Restaurants » Dining

Institutionalized

Once an edgy pioneer, The Mad Platter is now a comfortable landmark

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Over a decade ago, The Mad Platter restaurant served a lunchtime sandwich that could best be described as a duck PB&J: sliced duck breast with homemade chutney and cashew butter on a whole-grain loaf. The unexpected concoction was exotic, quirky and thrilling. That was back before sous-vide cookery, fusion cuisine and molecular gastronomy had infiltrated the city, and before seasonal local produce was de rigueur on upscale menus. The Platter’s sophisticated interpretation of a childhood sandwich may as well have been an avant-garde bushel of apple caviar when it hit my unsophisticated Shoney’s-bred palate.

In the 20 years since Mad Platter marched onto the corner of Sixth and Monroe, a lot has changed in Nashville, particularly in Germantown. Local restaurants have multiplied exponentially, upping the ante for creativity, ambiance and execution; residential lofts in 37208 now command more than $200 a square foot; and the brick sidewalks north of Bicentennial Mall click with the soles of Kenneth Cole loafers striding between urban-chic hot spots Germantown Café and City House.

But while the city’s culinary choices and expectations have evolved, not much has changed at The Mad Platter. There’s still no brick pizza oven or sexy bathroom. No valet parking or pendant lighting. No concrete countertops or metrosexual martini menu. In the quaintly crooked dining room, book-lined shelves and local art adorn exposed-brick walls, the chairs don’t match, and founders Marcia and Craig Jervis, who live across the street, consistently deliver a seasonal menu dotted with their signature mustard-encrusted lamb, Mad Platter pasta and Chocolate Elvis.

These days, the Jervises spend part of the year in Costa Rica, where they are working to reforest a small farm. In August, chef Shane Autrey joined the owners and longtime chef Michael Gray in the Lilliputian kitchen. An alumnus of The Inn at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina and Citronelle in Washington, D.C., Autrey brings his own flair to the menu, but the Platter’s focus on locally grown ingredients and creative riffs on comfortable classics remains the same.

In fact, Mad Platter’s five-course dinner remains one of the best deals in town. Like a word problem on a low-level algebra test, the menu invites you to pick any soup, appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert for the price of the entrée plus $20. It’s a formula that, at more than one Fox birthday dinner or anniversary celebration, has sparked wine-addled and mathematically challenged debate over how to wring the most value out of the deal. (For the record, the savings depends only on the choice of appetizer and salad. At most, it’s an $8 break; at least, it saves $5.)

Even more important than beating the spread is ordering well from the succinct menu, which, on a recent visit, was morphing into Autrey’s spring repertoire. For starters, in the soup category, don’t be seduced by the cauliflower bisque’s garnish of seared shrimp and poached salmon. The sumptuous bites of seafood disappear quickly, leaving a droning bowl of vegan-friendly, beige puree that lacks depth of flavor. Instead, go for the chicken-barley, a cumin-tinged, brothy medley of carrots, cabbage and other veggies that lend the texture of French onion soup.

Among the appetizers, it was a toss-up between tuna carpaccio and taleggio agnolotti. Made with fresh pasta from Lazzaroli’s around the block, the agnolotti was finished with a light lemon-artichoke sauce, which added fine-grained texture to pasta man Tom Lazzaro’s cheesy demi-lunes.

The simple carpaccio of tuna lightly flavored with citrus-tinged ponzu was predictably delicious, but the presentation was somewhat clunky, with steamed blunt-cut green beans and untoasted sesame seeds dotting the thin swatch of fish. We would have preferred the seeds to be toasted to give a crunchy finish, more like the golden sesame crust on the gorgeous lunchtime salmon.

The pâté of herbed chicken with cashews—pale pureed meat with moisture-logged nuts, served with a thick schmear of chili paste—did not live up to its creative promise, though some at our table seemed to enjoy it.

Perhaps as much as any detail of the meal, the salad course illustrated the Platter’s constancy, for better or worse. In an era when upscale restaurants are grilling, deconstructing or otherwise embellishing their salads, Mad Platter’s Caesar is still a heavily dressed pile of torn greens on a small round plate. Autrey has introduced a slightly more contemporary salad of grapefruit, cucumbers and feta, but the ungainly fronds of red-leaf lettuce were difficult to manhandle and so faintly dressed that ours went back to the kitchen almost wholly intact. (For those of you doing the math, yes, we mentally subtracted $7 from the value of the meal, which eliminated virtually any savings from the five-course menu.)

The newly introduced duck entrée stood out among our meals. The tender meat was pretty and flavorful, served with turnip tops and bottoms and dates in a reduction of Tennessee honey. While all the ingredients were fresh and unusual, we would have preferred the dates to be cooked in the reduction, to soften the sugary fruit and marry the flavors. As it was prepared, the pithy dates sat on top of the dish as a garnish more than as an integral ingredient. Furthermore, the sweet onion puree, whose texture helped bond the many distinct components, was extremely bitter. But given Autrey’s commitment to using the freshest available ingredients, many of which he sources down the street at the Farmers Market, it is likely that onions soon will give way to a more inviting accompaniment.

Slow-roasted salmon beautifully showcased risotto with asparagus, Parmesan foam and white truffle oil and was topped with an intriguingly reptilian sheaf of salmon skin.

The surprise of our meal was the mushroom pasta, a generous tangle of linguine studded with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, bacon, spinach and herbs and tossed with asiago cheese. The rich combination satisfied our table full of carnivores, but Autrey can prepare it for vegans, without the cheese and bacon.

If ever there were a reason to resist change, it would be Mad Platter’s hallmark desserts. Chocolate Elvis—a three-layer terrine of light and dark chocolate ganaches and buttercream—still headlines the menu, along with an impossibly light and creamy tiramisu and Autrey’s strawberry shortcake with melt-in-your-mouth almond shortbread. But Mad Platter’s bananas Foster, with a softball-sized scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, is still the nostalgic dessert of choice in our family.

So if you’re looking to get the most out of the dinner deal, try this combination: chicken-barley soup, tuna carpaccio, Ruby Red and red leaf salad, Maple Leaf duck and bananas Foster. Ordered à la carte, the meal would cost $52, but you’ll pay just $45. Now you can enjoy a romantic evening in a landmark dining room, without having to stop to do the math.

The Mad Platter serves lunch Monday through Friday and dinner Wednesday through Sunday.

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