's special of risotto with tilefish. Seared to a grainy finish, the flaky fish basked on a bed of creamy risotto with wilted greens and subtle hints of fruity sweetness from a peach chutney. In fact, based on the creativity and execution of this particular dish, we would make a habit of sampling Toby Willis and Kevin Powell's daily inventions.
On another occasion we enjoyed the Asian-inspired lunch special of a bowl of egg noodles with plump shrimp and bok choy in a rich salty broth. While the presentation was dramatic and pretty, the deep vessel made it difficult to access the broth with a spoon, and we didn't know how the downtown lunch crowd would react if we put the oversized bowl up to our lips.
By the time we returned for early dinner, the daytime hustle and bustle of Cummins Station had punched the clock and headed home, leaving us in a quiet — too quiet — downtown venue. That should change when the convention center opens its doors and thousands of captive conventioneers venture into the surrounding district. When that happens, M. will present a pretty, if predictable, dinnertime face: beef tenderloin; braised beef short rib; shrimp and grits; seared scallops with Brussels sprouts and bacon; and a pork trio of tenderloin, medallion and cheeks with soy caramel and stir-fried vegetables.
Among the more playful items we sampled was chicken and dumplings, which took a subtle European turn, thanks to gnocchi from nearby Alfresco Pasta in a sultry bath reminiscent of the wine-cream sauce that pairs so well with steamed mussels.
We enjoyed the decadent crawfish toast starter, though the excessively rich cheddar-infused velouté would have been better shared with a group. A little went a long way.
The runaway standout at our dinner was the elegantly simple Buffalo quail wedge, which merged the classic blue-cheese-topped iceberg with a perfectly fried half-quail, accented with tangy red-hot sauce. In fact, we would have traded the less memorable scallop entrée for another quail or two on the wedge and happily called it a night.
Yet, while we left happy enough, we found little at M. to lure us back to Cummins Station after hours. Oh, right — maybe we're not the target audience after all. Remember those thousands of conventioneers soon to be arriving in the near distance? Some percentage of them will be looking for a sophisticated serving of comfort food to cap off a long day of symposium workshops and breakout sessions. When they arrive, M. will provide a warm and hearty welcome.
M. Restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily except Monday. Sunday brunch is available. M. Meat Market & Delicatessen serves breakfast and lunch daily 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.