Kay: Revered chef Jonathan Waxman’s new Nashville restaurant honors his mother.
Thus begins Jonathan Waxman’s beguiling description of his first Nashville restaurant, a charmingly modest way for a chef of his stature, success and renown to introduce himself to a new city. Brilliant as well—who could resist a man who thinks so highly of his mother he would name a restaurant for her, and proudly call her a maverick and a force to be reckoned with, responsible for his love of food? Throughout his lengthy and stellar career, Waxman seesawed coasts between his native California and several restaurants in Manhattan, but he has found the surest way to win hearts in the South: honor your mama and welcome you to his table.
His professional reputation precedes him, but here’s a quick curriculum vitae: born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, he went to cooking school in Paris and traveled in Italy, where his attraction to their lusty approach to food and cooking—already piqued by the sizable Italian population in Northern California–lodged in his heart. His career launching pad was the revolutionary Chez Panisse in Berkeley where he ran the kitchen for founder/owner/legend Alice Waters in the late ’70s before leaving the nest to open Michael’s Santa Monica. He next vaulted east to open Jams in Manhattan, back to California for a bit before returning to New York to open the acclaimed, but short-lived, Washington Park in Greenwich Village near the downtown landmark for which it was named.
Ten years ago, Waxman went west again — not back to the Pacific Ocean, but towards the Hudson River bank of the island of Manhattan. In the once-gritty western fringes of the Village that was home to numerous meatpacking plants, then gentrified in the late 1990s and rebranded the Meatpacking District, he opened Barbuto, an Italianate bistro in a former car garage with concrete floors and roll-up doors. Barbuto technically translates to beard, but in the universal language spoken by food lovers and chef-chasers, what they understand is “Mangia!” Unpretentious, lively and light-filled with floor-to-ceiling glass doors on two walls framing the bustling street scene outside–and offering what Eater NY calls one of the 12 Best NY restaurants for watching snow fall—the confidently casual, low-key stylish eatery is crammed daily with locals and culinary tourists alike. In a city rife with Italian restaurants, it was named Best New Italian Restaurant by New York magazine in 2005.
At Barbuto, Chef Waxman marries his passion for Italian and adherence to simplicity for a seasonally driven menu of salads, raw vegetables, cured meats, pasta and wood oven-cooked and grilled poultry, meat and fish. (Just a couple blocks away, The High Line, the West Side’s enchanting elevated linear park, offers a visually compelling opportunity to walk off that bowl of gnocchi, even more so with the opening September 21 of the much-anticipated final leg.) Kudos to the Kings of Leon [KOL] for Waxman’s move to Nashville. The chef was first introduced to the band by Texas chef Tim Love. Over time, their friendship deepened and also became a partnership that resulted in the creation of the Music City Food + Wine Fest in 2013 with KOL’s music-biz manager extraordinaire Ken Levitan. Having fallen hard as we all do for the charms of our big small town, Waxman and his sometimes business partner/ bicoastal restaurateur Howard Greenstone teamed up with Levitan and that brings us to 1210 McGavock St, where Nashville can find Adele’s.
I don’t know if the availability of a former garage on the edge of a once-gritty industrial area now fully gentrified was happy coincidence or divine providence, but having been to both, I was struck by Adele’s similarity in style and vibe to Barbuto’s.
Adele’s, in Nashville’s Gulch, occupies the building formerly known as Ultimate Tire Auto Center. Through its decades of business, it serviced thousands of cars with what I always felt was honesty and professionalism; solid, skilled mechanics devoted to their craft, who gave you your money’s worth, sometimes performed miracles and told you when it was time to move on. It seems somehow fitting that when it came time to pass the torch and hand over the keys, it would be to another craftsman with a similar work ethic and approach to clientele. As I’ve heard many times over a drink–or five–with my chef friends, no matter how fancy or glamorous it seems to outsiders, cooking is essentially a blue collar job (albeit one with more benefits).
I can’t imagine what it took to remove the layers of grit, grime and grease from the floors, walls and windows of this 1950s-era cinder block building and turn it into the stunning space it is now, but just four months between pulling a rehab permit and opening on June 11 could qualify it for Extreme Makeover: Restaurant Edition.
The large parking lot out front fills quickly, but valet parkers are on duty to manage the overflow. Inside the double glass doors, you’ll be warmly greeted and offered several choices: a table in the main dining room to your left or one of 10 seats at the sawn white oak counter with a view into the open kitchen — so close you could flip a burger on the grill in a pinch.
Combined, there are 250 seats. Most of those in the dining room and lounge are at sturdy tables built from reclaimed wood and gorgeous, slightly padded mid-century Thonet chairs. The turquoise metal stools at the bar and bright red chairs and tables on the patio provide shots of color, along with the blue aprons with green ties worn by servers, and some kitchen staff, like Executive Chef Matt Davidson, who matches it to his hat.
