Standing inside the pristine but cavernous restaurant that first occupied the Adelicia condominium in 2009, we asked ourselves, "What would it take to make this place feel cozy?" Later, standing inside the second incarnation of the restaurant, we asked ourselves the same thing. After two high-profile eateries came and went in about three years, we began to think all those lofty ceilings and mosaic floors in the high-rise lobby just couldn't be warmed up. Then, lo and behold, a New York nameplate dropped in and managed to transform the empty echoes into Music City Tippler, an establishment that seems to resonate with the Midtown-Vandy neighborhood.
On two visits to the month-old restaurant-bar, we found a festive dining room buzzing with the warm conviviality that eluded the former tenants. The space has undergone a dramatic transformation, from polish to patina. While early iterations of the restaurant were described as a blend of urban edge and Italian tradition, the current mise-en-scène — including architectural spolia, industrial and agrarian salvage and bric-a-brac — resides somewhere between Paris flea market and underground parking garage.
While we struggled to synthesize the diverse items in this pickers' paradise of Corinthian capitals, latter-day gargoyles, reclaimed barnwood, weathered books and Edison lights, we found individual elements intriguing. We could say the same about the repertoire of food and drink.
As the name implies, The Tippler specializes in craft cocktails, swirling with au courant ingredients such as Aperol, lavender and bitters. Cocktails range from $8 for a daily "draft" cocktail, such as a mojito, to $13 for a French Inquisition — a blend of chartreuse, mezcal, vermouth and Peychaud's bitters. We would balk at such premium-priced tippling, if it weren't for one significant mitigating factor: potato chips. The complimentary basket of house-fried crisps was remarkable, with a glassy texture that melted across the tongue and a faintly sweet finish that defied logic and helped amortize the cost of the indulgent cocktail. (When we asked about the flavor, the server promised there was no sugar and attributed the sweetness to Kennebec potatoes and the duck fat used for frying.)
In two visits, we tasted everything on the concise menu, with the exception of three items: the $29 prime rib, the $12 Cuban sandwich with pulled pork, ham, gruyere, chow chow and mustard on ciabatta, and the side item of corn on the cob with Serrano butter.
Here are the highlights:
The beautiful black tiger prawn cocktail with house-made blood orange cocktail sauce exceeded expectations, both in the quality of plump, sweet shellfish and in the innovative delivery. Four prawns were bedded on paper-thin disks of watermelon radish, which we employed in the style of tortillas, to bundle the prawns and zesty sauce into a shrimp taco of sorts.
Yellowfin tuna crudo served in a puffed-rice shell was a fresh, petite taste of sushi-grade fish that melted in the mouth. Crab cakes with mignonette pearls — think caviar engineered from lemon juice — were innovative and flavorful. The ugly duckling of our meals was a drab bed of puff pastry that flaked open to reveal the beautiful swan — a rich duxelle with oyster and crimini mushrooms and Parmesan cheese, whose layered earthy flavors deserved better than the mundane title of mushroom pot pie.
On separate visits, beet salad with feta mousse and pine nuts arrived in different presentations — both excellent. In one version, shredded strings of crisp golden and red beets offered a texturally playful twist on the popular root vegetable. In another, quartered roasted beets arrived like a jewel-toned array of sushi, accented with hints of citrus and herb.
If every meal at Music City Tippler were like the $16 salmon — grilled to buttery perfection with a faint seared crispness, and plated with a fresh tangle of lightly dressed salad — we could see dining frequently at the clubby neighborhood establishment. But that was not the case.
Unlike the lovely salmon, the roasted chicken arrived past its prime. Perhaps it once wore an amber wrap of crisp bronzed skin, but by the time it arrived at the table, the skin was rubbery and the once-plump meat sagged in soggy defeat.
Scallops were beautifully cooked to the silken texture somewhere between solid and liquid, but the shellfish were anchored to the plate with green dollops of bland, grainy fava puree that distracted from the high-quality seafood.
Chicken biscuits were simultaneously mushy and crumbly, disintegrating between our fingers as we tried to bite into the nubbly bread. Conversely, the so-called ciabatta on the duck club was impenetrable. Imagine roasted duck, Benton's bacon, apricot jam and heirloom tomatoes sandwich between two hemispheres of a softball.
In an era when Caesar salads are being upgraded with indulgent soft poached eggs, Tippler's version bordered on boring. That said, someone at our table pronounced the $8 medley of romaine and pulled rotisserie chicken a great lunch deal. That would be true, if The Tippler served lunch. But the hustle and bustle don't start in the ground floor of the Adelicia until 5 p.m. And The Tippler doesn't take reservations. If the tables are full, at least there's plenty to do in the neighborhood, with Bound'ry, South Street and Giovanni across the street. It has always been a hot block for dining. Now there's a welcome new warmth in the ground floor of the Adelicia.
Music City Tippler hours: full dining 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (Bar stays open later.) Closed Sundays.