In an advertising age that has brands clamoring to convey messages of seasonality and freshness, it's surprising that a restaurant chain would stick with the moniker "Newk's," which so vividly evokes the "ding!" of a microwave. We'd just as soon expect to find an eatery called "DeFrosts." In fact, had we not heard otherwise from friends in Mississippi, where the Newk's fast-casual chain was founded in 2004, we might have expected a latter-day automat, where we could insert money into a slot and watch our meal cooked on a carousel.
Despite all signs — or should we say signage? — to the contrary, Newk's delivers a satisfying repertoire of familiar favorites — sandwiches, soups, salads and pizzas — that are remarkable for their freshness, if not exactly for their seasonality or culinary adventurousness.
The encore act of the team that founded McAlister's Deli, Newk's Express Café was created with franchising in mind, and the facility runs like a friendly machine. The new Belle Meade store represents the third location in the region, after Murfreesboro and Cool Springs, which opened in 2008 and 2011, respectively. The company website promises "a tantalizing variety of made-to-order menu choices, available for comfortable in-café dining or for convenient pickup. For franchise owners, it's a streamlined, low labor operation that's designed for efficiency, site adaptability and multiple revenue opportunities."
I can't speak to the multiple revenue opportunities, as tongue-tickling as they might be, but I can vouch for the efficiency of both the order-first-then-seat-yourself and take-out services, which clicked like clockwork, even at rush hour.
As for site adaptability, Newk's adapted the hell out of the westernmost end of Belle Meade Plaza, transforming the space that formerly housed Crystal's into a cavernous two-story dining room.
If we were left with one lasting image of the Newk's dining experience, it was the sight of servers cautiously descending the grand staircase, balancing oversized globes of salad. Not only did the spectacle make us marvel over how much lofty space was hidden behind and below the china-and-jewelry showroom of country music legend Crystal Gayle's bygone boutique, it made us hold our breath for fear the rotund salad bowls would topple off trays and bounce down the stairs. Fortunately, the precariousness was an optical illusion: The bowls were built to look like wobbling hemispheres, when really they have stable flat bottoms.
"That is huge!" we exclaimed as the server delivered a papasan chair filled with Newk's Favorite salad.
"Yes," he replied, "but it's always better to have too much than too little."
Well, yes and no.
Yes, it was good to have a bountiful medley of greens, shaved grilled chicken breast, crumbled gorgonzola, dried cranberries, red grapes, artichoke hearts, pecans and croutons. The cautiously inventive and eclectic Newk's Favorite offered enough juxtaposition of textures and flavors — creamy, crisp, crunchy, chewy, salty, sweet and tangy — to sustain interest throughout the massive portion.
But no, it is never good to have too much dressing, which was the heavy-handed case with every salad we ordered. With dressings weighing in at 96 to 210 calories per ounce, according to the nutrition tables at newkscafe.com, we'll make a point to ask for a light application in the future, or dressing on the side.
After the aptly named Newk's Favorite, other salads trailed off into a more predictable lineup including Chef (greens, ham, turkey, cucumbers, croutons and grape tomatoes), Southern (greens with chicken salad and grape tomatoes), Greek (romaine, feta, olives, artichoke hearts, cucumbers, red onions, peppers, grape tomatoes), and Cobb (grilled chicken, egg, bacon, gorgonzola, pecans and grape tomatoes). Newk's likes its grape tomatoes.
The sandwich menu reads like a roll call of hall-of-famers, including chicken salad, roast beef, ham, turkey breast, Club, Italian, pimiento cheese. What the roster lacks in invention, it makes up for in execution. Chewy baguettes with a toasty tinge on the crust swaddle generous stacks of cold cuts, with portions large enough to share. It's the kind of bread that makes a good po'boy, but we passed up Newk's version of the classic New Orleans delicacy when we realized the shrimp was boiled not fried.
The abundant Club oozed with warmed mayo and mustard spilling from folds of turkey and sweet ham. By contrast, Newk's Q was a dry layering of shaved chicken and near-absent white barbecue sauce. In neither case did the see-through strands of soggy bacon live up to expectation.
When it came to sandwiches and pizzas, we found it best to avoid the grilled chicken when possible, because the thinly shaved white meat dried out in both preparations. Otherwise, the 10-inch pizzas were satisfying individual meals on a stretchy thin crust with an oven-crisped rim. Topping combinations include broiled shrimp with red and yellow peppers, cilantro, mozzarella and parmesan; grilled portobello mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, goat cheese, red onion and basil; and sausage and pepperoni. Unlike the adult pizzas, the kids' version arrived in the shape of a pinwheel, with each of four quarters folded in half to resemble a mini calzone. In fact, the kids' pizza emerged as the standout favorite and a surprising bargain at $4.50 with a drink.
Soups vary during the week, with broccoli-cheese, white bean-and-sausage, loaded potato, chicken tortilla and red beans and rice among the options. We enjoyed sultry shrimp-and-lobster bisque, which was so rich that we were happy to share a large serving among a family.
Sandwiches, soups and salads are available in various combinations, all for under $8.
For dessert, there's a slate of classic cakes (banana, caramel, red velvet, strawberry, chocolate, coconut, pineapple and pound), as well as brownies and crispy treats. Neither chocolate nor caramel cake (both are baked by an off-premise provider) emerged as standout in its category, but both ably satisfied a sweet tooth at lunchtime.
And if our lunchtime experiences were any indication, the Newk's concept is ably satisfying a lot of appetites. The dining rooms were bulging with customers, and long lines at the dine-in and takeout counters were moving quickly.
Getting off to such a good start, Newk's will be a sure favorite come Steeplechase, when Belle Meade will be abuzz about the best places to fill picnic baskets for the races. That means that while Newk's may not be the place to satisfy cravings for seasonal food, there is most certainly a season for its brand of well-priced and well-executed fare.
Newk's serves lunch and dinner daily. Beer and wine available.