River on the Rooftop
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River on the Rooftop concert series The free, three-part concert series, with dates on June 11, June 25, and July 23, will feature performances from Bebe Rexha,
Whenever Max and Benjamin Goldberg, the restaurateurs behind Strategic Hospitality, open a new joint, you can pretty much count on it being a good party. From Patterson House and Catbird Seat to Merchants, Paradise Park, and Pinewood Social, they’ve made a name for themselves in Nashville (and beyond) by opening places that are entertaining and unique, artistic and full of energy, and—as the brothers often say—the kinds of spaces where they want to hang out. Their latest project, Le Sel, is no exception.
Seafood tasting platter, $45, $65, or $135
Hudson Valley duck breast, $24
French lentils, $6
Set inside midtown’s Adelicia condominium building, Le Sel takes the spot of what used to be Music City Tippler—but unlike the Tippler’s dark, rustic interior, this new French concept is a feast for the senses, with its black-and-white striped floor, salmon-pink banquettes, and the centerpiece: a marble-topped raw bar. (Interiors expert Benjamin Vandiver designed the space.)
Past the dining room, another bar is covered with black penny tiles, and up the stairs, a small private dining room is washed in shades of red with graffiti-like art painted on the walls. Downstairs, there’s a separate bar and lounge where one wall features the restaurant’s unofficial mascot, a French bulldog wearing an ancient diver’s helmet—Max’s dog was the model.
There’s artwork hanging everywhere, in fact, including two trippy string-art pieces by local designer Jeff Stamper. A neon sign behind the raw bar flashes the words “resist” and “irresistible,” basking diners’ faces in red when the lights go down at dinnertime. Oh, and did we mention the French hip-hop flowing through the speakers?
It’s a place that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously—until you pay attention to the details. Just look at the wine menu, for example. Created by sommelier Tim Rawding, who worked his way through award-winning New York restaurants like Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud before coming South, the canvas-covered book—he prefers that term over “list”—is a work of art itself. Obsessed with maps of wine regions, Rawding has collected and even drawn his own (albeit with crayons) over the years. He partnered with Le Sel manager Avon Lyons, who created the book’s watercolor maps, which are set alongside each wine region. Chapter notes throughout offer a journey into Rawding’s own fascination with Old World wines (his favorite region: Loire) and are written in a way that speaks to both novices and nerds. The work that went into creating it gives just one peek into how deeply the team here cares about what they do.
Another case in point: chef Rene De Leon and what he’s doing in the kitchen. Though the restaurant has been open for several weeks, he’s quick to say that the menu is a work in progress. “Every single dish can be improved,” he asserts, indicating an unending quest for perfection. “But that’s me—I’m the guy who can always see when something could be caramelized a little better or served a little hotter.”
That work ethic comes from his years in the kitchen at the groundbreaking Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next under acclaimed chef Grant Achatz. During his time there, it wasn’t unusual for Achatz to send De Leon on a 24-hour trip to Denmark to eat at Noma or to Spain to dine at the now-closed El Bulli.
“It’s not the reality that most chefs know, but it was my reality,” De Leon says. “Sometimes, chef Achatz would call and say, ‘Can you fly to Japan? Like, tomorrow?’ And I could never say no. Looking back, I can’t believe it all happened. But now, that’s how I approach things—being able to look at any problem and find a solution. It’s an attitude, more than anything else.”
After leaving Next, he traveled for the better part of year, eventually landing in New Orleans, where restaurant after restaurant told him he was overqualified. He was considering a move to Los Angeles when a call with chef Josh Habiger, Strategic Hospitality’s culinary director changed everything.
“Josh said, ‘If you came to Nashville, I’d hire you in a heartbeat,’” De Leon recalls. Shortly after (as in, within the hour), he had a plane ticket booked.
As the Goldbergs considered taking over the Music City Tippler space, they consulted with De Leon about a “new French” concept, one that emulates what is happening across Paris today. Instead of a classic bistro or brasserie, De Leon was excited about that city’s contemporary culinary scene, which is now sizzling with international chefs and young up-and-comers. So while Le Sel’s menu touts recognizable French fare, like a lobster omelet, bouillabaisse, and French onion soup, those items are spiked with De Leon’s creative license—think crème fraîche in the omelet, fermented chili paste in the bouillabaisse, and kombu seaweed in the soup.
Open for lunch, dinner, and brunch, Le Sel has a wide-ranging menu, from raw bar items that include various oysters, poached lobster, shrimp, and Alaskan king crab to starter plates like ratatouille, an exceptionally tasty lamb tartare (served traditionally with Dijon mustard and a raw egg), and bone marrow. For something lighter (yet still carnivore-friendly), there’s the salad lyonnaise with crispy pork and a poached egg. Vegetable-focused dishes include a buttercup squash with a carrot demi glace.
There are large-format options such as a salt-crusted grouper as well as traditional entrées, like a Hudson Valley duck breast that pops thanks to bits of pickled kale. Sides are worth tacking on, especially the French lentils, which are brightened with a dash of vinegar and mustard. Desserts get De Leon’s hyper-focused treatment, too—try the apple tartine, made with what feels like a million layers of thinly sliced apples baked over puff pastry.
Thanks to the Goldbergs, Nashville may finally have a French restaurant worth getting to know—and the talented team behind it is more than happy to show you how much fun French dining can be.
1922 Adelicia St; 615-490-8550; leselnashville.com