Fresh from The Vine
The Vine is the brainchild and shared passion of Greg Swafford and Chef Luke Belsito. Together the men have developed a restaurant committed to offering what Swafford describes as “fresh, traditional, modern American, with a wide variety of wines for all palates and budgets. We want to serve people the best food, and show them how wine can develop the flavor of that food.”
Combined, Swafford and Belsito have decades of experience in large restaurant management. The men met midcareer at Texas Roadhouse, where Swafford was in purchasing and Belsito was culinary director. But years would pass, and the men would work their way through numerous executive positions, before they worked together again.
When Swafford found himself at Landry’s as vice president in charge of purchasing, he decided that Houston wasn’t for him and decided to explore an old dream. So he began exploring the idea of opening his own restaurant in Nashville, where he grew up (Swafford grew up on a farm in Gallatin and played high school football there). Finding a chef with whom he could share his vision seemed as if it would prove tougher.
When Swafford reached out to Belsito for recommendations, however, he found the chef ready both to try his hand at something new and to return to his roots. Belsito actually got his start in the kitchens of Nashville’s San Antonio Taco Co., as well as Granite Falls, before heading off to the Culinary Institute of America (where he was a classmate of Chef Margot McCormack).
Sharing a passion for Nashville and for food, Swafford and Belsito have a simple philosophy at The Vine: “Fresh, modern American food, paired with exceptional wine.” Or as Belsito put it, “We’ll be as cool and hip as we can, while staying true to our commitments. We could make our food a lot fancier, but not a lot fresher. We don’t use unnecessarily exotic ingredients: we aim for a clean flavor profile.”
I had the opportunity to try a number of dishes that exemplified the restaurant’s mission. On special was a salmon dip, made with trimmings from the Scottish salmon the restaurant has flown in, and served with cucumber and crostini. The dish was mostly salmon, with a light and unobtrusive creaminess and flavored only by chives and sweet red peppers. The light, fresh flavor of the dip was extraordinary.
Both Swafford and Belsito are committed to training and developing talented cooks, whose creative recipes utilizing at-hand, fresh ingredients sometimes make their way onto the day’s menu. I found one of these—the poblano, pineapple, and sweet pepper soup—intriguing enough to try. The creamy, sweet potato base was elevated complexly by the simple blend of ingredients, yielding a sweet, but not too sweet, perfectly spiced soup, perfect for a cold day.
For the main course, I tried both the “Denver Lamb Chops,” as well as the “Shrimp & Grits Creole” from the standard menu. I was doubly impressed. First, the lamb was superb: my seven-year-old raced me to each bite of the tender, flavorful, perfectly medium-rare lamb, which was served on al dente, cooked-to-order asiago risotto. The shrimp dish was masterfully executed: I’ve often ordered a traditionally spicy dish in a high-end restaurant only to find it under-spiced. The shrimp’s creole seasoning was excellent, spicy but not uncomfortably so, and the bacon-cheddar grits were cheesy enough to let me know a Southerner had been in the kitchen.
The climax of the meal, however, was the flourless chocolate torte, topped with chocolate Marconi almond gelato (made in-house). If you are a chocoholic, I guarantee you that climax would be no hyperbole. I tend toward fruity desserts (all jokes aside, it’s true) and yet here was a chocolate dish I would cross rivers to eat, even if I had no intention of enjoying a meal!
The food at vine would qualify—in my book—as fine dining, in terms of quality. But both men were careful to avoid the term “fine dining.” Indeed, they explicitly repudiated the term. “We want people to know,” Swafford said, “that people can feel comfortable coming here for a nice date, for a birthday celebration, or just to have a good time. Consistently excellent food and wine doesn’t have to be intimidating.”
Indeed, they go out of their way to be welcoming. Swafford made a point of saying that if they know in advance of special dietary needs or concerns, the restaurant can create a menu, and they have trained their staff to avoid cross contamination when they are made aware of allergies. “We just want people to know we’re a restaurant for everyone,” Swafford explained.
To find out more about the restaurant, or to peruse the menu, visit their website at www.v-thevine.com