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The Bird Is the Word

On top of the game at Quails

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A few nights before Christmas, we put the kids in the car and set out to see the lights. I had been told that, if we wanted a holiday spectacular, Brentwood was the place to look. Specifically, we were advised to check out a Brentwood subdivision called Stonehenge. We knew we were in the right place when we joined a caravan of cars headed upward, toward a sparkling city on a hill.

I confess that I was absolutely flabbergasted—and not just by the lighting display. No, I was awestruck by the houses themselves. The Stonehenge homes were im-mense, yet each of them sat on less than an acre of land. They were vast, imposing, monumental. Five-year-old Harry looked at one of the houses and asked if it was the library.

I was inordinately curious. Who, I wondered, lived in these houses? Families of four, I guessed, sort of like us. What in the world did they do with all that room? What in the world did they do for a living? Health care? Computers? A&R? My mind reeled thinking of all that furniture, all those rugs, all those window treatments.

I understand now that Brentwoodians rarely need to go into Nashville anymore, what with the CoolSprings Galleria and the super Kroger for shopping and the Carmike theater complex for entertainment. On the other hand, while Brentwood has always boasted plenty of family, fast-food, and take-out restaurants, until recently it didn’t boast a white-tablecloth restaurant (with the notable, albeit ethnic, exception of East India Club). If they craved fine dining, Brentwoodians or Stonehengers had to hop in their luxury vehicles and drive all the way to Nashville.

Which is why Mathew Igwonobe, chef/owner of Quails, gets the Bright Idea of the Year Award. Igwonobe, formerly of The Merchants and of Mère Bulles, saw a niche that needed filling and figured that he was just the man with just the talent to do it. If our meals and the word of mouth from Quails are any evidence, he was absolutely correct.

Quails is located—like most other Brentwood restaurants—in a strip center. In this case, the strip mall is Merchant’s Walk, near Pargo’s and Friday’s. The space, formerly occupied by Cracker Barrel Corner Market, has undergone a complete design makeover. Green carpet, dark wood trim, linen-covered tables, and high-backed, heavy chairs lend elegance to the room, which also includes a small bar. In the evening, when the ivory-colored shades are drawn and the lights are lowered, it’s easy to forget that there’s a copy store and a dry cleaner just across the way. (I would suggest that somebody lower the shades at lunch as well; the sight of the busy parking lot is not particularly appealing.)

As the name of his restaurant suggests, Igwonobe has a penchant for game. In addition to the eponymous quail, he offers venison chili and, at lunch, a bison burger. The menu isn’t extensive, so there’s no selection anxiety, but it is intriguingly creative, tempting, and varied.

There were eight of us at dinner, so we sampled all of the appetizers—the six on the menu, plus a special—and several of the entrées.

The wine list is short, but reasonably priced. The house Chardonnay is Quail Ridge, which I found a little sweet.

Our dinner was notable for its beautiful presentations. Appetizers and entrées were artfully arranged on large plates, sauces were swirled in pretty patterns, cuts of meat were dressed up with fluttery sprigs of fresh herbs. At lunch, by the light of day, we were struck by the vibrant color on the plates—bright-red peppers, glistening purple eggplant, sunny yellow tomatoes, deep-green spinach, and the paler green of young Bibb lettuce. Fresh was the key word, and a welcome burst of life in the waning days of winter.

If there are just two in your party, by all means start your dinner by sharing one of the starters: the smoked salmon and crispy potato cake ($8.49), accompanied by a Dijon mustard cream sauce; the seared sea scallops and jumbo prawn on a round of fried eggplant with tomato concasse; or the heavier, and decidedly richer, shrimp and vegetable strudel—fresh veggies, carmelized onions, and large shrimp layered in phyllo dough. The strudel was a particular hit with the men in our party.

We loved the roasted quail, boneless except for the legs and thighs and stuffed with a moist, flavorful mix of bread cubes, wild mushrooms, and dried cherries. The stuffed ribeye loin was a winner—a thick cut of beef stuffed with wild mushrooms, shallots, and juniper berries. And the same goes for one of the menu’s lighter dishes, the jumbo sea scallops, seared in olive oil, then served alongside a pretty pool of coriander-ginger sauce.

We found that, no matter what we ordered from the dinner menu, each dish was given special treatment, as if it were deserving of its very own sauce and side dishes. Still, the side dishes were never allowed to overwhelm the main event.

At Quails, the grilled aged tenderloin gets a hearty pinot noir sauce and a roasted shallots-garlic confit, and it’s accompanied by basil whipped potatoes; the stuffed quail comes with addictive sweet potato strings; the salmon is encrusted with pinenuts and served atop tangy braised greens, its garlic whipped potatoes topped off with a lemongrass-chive beurre blanc. The menu is freely spinkled with culinary terms that will have you wishing for a pocket-sized version of Larousse Gastronomique.The dinner pastas, though good, were not quite on a par with the rest of the offerings.

At lunch, the beautifully constructed salads were terrifically inviting. The tomato and vegetable salad was a delight, particularly because of its orange-basil-crème fraiche dressing. The salad pignolia—roasted vegetables with organic greens, crunchy roasted pignolie, and a chunky grilled Bermuda onion vinaigrette—was so big it could have served as an entrée.

The vegetable Napolean, with layers of roasted carrots, eggplant, squash, carmelized onion, fresh spinach leaves, and mushrooms, was superb, but it was rich to the extreme. The seafood pomodoro was salty, probably because the shrimp had not been drained before they were added to the pasta and the good marinara sauce.

Our only really serious complaint was about the bread. Throughout the Quails menu, there is a consistent emphasis on fresh ingredients, so I was puzzled by the prefab foccacia—fat where it should be flat, spongy where it should crisp, airy where it should be dense. It was easy to avoid it at dinner, but it ultimately spoiled the sandwiches at lunch.

Desserts, made on site by pastry chef Leonard Mitchell, were exemplary. If I had to choose just one of the six, I’d be torn between the crèpe gateau and the pistachio-nut-crème-filled baklava.

Dinner for eight, with cocktails and four bottles of wine, was $410 before tax. Lunch for three was $50.

Selfishly, I wish Mathew Igwonobe had opened his restaurant in Nashville rather than in Brentwood, but Quails is easily accesible from I-65. And you don’t have to wait until Christmas—Stonehenge is a window-shopping showplace all year round.

Quails is located at 4936 Thoroughbred Ln. in Merchant’s Walk in Brentwood (376-2799). Lunch is served 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays; dinner is served 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and until 10 p.m. Fri. & Sat. All major credit cards accepted.

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