In too many places across the country, a combination of poverty, poor transportation and scarcity of fresh foods stands between neighborhoods and nourishment. Such so-called food deserts are a real and pervasive problem, with dire nutritional consequences such as obesity and diabetes. It City Nashville is not immune to such problems of food security, with intermittent food deserts dotted across urban and suburban districts.
Edgehill, for example, has long been considered a food desert. More recent additions to the list of local food deserts include North Antioch and Madison.
Belle Meade — with a median family income approaching $200,000 and a proliferation of luxury automobiles — is decidedly not a food desert.
Yet with the possible exception of "Why is there no great Chinese food here?" no question comes over a Nashville food writer's transom more frequently than this pitiful query: "Why is there nothing to eat in Belle Meade?"
Several responses spring to mind, including a primer on the inverse relationship between lease price and restaurant success, and a brief tutorial on the dangers of hyperbole. In short: It's hard to make money when you're paying Belle Meade-sized rent; meanwhile, it's not like there's no food available — the 3-square-mile city is ringed by two Harris Teeters, two Krogers and a Publix, all within approximate coasting radius of a Prius. But the first answer is boring and the second borders on sanctimonious, so I've been grateful to have a third answer lately. When asked about the lack of dining options in Middle Tennessee's richest neighborhood, I reply, "Have you tried Noelle?"
Named for owner Dewayne Johnson's baby girl, Noelle is the reincarnation of a dinner spot known most recently known as Whitfield's, and prior to that as Belle Meade Brasserie and 106 Club.
For whatever reasons — cuisine and atmosphere likely among them — Whitfield's never quite earned the neighborhood following its founders hoped for, and after almost a half-decade, management parted ways. Johnson remained to reinvent the Harding Place establishment, while business partners Nathaniel Beaver and Tabor Luckey departed to concentrate on their Infinity Restaurant Group projects, including Bria Bistro Italiano in Bellevue, The Bridge Building on the East Bank of the Cumberland, The Bell Tower in SoBro, and The Harding House inside Belle Meade Plantation. (Who says there's nothing to eat in Belle Meade?)
After a thorough whitewash with soothing pale paints, a reconfiguration of the dining rooms and a jettisoning of the piano, the result is a surprisingly comfortable neighborhood eatery with a well-executed menu of traditional contemporary cuisine and a wine list ranging from $7 glasses to a $275 bottle of Dom Perignon.
The addition of a few rugs, not to mention an infusion of customers, would go a long way to warming up the echoey rooms. Word of mouth on the Belle Meade grapevine should bolster the clientele; meanwhile, Johnson says he's got his eye out for rugs and other trappings to cozy up the place.
Before you respond with a primer on oxymorons — it can't be traditional if it's contemporary — let me elaborate. Chef Matthew Smith's repertoire of composed plates, including lamb, pork tenderloin, steak and duck, satisfies the modern craving for seasonal and house-made cuisine, without pushing diners into offal-heavy nose-to-tail whole-animal fare. In other words, no beef cheeks, oxtail or pig ears, but enough house-made butters, local cheeses, fresh-baked brioche, herb-infused cocktails and inventive details to qualify as contemporary.
No dish exemplifies this balance better than Noelle's beef tataki, which was seared, sliced and fanned to showcase jewel-pink cross-sections, accented with a balance of earthy mushroom stock and bright shavings of pickled ginger and shallots, and plated with sushi-grade attention to color and composition. Ordered with a salad, the 4-ounce appetizer portion made an excellent small entrée with a welcome spin on tenderloin.
This is a good place to thank our server, who consistently steered us in the right direction, with equal parts enthusiasm and knowledge about the menu. He also directed us toward the maple-brined pork tenderloin, which was cooked to just the reassuring side of medium rare, and plated with creamy polenta, bright watercress and a sweet and zesty jam of ginger and spring onions. It lived up to its superlative billing.
Other highlights along the way included duck breast, cooked to succulent purple and served over scratch-made hazelnut gnocchi accented with blackberry gastrique; oysters on the half-shell dappled with white strawberries and house-cured bacon; butcher's cut steak with a rustic pairing of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and creamed parsnips; and a pair of generous Colorado lamb chops dusted with garam masala and served with al dente cassoulet and romesco.
Pork belly made a memorable appearance with a golden brûléed square of smoky meat lolling in a velvety bath of chipotle cream corn and drizzled with amber strands of Bulleit bourbon reduction. And simple though it sounds, the $10 cucumber martini with Hendricks gin and St. Germain, shaken and poured tableside, just might be the elegant standout that lures our group back.
If there was one disappointment among our orders, it was the blunt kale salad, with leathery leaves, hunks of strawberry and little to unite the flavors or soften the bitter greens.
We usually don't squander calories on bread, but the cutting board of warm crusty baguette and pillowy brioche with infused butters was worth the gluten splurge.
In fact, in a rare reversal of appetites, we preferred the bread course to the dessert offerings. On our visits, the titillating Meyer lemon fried pie was unavailable. Meanwhile, chocolate terrine was bland, and French toast with bacon was too literal — like a leftover lackluster breakfast dish with a scoop of vanilla. Crème brûlée with the airy texture of a panna cotta not withstanding, the sweet course was altogether disappointing — a dessert desert if you will.
For a diner with a sweet tooth, that's a problem. But for a restaurant demonstrating so much culinary polish and creativity, it's a problem that can be easily remedied.
Noelle serves dinner Monday through Saturday.