Miel, one of Nashville’s best places to eat
It’s one thing to open a neighborhood restaurant in the heart of an historic neighborhood transitioning to new urbanism and ravenous for a table service, contemporary-menu, comfortable-vibe option for dining out. (See last month’s post on local fave Germantown Café.)
It’s another to open a French-influenced, sophisticated, upscale restaurant on the outer fringe of a neighborhood balancing—not always easily—between its blue-collar middle class history and emerging gentrification. Not to mention, doing so in a squat, unattractive, cinder block box that was once home to a meat market and one-half block off the gritty Charlotte Pike, a thoroughfare populated with auto repair shops, thrift stores and fast food chains.
But despite its unfamiliar address at 343 53rd Ave. N., Miel Restaurant had something better than GPS—a timeless Nashville institution serving as a landmark. “In retrospect, the smartest thing we did was open behind Bobbie’s Dairy Dip. Everyone knows where that is!” laughs Seema Prasad, a successful restaurateur from Seattle who opened Miel with chef Jimmy Phillips in September 2008.
Yes, 2008, aka The Year The Restaurants Died. The recession hit people’s entertainment dollars especially hard, and every restaurant in Nashville, even long-tenured ones, felt the blow. For a new restaurant in an off-the-beaten-path spot, it was especially challenging.
“We knew our concept—an intimate restaurant deliberately doing a small volume—could not support a West End or Green Hills lease. We looked for three years and we knew we would end up somewhere many of our guests would have to drive to. The week we opened is the week Nashville literally ran out of gas, but people got here, and the ones who were drawn to our concept have kept coming, and have stayed with me through all of the changes.”
The bulk of those changes have been in the kitchen. When Seema and Chef Phillips parted ways in early 2010, with the restaurant remaining in her hands, she hired longtime Nashville chef Freddy Brooker to restore focus and lead the kitchen. With his departure a year later, gourmand goddess Deb Paquette—going through a life-career transition of her own—came aboard. When she left to open Etch, she handed the baton to David Maxwell, who then passed it to Ashley Quick, formerly of Flyte. As he pondered a move to Charlotte, NC, Seema moved quickly to swoop up Will Uhlhorn, who helped steer F. Scott’s to multiple nods as Nashville’s Best Restaurant, and then opened Table 3 with Elise Loehr and Wendy Burch.
“I enjoyed my time at Table 3, but it just wasn’t me,” Uhlhorn said standing in the Miel kitchen and speaking of his departure from the Green Hills bistro. “I like smaller restaurants, smaller menus, more focused cooking. Miel suits me well.”
And Uhlhorn fits Miel to a T. In my experience, he is one of Nashville’s best chefs—a mature, deft and confident master in what can be a raucous theater of cocky showoffs. Every ingredient in his simultaneously bold and restrained dishes—starters and mains—is there for a reason and serves to enhance, not overwhelm, the foundation of the plate, whether it be fish or fowl, pork or cow.
I had not been to Miel since Uhlhorn took over in May; a month later he was joined by Charleston transplant and sous chef Andrew Coins. It was a delight at every turn to reacquaint myself with a place I fell in love with at first sight five years ago.
I was so happy to find Seema has added a bar that not only gives walk-ins a place to pleasantly pass the time if reservations are backed up, but a comfortable setting for single diners who don’t want to take a table. Plus, there’s now a daily Happy Hour from 5:30-6:30 with glasses of wine, a featured cocktail and bar appetizers for $5 each.
The menu remains French-inspired, but its primary mission is fresh, seasonal and quality ingredients, locally or regionally sourced when possible. Much of their produce is grown on nearby Hidden Valley Farm; most proteins come from Wedge Oak Farm.
On Seema’s eclectic resume is a stint as a wine rep, and she has the sommelier role covered. I just put myself in her hands when it comes to choosing a glass or a bottle, and then I can ease into the meal with a little teaser like marinated olives—which are slightly warmed before serving, releasing their inner fat content—or the inviting cheese plate, an option for dessert as well.
For me, the inarguable sign of a perfect dish is when I am still savoring the memory of it the next day, or the next week, and I can’t wait to go back and have it again. That is true of all five dishes I tried from the admirably succinct dinner menu of six starters and six mains.
Desserts vary, though the oh so Francaise classic profiteroles are always there, and their petite size allows me a sweet afterglow without the guilt.
Of the many things that made me fall in love with Miel all over again, one of the more practical is the slight shift to a more accessible price point while raising the standard of excellence for the food. In my book, that’s key to a committed restaurant relationship.
I’m already looking forward to the reawakening of their lovely secret garden of a patio—now winter-dormant—which should happen just about the time Bobbie’s Dairy Dip re-opens their order windows for the season. Until then, your table or bar stool awaits inside the welcoming warmth of Miel.
343 53rd Avenue, Nashville, TN 37209
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.