Just 15 years ago, the Gulch was a no-man’s flatland crisscrossed with railroad tracks and dotted with industrial buildings and warehouses, some in use, many vacant and deteriorating. Today, approaching from any angle, one is greeted by an emerging, modern skyline composed of tall buildings and towering cranes lifting materials to construct more tall buildings. Twelve Twelve is the latest luxury residential building selling like hotcakes, though it won’t be the last, and many more office towers and hotels are in the queue.
Though some of the original historic buildings remain, their form and function has been dramatically altered–notably the block that lines up Sambuca, Watermark, RuSan, Lucchese and Two Old Hippies. But the more things change, the more one thing has happily remained the same–the venerable, tradition-steeped Station Inn, marking its 40th year as the hallowed home of live bluegrass in Nashville. The squat, stone building sits on property owned by Nashville native Charles Wehby, who also had the empty auto repair garage and lot next door, for which he had long spurned the advances of many armed with a big check and a bigger plan.
It wasn’t until retail developer Mark Banks and architect Nick Dryden made him a promise to go small in the midst of all the big that he said yes. Both the five-room boutique 404 Hotel and 28-interior seat 404 Kitchen are thoughtful, creative, efficient and visually appealing re-uses. The hotel was carved from the existing garage and the restaurant crafted from a shipping container that began its journey in China, floated to port in Charleston, was reconfigured there, trucked to Nashville and craned onto the compact lot. Essentially, 404 is hiding in plain sight. The entrance to the Hotel is tucked behind a wall to the right of Station Inn and the entry is reminiscent of a speakeasy, subbing the secret knock for a passcode.
The Kitchen, thanks in part to the half-dozen tables on the petite patio, is more easily identified as such, though its signage is just as elegantly discreet.
Even before the crate arrived, Nashville realtor and beloved friend-of-chefs Thomas Williams served as matchmaker between Banks and Chef Matt Bolus, who moved to Nashville in 2011 from Charleston, leaving FIG to take the executive chef position at Watermark. When they parted ways, he moved a few blocks over to Flyte’s kitchen, which is where Banks commenced the courtship that consummated with Bolus taking over The Kitchen. “The size, autonomy and the commitment to sustainability really appealed to me,” says Bolus, who recently had his first child with wife Kelly. “I love the intimacy of the space.”
There are six comfortable stools at the marble-fronted, zinc-topped bar, which a lot of Gulch residents and workers have discovered to be the perfect place to unwind with a rejuvenating cocktail or glass of wine from the list compiled by GM /Sommelier Travis Brazil. (The doors open 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.)
As small as the dining room is, the kitchen, relative to most commercial spaces, is miniscule. At just under 200 square feet, it could fit inside many home kitchens with room to spare. Bolus and his crew of four cooks have no room to spare, so maximum use is made of minimum space, and he puts a positive spin on it, “You save a lot of time by literally having everything at your fingertips! And it forces everyone to stay very focused.” The same could be said of the menu, which also takes a minimalist approach for maximum effect.
Typically just seven starters, seven entrees and a quintet of sides for sharing, the entire menu doesn’t switch out every day, but changes and tweaks are made according to the season and availability from Bolus’s roster of regional purveyors. Bolus keeps his dishes clean and simple, though the processes to achieve the vibrant flavors have their own complexities.
Take the crudo for example, a light starter that, along with its leadoff spot, hopefully enjoys a permanent place on the menu. At its core is freshly-sliced raw fish (cobia currently), though it might be embellished with different items. The colorful dance partners here are pickled strawberries, delicate pea tendrils and crushed Marcona almonds; the shallow pool of citrus, olive oil and Chardonnay vinegar, puddled beneath, sings with flavor.
As familiar as pimento cheese is to Nashvillians, “burrata” typically requires a quick translation from its Italian origin–basically cheese wrapped in cheese. Traditionally, the shell is mozzarella and the soft filling a blend of mozzarella and cream. The 404’s burrata is house-made mozzarella around a creamy blend of sharp cheddar, garlic, bourbon smoked paprika, pimento and Dijon mustard. Create your own open-faced sandwich with a smear of burrata on butter-toasted bread and top with arugula and paper-thin radish.
Or make sweet and salty sliders from this deep South platter of Allan Benton’s Tennessee country ham goodness, buttermilk biscuits, red eye gravy and dollops of whiskey jam so boozy you might get tipsy.
I love cioppino and am always grateful I have no shellfish issues when I get a bowl that looks like this. If this classic fish stew is on the menu, I’m going to make sure someone at the table gets it—and that there is ample bread for sopping up the broth.
Sheepshead is another 404 menu item that startles some diners until it is explained that it comes from the sea and not the meadow. Bolus’s take has practically generated a cult following of its own and for good reason. The filets of Atlantic saltwater whitefish are cooked on the French flattop under a bacon press which produces the delectable crispy skin. Two meaty planks top a mound of Carolina gold rice, red peas and collard greens in a bowl of ham broth.
My ordering policy is to go for what I can’t or won’t cook at home. Rabbit caught my eye immediately and ricotta gnudi sealed the deal. Gnudi sounds like gnocci and resembles it as well, but is much lighter, which allows you to eat lots more of it, which you will want to do as soon as you try this earthy dish with its shreds of braised rabbit, coins of king trumpet mushrooms, nettles and citrus-infused broth under a scatter of grated cheese.
Risotto falls in the “don’t want to cook at home” category just because I don’t have the time or patience to do just that one thing.
Here it has been stirred and stirred with ramps, a quintessential sign of spring in these parts. As are radishes—a common garden vegetable but rarely given their due as a side dish, or treated to a nice hot butter bath as these are.
I am always glad to know pastry chef Sam Tucker is in the house before I order my meal so I am sure to leave room for one of his desserts, which oxymoronically appeal to me because I am not a sweets person. His finales are both whimsical and refined, with a touch of nostalgia, like this perfectly portioned slice of banana semifreddo with Yazoo Sly Rye Porter marshmallow, a layer of milk chocolate and crispy rice and a slice of banana. This may not be on the menu when you visit, but there will always be a trio of happy endings to choose from.
In adhering faithfully to the less is more playbook, The 404 Kitchen has made a big splash in its debut year. Name-dropped in the New York Times, Forbes and Southern Living, generating rave reviews and feverish local buzz, it was a semi-finalist in Best New Restaurant category in the 2014 James Beard Awards. At 404, small is the new large.
Thank you, Kay! To make a reservation at 404 Kitchen, visit the website: the404nashville.com/kitchen
And thank you, Ashley Hylbert for these divine photos today! See more of Ashley’s work here: ashleyhylbert.com.
Kay West is a freelance writer who began her career in journalism in Manhattan, then moved to Nashville in 1981 to work in the music industry before returning to writing. She became one of the three first writers for the Nashville Scene in 1989, and was their weekly restaurant critic from 1992-2007. For the last 28 years, she has written for local, regional and national publications, as well as for the music industry. She continues to write features for the Scene and Nashville Lifestyles, covers restaurants for StyleBlueprint, and is Nashville correspondent for People Weekly/People Country/People.com.