The red neon sign displaying a moving martini glass with the words underneath “shaken, not stirred” leaves no doubt as to what awaits one inside “The M Bar & Restaurant”. The only thing more adventurous than the menu is finding a table in New Grace’s new hot spot. It has quickly become the local in-place to be. Nestled inside the multi-million dollar newly renovated Blair Hotel, it gives new meaning to the term “unique experiences in dining”.
The hush of the hotel’s interior catches you completely off-guard – coming in from the traffic off Sherman Circle. We passed through Corinthian columns into an atrium lobby five stories high featuring a 27-foot-tall indoor waterfall. Once inside the restaurant, exposed-filament lightbulbs and brick walls lend the rooms a fashionably rustic vibe. A large clock embedded in a stained-glass window provides a colorful filter for the sunlight during the day and a catchy conversation piece at any time. I must admit though, it’s a bit hard to have a conversation above the stereo that booms incessantly.
Our hostess directed me and my dining companions to the large stone bar where we sampled a gauntlet of martinis. Their martini menu is quite extensive and impressive: blue martinis with vodka, blue Curacao and bitters; Kahlua coffee martinis with vodka, instant coffee and vanilla extract and my favorite – sweet cranberry martinis with vodka, cranberry juice and Cointreau. The least adventurous among our group ordered the old stand-by, a Gibson – gin, vermouth and a pickled onion. There’s even a riff on the omnipresent pomegranate. A splendid pomegranate Tanqueray martini – pomegranate juice, vodka and lemon juice, Cointreau liqueur and sugar. Each patrons’ drink is accompanied by an array of tapas. They serve salted almonds, chicken livers in a vibrant sherry sauce, tiny Spanish meatballs in almond sauce, fried manchego cheese and crispy chicken and ham croquettes. No one in our group was up for the more challenging dish, miniature wasabi sea urchin.
Chef Chris Nelson’s, a Johnson & Wales alumni, menu is organized into four serving sizes, ranging from small tapas to shared entrees. Stick with the small tapas although at six bucks a pop you could easily go broke. Once at our table we ordered the Spanish omelet, filled
w/potatoes and onions; a beautiful egg poached in oil and served over zucchini, peppers, peas; and roasted asparagus atop a mild, smoky chorizo and fried bread. Stuffing a tangy Spanish blue cheese and almonds into dates, and then wrapping the whole thing w/bacon was heavenly. The kitchen’s palate-teasing dexterity with flavors and texture continue with the scallops in saffron sauce and a straight-form-the Greenmarket dish of sugar-snap peas with a fiery wasabi vinaigrette, an inspired pairing.
Although I can testify to the importance of drinking booze when eating tapas, I certainly wouldn’t have given a thought to serving martinis along with tapas (my taste runs towards Spanish Sherries). That The M Bar has managed to pull it off is quite an achievement,
especially for a reasonably small city in the South. It gives testament to vision of Addison Davies, the owner and the sophistication and urbanity of New Grace. Also thanks to the very talented Chef Nelson and his staff, The M Bar delivers the kind of inventive, seasonal small-plates cuisine that will have New Grace clamoring without having to go far from home to sample a menu that is popular throughout the country. This kitchen churns out impeccable contemporary Spanish dishes that can work diners into a state of euphoria. I’ve promised myself that on my next visit I will try the espresso martini, vanilla vodka, coffee liqueur, hazelnut liqueur and Irish cream. Sounds intoxicating.