It’d been a while since I visited Tivoli and Lee and I’d heard good things, so not long ago I went back. The restaurant is located in the Hotel Modern at 2 Lee Circle. It’s not exactly the sort of place one stumbles onto, which is a shame, because chef Marcus Woodham is doing some very interesting things with “modern Southern” cooking, a cuisine that risks becoming staid, given its current popularity and despite all of its current champions. 

I started with perfectly executed fried green tomatoes with a smoked paprika aioli, garnished with sliced jalapenos. You would have to look long and hard to find a better example of the fryer’s art than those green tomatoes. The batter was light and crisp, and it adhered well to the quartered tomatoes. The inherent tartness of the tomato was balanced by the rich, smoky aioli. I found the sliced jalapenos unnecessary; I guess they added a bit of color to my plate? Maybe if they’d been sliced tissue-thin, I’d have been tempted to eat them, but as it was, the dish had enough spice from their proximity to the rest of the ingredients.

The kitchen sent out an order of the crab fingers in a sweet-tart-spicy sauce garnished with cilantro and chopped peanuts, over grilled slices of sourdough bread. I’m a sucker for the combination of lime, chile and peanut, so it’s no surprise I liked the dish.

I also ordered the squid ink fettuccine with turtle, pickled quail eggs, tomatoes, pickled red beans and preserved lemon but was served the Chappapeela Farms duck ravioli in a smoked onion broth, with pork belly marmalade and pepper jelly.

I didn’t say anything when the ravioli hit my table because I’d considered ordering it and I didn’t want to make the kitchen toss it and start over. It was OK, but next time I’m definitely going to try the fettuccine. The ravioli were a bit on the chalky side of al dente, though the filling was pretty good and the broth was delicious. I was initially put off by the sweetness of the pepper jelly, but some tartness came through as I ate, and both flavors set off the dish’s overall spiciness.

I didn’t detect any pork belly in the dish, marmalade or otherwise, and when I asked, I was told it was in the broth. Perhaps it’s strained out before service, but I’m left with the impression that it was just omitted. I will say that I arrived 10 minutes before lunch service started; the kitchen might not have been up to speed yet.  

I hate to be too critical because overall I liked that dish well-enough and Tivoli and Lee is a beautiful restaurant with an ambitious menu that doesn’t shy away from heat. I loved the play on fried green tomatoes, and there were a half-dozen other dishes on the lunch menu alone which I’d like to try. As I mentioned before, “Southern” food is all the rage these days, and that’s fine, but it’s also nice to see a chef looking beyond pork fat and pickles.

So it’s puzzling that by the time I left at 12:30 I was only one of three people eating lunch. It was a Tuesday, but given the quality of the food and the fairly reasonable prices (nothing on the lunch menu is over $21, and most dishes land between $6 and $15), it should be busier.

Maybe it’s because there’s no parking lot and some people (including me) don’t really like valet service, but that’s no excuse. There are a lot of spaces on the blocks surrounding the place, and there will be more if the construction in that area ever ends.

Bottom line: This is a very good restaurant that deserves more attention. Tivoli and Lee is open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for breakfast, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Brunch is served 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Call 962-0909 for more information.