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MEIL: Bit o' Honey

By Joe Nolan

One of Nashville's best restaurants is also one of its most progressive. Boasting what are probably the freshest organic ingredients possible, Miel brings new meaning to good taste.

"I hear it again and again," says Miel co-founder Seema Prasad. "When people come to eat here they don't feel like they're in Nashville anymore."

Miel has been a local favorite with foodies and critics alike since it opened its doors in September of 2008. It may seem counter-intuitive for a classically-focused, fine-dining establishment like Miel to have been able to survive these recent, lean economic times, but they certainly have. In fact, despite the kind of dramas that can plague any restaurant, Miel has built a rabidly enthusiastic following, and even provided shelter for refugees who've found themselves stranded when other fine dining restaurants have recently called it quits. Not only did the spot develop a big reputation in a hurry, it also garnered the kind of audience that every great kitchen secretly covets: Miel is a place where chefs go to eat.

When Miel first opened, their French-inspired menu was something of a revelation to Nashville food critics and gourmands alike. Escargots and frog legs in garlic-parsley butter, pan-seared red snapper and salad Nicoise of ahi tuna, iron-seared rib eye and roasted eggplant with lentils and ratatouille. It was enough to make diners question whether they had suddenly been teleported to Paris, when in fact they were at a small restaurant on an urban block, behind a burger stand that's known for its soft-serve ice cream.

"I hear it again and again," says Miel co-founder Seema Prasad. "When people come to eat here they don't feel like they're in Nashville anymore."

In fact, Miel has deep roots in Nashville-literally. While many restaurants have admirably joined in on the slow food approach, offering local and organic ingredients with their seasonal menus, Miel takes the idea to the extreme, gathering organic, heirloom produce and herbs from their very own 1? acre farm located on River Road, just up from the Cumberland River. The plot is located on the same land that yields the organic produce for Green Door Gourmet, the restaurant and farmers' market supplier. "It's actually the site of an old hog farm," Prasad enthuses. "The land is incredibly fertile."

Prasad has usually managed the planting and harvesting with help from volunteers and interns, and this year has been busier than most. Not counting two rather tenacious tomato plants, Nashville's May flood wiped out Miel's crops and essentially knocked the farm out of commission for two months. She cracks wise about the event with the same kind of flood-inspired humor that has become de rigueur here in our city in the last few months. "Downstream somewhere there is going to be incredible okra and fennel," she laughs.

Nashville gourmands can rest easy knowing that Miel's autumn harvest is back on schedule, thanks to a lot of hard work in the heat of an especially brutal summer, and that the restaurant has a number of new treats planned for their fall menu.

"Oh, yeah! We were just meeting about this last night!" Prasad jumps at the chance to share the incubating ideas for the menu items Miel plans offer to diners this fall. The list is long, varied, and maddeningly provocative during a late afternoon meet-up stretching dangerously close to dinner hour. Soups made from white and blue French pumpkins, venison backstrap in a demi-glace with vegetables, terrine of rabbit, lamb osso bucco, duck breast with red quinoa, and any number of combinations that will incorporate all the kales, chard, and turnips that the farm's rich soil will offer up in the coming months.

The availability of fresh, hearty ingredients at the restaurant allows for simple recipes to hold sway on the menu. The simplicity works in favor of creating something elegant. With such fine ingredients, Miel seems most interested in emphasizing without distracting. "This is a refined bistro," says Prasad. "We're classically influenced. That's the framework. It allows for all these amazing choices of produce and meats. When we prepare them we allow the ingredients to stand on their own."

She is clearly proud of the restaurant's delicious reputation, but for Prasad, the quality of their food isn't just about good taste. "Food is art and it needs to nourish all of our senses, but most importantly it needs to nourish our bodies. By farming, we're able to provide more nutrients to our diners as well."

Miel means "honey" in both French and Spanish, and the enduring quality of the sticky stuff is clearly an inspiration for Prasad, who says, "They've found honey in the Pyramids. It's still good thousands of years later!" With unbeatable ingredients and a track record that proves Prasad and her crew are dedicated to their mission, Miel creates a sweet, timeless experience worthy of the name.