Ashley Hylbert and I recently met up with Kay West for lunch at Epice, and it seemed each table was filled with someone else that we knew. Foodies, business people, artists and more had gathered here to find out why there are so many raving about this spot next to White’s Mercantile on 12South. The answer was clear with each plate that arrived. Nashville craves good food created with its own stamp of creativity. Epice delivers. We are thrilled to welcome Kay West back for her review.
When, on a quiet Sunday morning, you spy a successful restaurateur and a successful designer standing side-by-side, arms folded, in front of an available building deep in thought, there’s only one thing to do: stop the car. Some people brake for yard sales; since I started writing about Nashville’s dining scene 22 years ago, I brake for mysterious restaurant activity.
That might include a suddenly missing “For Lease” sign, a building permit on the door, or construction crews parked outside. In this case it was the sight of Maher Fawaz—creator and co-owner of the crazy-popular Mediterranean trio of Kalamatas casual restaurants—and Patrick Avice du Buisson, whose clean, contemporary style has graced many residences and commercial buildings in town, including the breathtaking interior of the now-closed Ombi on Elliston Place.
The building they were standing in front of was a longtime and familiar resident of 12th Ave. South, before it was branded 12South: the kitchen and staging base for Monica Holmes’ Clean Plate Club (CPC) catering company. Its bright yellow hue and larger-than-life, aproned 1950’s era female cook on the side of the building made it a directional landmark on the south end of the commercial district before Sevier Park segued out of its tawdry reputation into the family-dog-festival-farmer friendly urban oasis it is today.
When Holmes moved CPC to a much larger building in the next up-and-coming urban area (between Greer Stadium and Wedgewood in case you’re wondering) that Gabby’s Burgers pioneered, she put her coveted shotgun space up for lease and entertained several offers from many interested parties.
Which is what made this particular party of two so interesting. After I parked my car in the Green Pea Salon next door, I meandered nonchalantly over. “What are two entrepreneurial, creative men like you doing out here in front of Monica’s available building this fine morning?” They smiled. They clammed up. They made me promise not to say anything. I kept the promise. At least until the rehab and construction was well underway and then I might have dropped a hint or two on my Facebook page. Just between me and my 1237 friends, right?
At any rate, the steady and thick stream of pedestrians of all ages that now crowd the sidewalks of this neighborhood as they stroll to the park or Burger Up (across the street) or Las Paletas (relocated a block south) was contorting themselves trying to see past the brown paper which was covering the five narrow ceiling-to-floor windows across the front of the building. The white stacked-stone wall between those and the front door offered a tantalizing hint of du Buisson’s concept, and as the patio began to take shape, the anticipation grew to giddiness.
What better way to celebrate the arrival of 2014 than the glorious reveal of Epice the second week of January? The interior is a stunning composition of white marble and stone, blond wood floors and chairs, aluminum bar stools, and light pouring in from the ceiling and through a window covered with lattice that bounces images off the grey stucco walls.
The sole shots of color in the room are provided by the piles of powdered amber, brown and russet spices on scales behind the bar, symbolic of the name of this restaurant. Epice—which Fawaz assures me is pronounced eh-PEACE—and is French for spice.
The culinary language spoken here is decidedly Lebanese and the pristine ivory palette of the aesthetic is the perfect canvas for the simple but exotic menu fashioned by Fawaz, chef William Zaitz and Kalamatas’ co-owner Beth Collins.
A wide spectrum of tastes and dietary profiles are filled by the repertoire of vegetarian, fish, fowl, lamb and beef dishes on both the lunch and dinner menus..
Begin with the Al-Raheb, a mound of pureed eggplant tangy with lemon, strewn with ruby red pomegranate seeds, to spread on triangles of soft and spice-dusted toasted pita.
The soft bread also provides the foundation for Fatayer, a trio of stuffed pies—one each of cheese, spinach and beef.
A couple of diners might share the Epice Sfeeha, a 45 RPM-sized disc of flatbread with tomato sauce and cured beef, which would also make a fine lunch for one with either soup or salad.
There are two of each—the thick and vibrantly-hued roasted red pepper Muhamara and the very lemony Adas Be-Silik, lentil soup with Swiss chard.
The fresh but conventional greens of the Epice salad are made memorable by its coat of fig vinaigrette. The peasant salad–sliced, chopped and shredded raw fresh vegetables tossed with ‘lemonette’—is complimentary with sandwiches at lunch, as are the addictive cilantro roasted potatoes.
Here is the set-up with the Shawarma—seasoned julienned strips of sirloin wrapped with thin slices of tangy pickle and sweet onion relish in flatbread:
The Mujadara—a compressed loaf of lentils and rice speared by a crispy slice of toasted eggplant—is ambrosia for vegetarians, particularly with the sides of sautéed vegetables and cilantro potatoes.
Pescatarians should learn to say ‘Sayadaya’ because they will order this spiced fish filet with caramelized onions, striped with creamy yogurt sauce again and again as the fish selection changes daily. In my experience, each has been cooked to the perfect degree of doneness and texture on three consecutive visits.
Several of the lunch dishes are also available at dinner in larger portions, though the sandwiches are swapped for more entrees, with the notable addition of lamb—pistachio encrusted grilled rack or braised shank buried in a white bean cassoulet.
Desserts are simply sublime—not too big, not too sweet, subtly flavored with honey, cardamom, nutmeg, pistachio, walnuts, orange blossom and finished with sprigs of fresh herbs.
Do not resist the exotic call of the Katayef (Lebanese crepes with sweet cheese) or allure of the deeply chocolate mousse of the pot de crème—both made by Maher’s wife Kitty.
Liza and I discovered that we share an obsession with finding the perfect rice pudding and we are happy to report, though not necessarily share, that we found rice pudding nirvana in this bowl.
A selection of moderately-priced Mediterranean wines by the bottle and glass are available, and sangria is soon to be added, as well as high gravity beer.
Though winter’s chill has lingered well into spring, that hasn’t stopped diners from bundling up to sit on the patio, taking advantage of every seat available in this cozy and intimate restaurant. Many pleasures lie in store for those who follow their culinary curiosity to the south end of 12South where Epice, even before the arrival of its modest sign, has drawn a growing number of devotees from the neighborhood and well beyond. Reservations strongly recommended for dinner.
Thank you, Kay! Anyone else hungry now? Special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful photography as well.
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.
She has written five books including the current 50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know. She is in her second term on the Nashville Farmer’s Market Board, is co-chair of WTF: Women For Tennessee’s Future, co-chaired Nashville CARES Dining Out for Life for ten years, is an active volunteer with Room in the Inn, is on the Steering Committees for Magdalene’s annual fall fundraiser and the annual Music City Hot Chicken Festival. She was the Nashville Business Journal’s Woman of Influence Community Supporter category in 2013.