When you first hear that a restaurant has opened with the name of “lou” and discover that the name draws inspiration from “the fictional persona of a woman who is the daughter of a bohemian mother from Venice Beach and a well-read, charming Frenchman father,” you can guess that it will probably be a quirky spot with a kitchen helmed by somebody especially creative. That is indeed the case with lou, Chef Mailea Weger’s new East Nashville café at 1304 McGavock Pike that serves an inventive menu of California cuisine and French-inspired brunchy dishes featuring pastries created by Chef Sasha Piligian, formerly of Sqirl in Los Angeles.
Weger also hails from California, where she studied at the Culinary Institute of San Diego and received a strong training in classic French techniques. A stint cooking in Paris further inspired her, and when the time came to open up her own restaurant in Nashville near where her parents live in Franklin, she had definite ideas about the sort of establishment she wanted to bring to town. “California is a great training scene for chefs,” she explains. “California chefs are playful and don’t take themselves too seriously, but they are very aware of dealing with food waste, the importance of seasonality and working with local farmers, diners’ dietary needs and the healthy attitude that comes with that sort of cuisine.”
Her menu definitely focuses on vegetable-forward dishes, including all sorts of breakfast foods prepared using the wide range of kitchen spices and ethnic influences she discovered while working on the West Coast. Daytime dishes worth consideration include a Crispy Rice & Kale Salad with avocado, pickled cherries, wild mushroom togarashi and nori vinaigrette and a House Chorizo, Potato and Egg Sandwich featuring guajillo-cocoa chili paste, preserved lemon aioli cotija and a novel lacto-fermented hot sauce. The dinner menu showcases plates such as a cooling Chilled Salmon flavored with blackberry molasses vinegar and fermented Fresno chilies or a luscious Pork Belly with Chinese Five Spice Caramel.
With a menu of these boldly flavored options, Weger knew that she had to develop an innovative beverage program to pair with her food. In addition to a tight list of craft beers, spirits and house-made refreshments like a lovely sumac and ginger rose petal lemonade or wellness elixirs featuring healthy ingredients like turmeric, lou boasts one of the most inventive wine lists in town. Patrons won’t find the usual suspects on lou’s list; not even a chardonnay. Instead, Wegman has assembled an offering of all-natural wines, produced without adding or subtracting anything during the winemaking process. These wines are often naturally fermented using the local yeast that is always present in the air, and this produces flavors that are delightfully unusual, occasionally even a little bit “funky.”
These wines are exceedingly food-friendly, even if they might not be very familiar to diners visiting lou for the first time. “Service is so important,” explains Weger. “I fell in love with wine in France, especially the youthful approach of wine bars run by people who don’t make you feel intimidated. Wine should be approachable, but still be an adventure. We want you to walk away feeling you’ve learned something.” All wine at lou is poured tableside, with many options offered by the glass. “We approach the table and ask if our guests are familiar with natural wines. Sampling is so important to help determine their tastes and to help them find something they like. That’s why our by-the-glass program is such a big part of the restaurant because it allows guests to try all sorts of different natural wines.”
Without the addition of sulfites, sugar or other flavorings, natural wines can exhibit a much more definitive expression of terroir, the concept that a wine is the product of all the local factors involved in its creation: the climate, the soil, the local yeast strain and the topography. “I want the truest example of the farm where the grapes were grown with the least manipulation,” explains Weger, adding another benefit, “Natural wines also contain less alcohol, so I love that I can get a fun buzz without feeling heavy or tired.” She jokes, “I tend to have fewer hangovers the next day, too!”
Weger sources her wines from unexpected locales such as Greece, Czech Republic, and even Mexico, and she was concerned about being able to find these obscure wines after moving from the industry capitals of France and California. “I was nervous about sourcing,” she admits. “But I’ve been able to open with wines that I’m proud of. They’re equal to what I was drinking in France, and the staff is also really excited about them. We can most likely find something you’ll like, and that’s why we test them first.”
To give you a head start on the list at lou, so you’ll be at least a little better prepared when your server approaches the table with that list of natural wines, here are some of Weger’s favorites and her suggestions of dishes to pair them with:
2017 Bichi “Listan” Misión Red Blend
“This wine is from Mexico, and because it’s grown in volcanic soil, it’s super earthy and smoky. I call it ‘the mezcal of wine,’ and it’s one of my favorites!” Weger suggests pairing the briny acidity of this wine with her Flank Steak with pepita salsa macha.
2018 Troupis “Hoof and Lur” Moschofilero
“If My restaurant was a wine, it would be this one, all sexy and floral!” This wine spends extra time in contact with the grape skins to stimulate fermentation, the process that produces what are sometimes called “orange wines.” Unfiltered but not cloudy, Hoof and Lur exhibit lovely rosehip and sour apple notes. Wegeler calls it her “breakfast wine” and suggests pouring this Greek wine alongside her version of street corn made with seaweed aioli and togarashi.
2018 Cacique Maravilla Vino Naranja Moscatel
“Natural wines are alive, with yeast and microbes still living in the bottles. This wine has an amazing savory character with olive tones.” Weger likes this incredibly complex wine with her Ancient Spiced Roast Chicken Salad and Green Sandwich because it plays well with the Castelvetrano olives, pickled cherries, fermented chilies, herbed greens, and curry vinaigrette. It may well be the best thing between two slices of bread in all of East Nashville.