If you're a glass-is-half-full kind of person looking for an upside to the economic downturn, look no further than The Garden Brunch Café. The coffee cup—or the mimosa—is brimming at Karl and Jennifer Carpenter's charming eatery, where the repertoire of breakfast foods, local art and inviting ambiance could prove to be more of a stimulus to the neighborhood than any funds coming out of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Karl, a Memphis native who moved here six years ago, became a corporate casualty when his employer recently downsized. The engineer and father of five took his severance and invested it into a former funeral parlor where William Strickland, the architect of the state capitol, once lived. Karl, Jennifer and the kids restored the fragile 1830s house—constructing a "building inside a building" to preserve the historic exterior while making a modern kitchen and dining rooms. The restaurant opened in May, right around the time of the Jefferson Street Jazz & Blues Fest, and already a steady flow of diverse guests—including business folks and families with young kids—have found the friendly historic house with the red front door.
Located across Jefferson from Captain D's, The Garden fronts the busy North Nashville thoroughfare. Parking is in the rear of the building and connects to the front door by way of a serene serpentine path lined with manicured beds of herbs and perennials.
Swathed in rich tones of brown and gray, with deep-red accents, brick walls, a fireplace and dramatic spotlighting showcasing artworks by local artists—including wood carvings by server Joshua Lewis—the airy rooms project the feel of a gracious residence, where even a weekday meal unfolds like a lazy Sunday (just not for the attentive and efficient servers).
As the name suggests, Garden Brunch Café serves brunch until 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, along with a lunch menu. There's also dinner on Friday and Saturday with open-mic poetry and live jazz, respectively. In our two daytime experiences, the breakfast-flavored roster was the Garden's greatest strength. Thick cakey pancakes piled with banana slices sautéed with maple syrup stood out among our meals as a beautiful, filling and affordable late-morning indulgence. Also available plain or with fresh blueberries and strawberries, the pancake platters come with a choice of sausage or bacon—all made with turkey. The Garden serves no pork products, and our meals were no worse for the wear. In fact, when all was said and done, we thanked ourselves for going a little easy.
A half-dozen slices of French toast arrived like large fallen dominoes overlapping each other on a white oval plate. The light whole-wheat bread added a rustic granularity that complemented the custardy egg batter and sticky-sweet finish of maple-flavored syrup, and the serving size was generous but not so overwhelming as to leave a diner uncomfortable. (After debuting with 100 percent maple syrup, chef Jennifer got so many requests for Mrs. Butterworth's that she started stocking the maple-flavored product. But if you ask for the real deal, she'll happily provide it.)
The most beautiful plates emerging from the kitchen held the Germantown West Benny, a colorful still life of poached eggs, wilted spinach, cherry tomatoes, sautéed pink onions and capers with pink sheets of smoked salmon draped over the top. Frankly, we ordered this dish hesitantly, because a lot can go wrong between the menu description and the execution, but to our delight, the meal was everything we hoped. The salmon was delicately salty, the vegetables were fresh and gently cooked, and the whole composition was presented beautifully. On any given day, The Garden's eggs may come from Mamushi Nature Farms in Franklin, where the Carpenters' cousins Freddie and Rea Haddox raise organic chickens. Our one criticism of the Benedict was the lack of Hollandaise, which was promised on the menu but nowhere to be found on the plate. Fortunately, the poached eggs were cooked sparingly enough that the golden yolks oozed across the plate, adding plenty of liquid to the meal.
A pair of salmon cakes studded with pink onion and herbs were slightly dry, but the combination—with fluffy scrambled eggs and cheese, creamy grits or roasted herb-flecked potatoes and whole-wheat toast—was an impressive spread for $8.
The lunch menu includes a concise selection of healthy-minded salads—salmon, grilled chicken and apple, and a medley of ham and turkey with egg, cheese and tomatoes. A seared salmon fillet is available for $9, with asparagus and potatoes. Playing on the popularity of panini, The Garden offers a matrix of meats, cheeses, dressings and toppings that can be combined into a grilled sandwich. Our assemblage of sliced turkey, cheddar, oil and vinegar, and caramelized onions was a disappointingly bland combination, which one person aptly described as "a croissant that got run over by a waffle iron." In hindsight, there were better combinations to be made from the array of roast beef, smoked salmon, chicken, feta, provolone, mozzarella, and sautéed peppers, mushrooms and spinach.
While we did not visit The Garden for dinner, the freshness and preparation of the daytime meals—including produce from the nearby Farmers' Market—bodes well for the evenings. A sample menu lists salmon, tilapia, catfish and chicken breast that can be grilled or blackened and served with potatoes or vegetable pasta and choice of broccoli, asparagus or mixed vegetables. Dinner prices top out at $16 for steak. A very terse list of wines by the glass offers Fetzer zinfandel and Mondavi cabernet sauvignon for $8.50 and house wines for $5.99.
While The Garden's straightforward offerings will not likely poach dinner traffic from nearby culinary havens Mad Platter, City House and Germantown Café, Karl and Jennifer Carpenter's restaurant goes a long way toward tying the Jefferson Street and Germantown neighborhoods together. While Eighth Avenue previously separated the two districts like a Great Wall, with a quaint culinary enclave to the East and a relative dining dearth to the West, The Garden puts the 900 block of Jefferson Street on the map for folks looking for a charming downtown meal. And with Jefferson's restaurant and Stillwaters Café a few blocks farther west, there's a case to be made that Germantown's cachet is expanding west in a stimulating case of culinary creep.
The Garden serves brunch and lunch 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday and dinner Friday and Saturday. Friday night is open-mic poetry night, and Saturday is live jazz night.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 615-844-9408.