Some people dine out in order to simplify life — visit the same place, order the same thing, and make as few choices as possible along the way. If those people visit Fresh to Order, their heads will explode. At the recently opened high-concept Elliston Place restaurant, there's a lot to process in a compact space.
There's a cheerful riot of textile colors and patterns. There's low seating, high seating, tables, booths, inside, patio; there's self-service soda and draft beer. There are dancing flames, clattering spatulas, thumping music and a television on the wall. Above all, there's a lot of food to choose from and a bustling crowd — so get your ducks in a row before you reach the front of the line. Otherwise, you're going to be that person gumming up the works at the noon rush.
I was that person on a recent weekday lunch hour, when I found myself deliberating over the expansive offerings of fig salad, tuna melts, bison burgers, coconut curry salmon, mac-and-cheese and mango pie, unable to make a snap decision. I usually have to sit down to contemplate choices of such magnitude.
Overwhelming variety, however, is the hallmark of the Atlanta-based chain, which debuted this spring in Nashville. You're standing in line, making snap decisions about offerings that generally warrant more consideration than the average value meal. The slogan sums it all up pretty well: Fine. Food. Fast.
"Fine" has various interpretations, of course, depending on how you say it. You could lift your chin and stiffen your lip to imply Thurston Howell III-style opulence, as in, "Fine dining, Lovey." Or you could shrug your shoulders and add a "meh," as in, "Meh, it's fine, whatever." Fresh to Order sits solidly in the middle of that spectrum: not exactly fine dining — you do stand in line to order — but better than fine, whatever. With wines by the glass for $5 to $10 — and a self-service beer station so intriguing you'll be tempted to order a Yazoo Hop Project just to play with the technology — it's closer to "fine and dandy."
We had several fine-and-dandy experiences, with highlights including bites of jewel-toned tuna fried with a light batter and speckled with sesame seeds; calamari with molten deep-fried lemon rounds; tender chicken BLT with avocado aioli on soft grilled ciabatta; and coconut curry chicken with a side of corn-peanut salad.
One theme that emerged across our meals was surprising value for money. Salads were bountiful, sandwiches were substantial, several of the appetizers were large enough to serve as entrées. And the kids menu — well, that's a whole story on its own.
One dish in particular summed up our fondness for the Fresh to Order experience: the appetizer of roasted pork loin and mashed sweet potatoes. A thick slice of pork with a glassy bark of caramelized brown sugar was plated with sweet-tangy apricot-cranberry chutney and a mound of sweet potatoes with toasted walnuts. It was a colorful and autumnal composition, elegantly rustic and portioned like a modest entrée.
In certain situations, I might have complained that the pork was overcooked, as so often happens with the other white meat. Sure, it was a little dry. But did I mention that this fully composed plate of meat and potatoes cost $4? Depending on your tipping habits in such hybrid service situations, you could get this lunch for close to $5. I can't think of a close rival, short of packing leftovers in a brown paper sack.
Speaking of leftovers, we carried our surplus of coconut curry chicken home with us, where it proceeded to improve in the refrigerator overnight. And we had so much extra corn-carrot salad — tossed with light vinaigrette and crunchy whole cashews, peanuts, hazelnuts and pecans — that we served it the next night, and may or may not have tried to pass it off as a clever personal recipe.
Another theme that developed across the menu, alas, was excessive sweetness. That's to be expected in Fresh to Order's mango ice box pie, cupcakes or key lime tart, but we prefer less stickiness in our savories. Chicken skewers encrusted with rosemary and sesame, for example, were popular for the first few bites, then became cloying in the pool of peanut-chili sauce beneath the skewers. While infused lemonades promised floral and fruit notes of vanilla, anise, raspberry and mint, any such subtleties drowned in eddies of glucose. Likewise, lettuce on the blue cheese-fig salad soon sagged under its mantle of sweet dressing, while a slightly syrupy balsamic-cabernet reduction detracted from tender marinated steak.
But again, did I mention that the steak, plated with grit cake and baby greens, was $13.50?
We didn't actually order the full steak entrée. We ordered the generously portioned kids' version, which brings me to the whole other story about the kids' menu. On weekends, when the Midtown-pedestrian lunch crowd thins out, Fresh to Order offers discounted kids meals, including 99-cent mac-and-cheese or chicken fingers, served with choice of fresh sliced apple or potato chips. Or you can pay a premium for kids' meals of grilled salmon or steak. Those delicacies clock in at $3. At that price, you will not hear me complaining about a heavy-handed balsamic-cab reduction; you'll just hear me saying thank you.
In fact, I may have said "Thank you" a dozen times per visit, thanks to the proliferation of servers, cashiers and greeters, who made the dining experience efficient and pleasant. On one trip a server brought our table a second bowl of calamari because she didn't think the portion of the first bowl was up to snuff. She was right, and the corrective gesture went a long way to separate Fresh to Order from so many fast-casual experiences. So while the cuisine itself may sag a little lower than haute cuisine, excellent service and uncommon value lift the experience to something that is fine, indeed.
Fresh to Order serves daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.