It took us a while to try out Coffee, Lunch, which opened across the street from Cummins Station last year on 10th Avenue South. Honestly, the stripped-down title brought to mind all the shortcomings of so many cafe setups — namely, bagels moonlighting as breakfast and lunch.
The delay was our own loss, because stripped-down though it is, Coffee, Lunch offers an innovative repertoire of locally inspired fare that drills deep into quality and treats the morning and midday meals with equal creative attention.
True to the name, the headline item is coffee, which owners Zack and Lindsey Maddox source from Sunergos Coffee in Louisville, Ky., and prepare with enough stainless steel and steam-hissing ceremony to clear the cobwebs at an early hour. (Coffee, Lunch opens at 7 a.m.) But a quick look at the chalkboard menu proves you're not in standard-issue coffee-stand land any more. Chipotle-orange mocha. Fig salad. Chai with cardamom syrup. Apple-onion bialy. Fairy squash bisque. Savory filled croissants. These are the high-taste delicacies on the low-key roster in the Brandau-Craig-Dickerson building.
The glass vitrine of pastries is enough to recommend the establishment, if not enough to merit a more florid nameplate. Blackberry-almond coffee cake. Walnut-molasses bar. Gluten-free fruit triangles like titanic Fig Newtons freed from their bready girdles and riddled with crisp crushed nuts.
The Maddoxes upgraded the location, the former home of Fiddlecakes bakery, to include a full kitchen. Beyond the display case, Zack — a veteran of local kitchens including Bound'ry, Eastland Cafe and Jackson's — produces an à la minute assortment of biscuit sandwiches loaded with eggs, ham, cheese and tofu, all $4.50 or less.
Our favorite discovery on the menu — the high-quality no-nonsense item that would turn us into regulars if we worked in the entrepreneurial warren across the street — was the so-called breakfast salad. The breadless pile-on of soft-scrambled egg, peppery arugula and provolone, with choice of steak, ham or tofu, was so fresh, simple and healthy ... why have we not found this before?
Truth be told, once upon a time we did work in the neighborhood. That was back in the last century, before the Scene relocated to 12th Avenue, before the sprawling Music City Center sparked the resurgence of SoBro, and before anyone ever proposed a $16 million pedestrian bridge to link the Gulch to 10th Avenue. Back then, there was little more than a muffin stand and a sushi bar to feed the whole dot-com-bubbling population of Cummins Station. Perhaps the comparison to that caloric low point informs our current enthusiasm for Coffee, Lunch, because to be fair, not everything on the menu is perfect. Fig-and-blue-cheese salad, for example, had the sodden, shop-worn texture of soggy arugula under a heavy coat of vinaigrette. Its clusters of candied cayenne-tinged almonds were so overly herbed and spiced that we ended up weeding them out. Soup was sold out on our visit, and we might have ended up with the day-old yogurt-granola parfait from the refrigerator if the server hadn't had a last-minute crisis of conscience and made us a fresh one.
But overall, our meals were far better than average, even when the offerings sounded mundane. Take the steak and gruyere sandwich, for example. Rubbed with coffee and cooked in the sous-vide method, the thin light-pink slices of beef were tender enough to bite through, without dragging out all the innards of the sandwich. Layered with tangy gruyere, fried leeks, pert arugula and butternut squash puree, the soft Bobby John Henry Bakery baguette cradled the elegant elements of a thoughtful entrée.
Likewise, the turkey-cheddar baguette with slices of mesquite-smoked bird, herbed mayonnaise and arugula brought unexpected dimensions of flavor and texture to a staple sandwich.
We often have reservations about ordering quiche, because all too frequently the ratio of crust to filling is upside-down, but we were delighted by Coffee, Lunch's proportions of ham and eggs to flaky house-made piecrust. As tall as a wedge of New York-style cheesecake, the quiche arrived warm on a fluffy bed of arugula — a lunchtime bargain at $3.50.
By now, we are sold on the endearing humility of the simple name Coffee, Lunch. But if the restaurant derives its title from the meals it serves, the Maddoxes might consider adding "Tea" to the title. Not so much the beverage, as in the hot or iced Elmwood Inn teas from Danville, Ky., but as in afternoon tea. Teatime was arguably our nicest visit to Coffee, Lunch, which is open until 5 p.m. and offers a wealth of delicacies to beat the gray-afternoon blues. The gluten-free peanut butter cookie, a flourless confection with a perplexing texture akin to the children's toy Magic Sand, ranks among the best cookies we have ever tasted. Leave it to the mastermind of that recipe, Nick Castro, to dream up a toasted-marshmallow-and-pumpkin turnover and a brownie-cookie ladled with sea salt caramel.
Depending on where you're situated, these sweet temptations are enough to make you look forward to that pedestrian bridge with the 700-foot span, the expansive price tag and the terminus near the front door of Coffee, Lunch. But construction on that project won't start before next spring. So for now, if you're between Vanderbilt and the Cumberland River, you can have Coffee, Lunch — or afternoon tea — delivered, with a $5 charge per order.
Coffee, Lunch serves Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.