In 25 years covering restaurants in Nashville, I’ve accumulated enough menus to load two large file cabinet drawers so full neither one will close. They chronicle the evolution of our city from the pre-Food Network hey-day of fern bar chains through the emergence of a new generation of chefs with youthful creativity stoking the genesis of independent restaurants transforming urban neighborhoods, to our current state of a dining destination town bursting with new restaurants, celebrity chefs and an enviable national profile.
Digging through those drawers, I find reminders that in some cases, pioneering restaurants suffered from being ahead of their time, their pre-gentrification location or the immigration of enough diners to appreciate their vision. In some cases, their contributions towards transforming a neighborhood led to their own demise as they were bulldozed or priced out of existence. A moment of silence please for Sasso, Ombi, Radius 10, Six Degrees, Mirror, Rumours Wine & Art Bar, Mambu, Laly’a Rul and tayst.
And a resounding “Cheers!’ to a chef who came to town more than 30 years ago and, after an inauspicious start at the revolving restaurant atop the Hyatt Regency Hotel, carved a niche she has owned ever since.
Fusion, molecular gastronomy, farm-to-table and snout-to-tail define certain decades but Deb Paquette has religiously followed her arrow — regardless of the trends. Every menu I own could be stripped of the name of the restaurant and I would still be able to pick hers from the pile, whether it be Third Coast, Cakewalk, Bound’ry, Zola or Etch.
“We know the Green Hills traffic debacle but there are so many back ways into Green Hills — and our diners know the back, back ways to get here,” Deb laughs. “We’re very happy to be in a neighborhood that is appreciative of nice and fun dining.
“I’ve seen lots of faces I haven’t seen in a while, lots of people from Zola days who didn’t want to venture downtown to Etch, or maybe went once but don’t want to deal with that again.”
It’s easy to spot familiar faces in a restaurant as intimate as etc., with the nicely spaced indoor seating and 12-stool bar — all contained in one gorgeous room of eye-popping surfaces: copper, matte wood, sculpted cobalt blue ceramic tile and white marble. Credit Katie Vance of Powell Architecture for designing a space both striking and serene. Carpet on much of the floor allows parties to converse comfortably, an accomplishment in modern dining, as is the confidence to eschew a television over the bar.
There are six featured cocktails, simply named for their dominant spirit — bourbon, mescal, aged gin, gin, rum and vodka — and heady with generous pours.
Lacking an olive or nut option to absorb the booze while reading the menu, we ordered the Bread and Butter and were rewarded with lightly grilled slices of superb sourdough from Bella Nashville — renowned for their pizza at the Nashville Farmers Market but very selective in their bread clientele.
I could have gone through an entire loaf, myself, poring over the menu. Looking back at a 15-year-old menu from Zola, the etc. descriptions of each dish are more succinct but no less global, exotic and unfamiliar to even the most worldly diners. Please resist whipping out your phone at the table and consulting what Deb calls “the Google machine;” your server will explain all.
Throughout her career, some diners have lobbed criticism that “There so much going on in her dishes,” and “Her food is just so complicated.” To that, Deb replies, “They’re right! I grew up in a creative family and was encouraged to express myself. I was allowed to paint the walls in my room how I wanted and to paint a scene in our bathroom of a kid flying a kite and a big tree. When you’re a creative person, you have to give yourself the opportunity to express yourself.
“With cooking, that allowed me to give myself permission to put something on a plate that is a guessing game. This is the food I do. It’s a little bit of cray-cray. My mantra has always been to give people food they can’t make or don’t want to make at home.”
When it came time to do the etc. menu, Deb first wrote “pages and pages of ideas,” then sat down with Etch sous chef Jess Lambert, now etc. chef de cuisine. Together, they edited it and did their R&D in the Etch kitchen. For desserts, she turned to Etch pastry chef Megan Williams, who now does the same for etc., as well.
Just as she painted the scene on the bathroom wall as a child, Deb paints a plate like nobody’s business. The old adage, “We eat first with our eyes,” comes to mind every time a Deb plate is set before me. As a writer, I don’t always agree that a picture is worth 1,000 words but when you have this spectacular a subject, I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.
Deb Paquette is the first to admit that her food is not for everyone and she’s fine with that. “My food is not always easy or understandable, but you have to have that one edgy, wacky restaurant — and that’s what I signed up for a long time ago. This is how I express myself. I’m happy to still be doing food that’s different and unexpected all these years later — and grateful to the people who have come along for the ride.”
etc. is located at 3790 Bedford Ave., Nashville, TN 37215. Hours are: Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday brunch hours are coming soon! Learn more at etc.restaurant or (615) 988-0332.