Great design can be like great genes, conserving the potential to bounce back after years of shabby treatment. That's the case these days around Lee Circle, the graceful fulcrum between Uptown and downtown where gas stations hold down two corners and new life is emerging around it.
Tivoli & Lee, the new restaurant inside the Hotel Modern, functions like a somewhat upscale neighborhood restaurant, with a mix of bare tables and deep, cove-like booths. Broad windows frame the monument to Gen. Robert E. Lee and passing streetcars, a carousel motif brings the circle inside, and chef Mike Nirenberg's seasonally tuned interpretation of regional cuisine seals the deal.
Some of Nirenberg's dishes are identifiably Southern without falling into caricature, and others are classic without seeming formal. A recent special was essentially Delta-style fish and chips, with a long flank of peppery, crackling-crisp fried catfish and an aromatic curry aioli that I found myself slathering on everything within reach. But then there's the duck confit, a textbook French edition with a rigid, deeply fatted crust that seems to distill the richness of the meat inside.
Riding shotgun with that dish, or standing solo as an appetizer, are andouille tots, the restaurant's campy but accurate name for fried wads of shredded potato imbued with smoky sausage bits and manchego cheese. Another winner features cornmeal-crusted oysters, which are topped with a creamy beet and green onion salad and chips of prosciutto that elevate the bivalves from a seafood platter standard to something you might find at a new wave tapas bar.
Tivoli & Lee opened formally after a prolonged pop-up stint over the winter. Although there was ample time to test-drive the concept, the full-fledged restaurant was slow out of the gate. On our first visit, the kitchen didn't have the groceries to prepare a few dishes on the short menu. And there were problems with dishes that it could field, including a bland chicken and polenta entree and ricotta dumplings overpowered by lemon.
Since then, however, the menu has expanded and the consistency has progressively tightened into a roster of satisfying dishes. What sounded like a straightforward salad became a fascinating back-and-forth between fresh arugula, pickled beans, tender poached shrimp and crunchy croutons. Sweet corn ice cream melting over blueberry bread pudding carried the essence of summer flavors.
Business tends to pick up during later hours here. If the place looks dead at 7 p.m., it could be bustling an hour later. Some of that is attributable to the bar, a craft-cocktail destination in its own right, which seems to draw people at later hours. Overseen by Kimberly Patton-Bragg, the bar is professional, approachable and offers classics and originals, which brings Tivoli & Lee full circle.