Monday, September 19, 2011

101 Minutes

Earlier this year, I went to the 10th anniversary party for one of my favorite places to hang out, Margot Café & Bar
…where they had fried chicken and pickled peaches,

and adult lemonade,

and temporary tattoos.

Jacob Jones warmed us up with Randy Newman,

and by the end of the night, it was a full-blown dance party on the corner of Five Points in East Nashville.

Later I wrote about Margot Café in a new column I have with Nashville Lifestyles magazine (that we also run in The Tennessean) called 101 Minutes.

My editor originally asked for a series of restaurant profiles, but I had hoped to write something more slice-of-life to try to capture the spirit of a place as it happens – the aroma of garlic that greets you at the door; the buzz of anticipation over the clink of silverware; the ooze of a egg when fork hits yolk. The people. The vibe. The soup of things that make a restaurant so much more than just the food.

I decided on 101 minutes as a block of time because it’s been said there are 101 folds in a chef’s hat to represent the number of ways you can cook an egg.

So then you'd think I'd be happy that my editor assigned Margot Cafe as my first subject? Well, maybe at first. But I find it's not so easy writing about places that feel close to home. Here’s what I came up with and some pics.


101 minutes at Margot Cafe & Bar

If an experience at a restaurant can be summed up as an ingredient, then brunch at Margot Cafe & Bar might be an egg yolk — a sunny side up, farm-raised yolk that's both fresh and familiar.

When I arrived for 101 minutes at the restaurant on a recent Sunday, sunlight flooded through the windows of the brick patio. It was standing room only in the pea-size foyer where Deruta Italian ceramics hang on brick walls. Silverware clinked along with conversation spiked
with anticipation. But as The Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" shuffled out of the sound system — peppered with the pop of uncorked Prosecco — it was clear we needn't be in a hurry.

I was meeting my crew of girlfriends, and I should disclose that this was hardly our first brunch at Margot. It's a place where we'd lived out all the Sex and the City clichés: We'd cried, laughed, nursed hangovers and caused them. But given that Margot celebrated her 10th anniversary this summer, it seemed like a natural place to start.

The angled bar in the center of the room held a few ruffled newspapers, a cucumber-infused Bloody Mary, a French press of coffee, a glass of beer and an elderflower Prosecco cocktail. Chef/owner Margot McCormack's partner Heather Parsons had tiled the bar herself with reclaimed pieces of granite when the restaurant opened a decade ago. My friend Jaime leaned over it with a mock-bark toward bartender Brian Jackson. "Can I get a French 75?" It had taken her a minute to decide on the cocktail made with gin, lemon juice and bubbly. "You had
your chance," he teased back, turning in a smooth nonstop flow to keep drinks on the bar and tables.

The pace on Sundays tends to be quick but relaxed. Busy but not uncomfortable. And with servers passing through with stacks of blueberry pancakes and plates of golden omelets, it's also a place that makes people talk about food. "So I'm canning now," Jaime said. "That's my new thing."

Our Champagne flutes had reached half-full status when Destin Weishaar, the longtime-server-turned-host, led us to our table in the open loft-like dining room upstairs. We scanned the menu, and ordered a cheese plate. Since service has a family or teamwork feel, Matt Davidson, the tattooed sous chef with horn-rimmed glasses and a serious demeanor, came up from the kitchen to deliver a couple plates of pastries, also on the menu. Served on Margot's
flea-market collection of mismatched china, it held a slice of coconut-almond pound cake, a sticky bun the size of a softball, and a Southern-style biscuit — crisp on the outside, moist inside.

A few familiar favorites keep their place on Margot's menu, but all come altered daily to showcase seasonal ingredients. On this particular Sunday, the quiche would be studded with mushrooms and goat cheese. The crepes were fat with sweet corn and Parmesan beneath a
Romesco sauce. Margot has long turned to farmer Tana Comer of Eaton's Creek Organics to keep her produce fresh. "We all have gardens," she said of the staff. "We'll bring things in as well. It's just such a nice collaborative effort."

Margot, who takes as much of her influence at the restaurant from Tuscany as from the south of France, also had included Italian fried rice balls on the menu: arancini with spinach, fennel, lima beans and cherry tomato vinaigrette. "The first time I went to Italy ... I don't think I put anything bad in my mouth," she said. Smitten, she also appreciated that women in Italy made their work in the kitchen with the men at the front of the house. It's contrary to many other
cultures where chefing is a man's game.

Though raised in Nashville, Margot left Music City for culinary school and later worked in New York City. When she returned to help her mother transition into retirement, she had no intention of staying. She considered a few jobs, but found none of them appealing. So with
one foot practically back on a plane to New York, her mother offered one last thought: "You didn't go to F.Scott's." Margot ended up taking a job at the Green Hills restaurant, but she wasn't happy about being back in her hometown. She tended to be vocal about it, too. But then a dishwasher at F. Scott's said something that stuck with her: "If you leave, you're just part of the problem — not the solution."

Stay, she did, by taking a chance to open Margot Cafe & Bar in a former service station that had been vacant for 8 years. That was 10 years ago.

"It was pin-drop quiet over here," she said.

Margot held on through the quiet years, though, and threw an anniversary party earlier this summer. Her father and mother didn't live to see the day. Margot teared up when the staff presented her a plaque to hang over her parents' favorite table. It's the table closest to the kitchen.

But the mood at the party was hardly all somber. Later that evening, as musician Jacob Jones spun records on the corner in front of the restaurant, attorney David Ewing hoisted Margot over the dance floor to his shoulder like a winning coach. Five Points certainly was no
longer desolate.

So what's next? What's new at Margot? "Who knows," she'll tell you.

"Well, today's menu is new," she said, noting its daily change. "How about that?"

And so, from it, we ordered a cool bowl of gazpacho made with tomatoes, watermelon and seasoning. "It looks like nothing, but it tastes like magic," Jaime said. Maybe hoping for canning inspiration, Jaime ordered just a side of house-made peach preserves with a few
slices of Benton's bacon. She slipped a biscuit off the pastry plate
to round out her meal.

Ann ordered peaches as well, but sliced over greens tossed with white balsamic vinaigrette.

I chose the poached eggs in a moat of Falls Mill grits with tomato sauce.

Jessica dug into the bruschetta, a hearty slice of bread piled with spicy arugula, bacon and eggs.

"If the eggs had been any other way, I would have been sad," she said. "Sunny-side
up is the way to go."

As Margot did what she does, so did we. "Here's to what's right with the world," said Ann, raising her glass. "What's better than this, really?"

And then Otis Redding sang "Tell It Like It Is."

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