Margot diners may recognize his face from that kitchen where the Arizona native spent a few years before giving San Francisco a whirl and logging some years at A16. A well-timed call from City House’s Tandy Wilson telling Davidson he had thrown his name in the hat for Waxman’s soon-to-open restaurant brought him back to Nashville. Though Adele’s has almost three times as many seats as Margot’s, he notes the similarities in a food philosophy anchored in seasonality and availability. The open kitchen is in constant motion, but Davidson is a calm and steady presence at the pass, unfazed by the bustle of the large staff.
On our first visit, we were seated in the main dining room not far from the kitchen. As the tables around us filled, we were surprised that despite the concrete, glass, high ceilings and full house, we were able to carry on a conversation without raising our voices to be heard above the din. Thank you. While I appreciate the creativity of craft cocktails around town, I was happy that Adele’s comparatively succinct list didn’t require 30 minutes of study or induce such choice paralysis that I end up ordering a beer. Not that Adele’s doesn’t have a fine selection on draft, including Kentucky Bourbon Ale with an impressive 8.2% alcohol count.
Adele’s menu starts with two suggestions to begin: cured shaved hams with pickled vegetables and ciabatta or pan-cooked pizzette with ham, greens and roasted tomato. We went with the pizzette, which as the name implies, is a mini-pizza; the crusty quarters were two-bite sized and foldable, if that’s your style.
Though salads, soups and appetizers are more likely to be here today, gone next week or season, Davidson says the meatballs—two fat ones atop a generous mound of polenta, ladled with marina and finished with a good grate of grana—are likely to be a fixture.
Without exception, the early buzz on Adele’s included raves for the raw zucchini salad and on my first visit, it completely lived up to the high expectations. I have good news and bad news. The good news is zucchini season has finally run its course in middle Tennessee gardens. No more zucchini bread ever, please! The bad news is the zucchini salad is gone. I know, I know, you’re disappointed, but think of it this way: You wouldn’t be caught dead wearing linen or seersucker after Labor Day, so why would you want to eat a food that’s out of season?
This fall, cauliflower is the new zucchini [as witnessed here below].
The first time I went to Adele’s, our server touted several entrees, among them the beer-braised pork ribs. With September still mired in August’s humidity, I wasn’t even tempted, but when I went back, just one week before the official start of fall, braised called my name.
Entire articles have been written about the JW Chicken, which Waxman calls “my culinary anthem.” I make chicken at home, so I rarely choose it in a restaurant, subscribing to the dining theory of not ordering what I can make at home. If you feel the same, hear me now: you cannot make this chicken at home. Not if you buy his Italian, My Way cookbook and religiously follow his recipe. Not if you watch the step-by-step, 5:47 Jonathan Waxman’s Famous Roast Chicken Recipe video, though I do recommend watching it for a peek at both Barbuto and the chef’s wry personality, as well as some helpful tips. You simply don’t have the equipment or the skills to replicate this recipe at home. And why should you when this half-chicken with perfectly crisped skin and juicy, flavorful meat, with the signature accompanying green sauce is just $19?
Davidson says the JW potatoes, one of five sharable sides offered, are almost equally famous and as he describes them–russet potatoes steamed with salt, slightly crushed and fried–I’m sure they are, but we didn’t try them. We did dive into pastry chef Betsy Johnston’s (not to be confused with the wacky designer Betsey Johnson) Hot Fudge Brownie Sundae with a scoop of Nut & Honey ice cream, Nut Toffee and a couple house-made toasted marshmallows.
Adele’s — envisioned and mentored by Jonathan Waxman, executed by Davidson in the kitchen and choreographed by a fine front-of-the-house staff — is marked by confident cooking, genuine hospitality and, refreshingly, a nod to affordability. At the close of his self-introduction to Nashville on the restaurant’s website, Waxman makes this promise: “The menu will be seasonal, daring, yet fundamental, embracing all Adele represented to me – audacity, intelligence, warmth for her friends, family and deep passion for good food and wine.” Sounds like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Kay West is a freelance writer who began her career in journalism in Manhattan, then moved to Nashville in 1981 to work in the music industry before returning to writing. She became one of the three first writers for the Nashville Scene in 1989, and was their weekly restaurant critic from 1992-2007. For the last 28 years, she has written for local, regional and national publications, as well as for the music industry. She continues to write features for the Scene and Nashville Lifestyles, covers restaurants for StyleBlueprint, and is Nashville correspondent for People Weekly/People Country/People.com.
She has written five books including the current 50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know. She is in her second term on the Nashville Farmer’s Market Board, is co-chair of WTF: Women For Tennessee’s Future, co-chaired Nashville CARES Dining Out for Life for ten years, is an active volunteer with Room in the Inn, is on the Steering Committees for Magdalene’s annual fall fundraiser and the annual Music City Hot Chicken Festival. She was the Nashville Business Journal’s Woman of Influence Community Supporter category in 2013.
Unless attributed elsewhere, all photos are taken by Ashley Hylbert.