Sunday, October 23, 2011
117 2nd Avenue North
When it comes to new downtown eateries, we’re always hoping for the best. Tourist land doesn’t have to mean mediocre food. However, it often does. There are a few Broadway and Second Avenue joints that rise above the rest. They’re in the definite minority. So when Mulligan’s closed we watched developments closely. At first blush it didn’t sound promising. The other ventures from these owners are fairly typical boring twenty-something cookie cutter places in Nashville. Benchmark may appear cut of the same tired cloth on entering. The band playing in the window. The waitresses dressed ready for a battle with the Hooters girls. Open the menu though and you find a few surprises. Wisconsin fried cheese curds anyone? That certainly got our attention and you know what? They were pretty darn good: salty, stringy and with a light fry and a little squeak on biting into the cheese (that sounds weird- it’s the sign of good curds). The horseradish dipping sauce on the side worked well.
Intrigued and hopeful, we ventured further into the menu. Another menu twist is section with skewers of meat, chicken, shrimp or veggies, which are served hanging from a cumbersome gyro-like contraption that is a bit overblown. The big surprise here was the tofu option. I’ll let the Veggie Eater handle that side of things. The house salad with tangy house made blue cheese was good, loaded up with fresh greens. Sweet potato fries are rather typical with a hint of cinnamon. A bacon burger ordered medium comes out quite rare, a bit of a concern, especially for those with food borne illness worries. I am fairly open to the risk and find that it has great flavor, served with a big purple onions slice and sweet barbecue sauce. That first visit goes well. They had a ton of staff on hand and plenty of sports on TVs. Even the live band seemed to work.
We waited on the next visit for several weeks. Unfortunately, the tourist serving mentality appears to have set in with the servers on this night. Our favorite was an argument over the menu. It showed the Philly Cheesesteak Quesadilla as coming with one side. Fair enough. I order mac and cheese and the bartender says that will be an extra $1.50. I point to the menu. It says one side. She gives me a deer in the headlights look and keeps saying she’s sorry but it comes with fries. I don’t care about a lousy $1.50. It’s just seemed like a bit of a rip-off, the type of thing you might do to… well, tourists. Anyway, we put that aside and spring for the extra $1.50 and of course the plate arrives with fries. We are out of fight and now watching a ballgame. Those fries are crispy enough if unremarkable. The cheesesteak quesadilla is a bit bland, suffering from a general lack of seasoning. The crunchy peppers do appear to be fresh and a little seasoning would make it a decent dish. Service is generally off on this visit. The staff is numerous, but folks appear distracted. Perhaps they’re gearing up for a busy night and saving their energy. We watch the Brewers win a fantastic game five of the NLDS and leave happy (we know- Milwaukee baseball goes downhill from here).
Veggie Eater: I must admit that I was quite effusive in my praise after visit number one, but somewhat more cynical after visit number two. The reason for my high spirits after the first visit was the option of veggie and/or tofu skewers that made for real veggie treat. Big chunks of tofu are served in a slightly sweet sesame sauce, skewered with pineapple and peppers and serviced with a giant bed of turmeric rice. There are a variety of dipping sauces to top off your roasting bits however you like it. The skewers were well cooked and it was nice to have a veggie option that is not limited to the usual fried fatty platter fare. Next visit, as noted above, was not quite so wonderful. I opted for the nachos and found them to be a bit flat. The queso was not much more than the Rotel version, the chips were not warm. It was topped with a heap of chiffonaded leaf lettuce, which I found a bit odd. The guac was a bit more interesting, as it seemed to be generously seasoned with cumin. They have recently added breakfast and I might just have to give it another shake.
Meat Eater: I think they have a fairly creative chef and we’ll be interested to see how the food holds up. Benchmark could be a decent go-to spot for the locals if they want to be. They just need to settle in and put the emphasis on quality. If you market for tourists you just try to get as much out of them as you can. They leave, and you don’t have to worry about a repeat visit. Working for locals takes a bit more effort. I would imagine it would do well for Benchmark to appeal to both.
We paid $45 with tax and tip on one visit and $60 with several drinks for another.