August 2018 update: Kuchnia + Keller is now closed
Nashville is hungry for change, particularly when it comes to new restaurants. Although not every restaurant offers a distinctly new style of cuisine, each offers a fresh approach and contributes to Music City’s dynamic food scene. Over the past year, Germantown has bid restaurants farewell, welcoming new folks to the neighborhood and continuing to support those who have stuck around. The short-lived Lulu lasted less than a year, Vui’s replaced Cochon Butcher, and we are still mourning the loss of the Mad Platter. Slim & Husky’s brings pizza to the area and diversity to the dining scene, Germantown Depot offers a multi-bar experience, and Von Elrod’s pairs games, beer and shockingly good sausage. Silo, Rolf and Daughters and City House remain not just relevant but revered. And the list goes on. Two eateries kept us on our toes awaiting their arrival but at long last, they are open for business. Kuchnia + Keller started serving dinner last November. With four months under their belt, they are turning tables and introducing folks to the flavors and ingredients of Eastern Europe. Geist has been nailing the small plates game in the few weeks since they have been open. With simple, yet memorable food and a bar program unlike any other in the neighborhood, they have seen early success. We look forward to seeing how these restaurants settle in and find their place in the neighborhood. For now, here are our first impressions.
City House is a Germantown restaurant that has attracted quite the crew of regulars. Folks flock from down the street, across town and across the country for Tandy Wilson’s belly ham pizza, among other Italian dishes cooked with a beautiful simplicity and Southern flair. Aaron Clemins worked alongside Tandy as executive sous chef since the day the restaurant opened 10 years ago. Today, Aaron is in the kitchen at Kuchnia + Keller, where he is chef and co-owner. And while some might think Kuchnia + Keller’s cuisine, with Eastern European and Midwestern influences, is a clear deviation from the cuisine of City House, they are wrong.
“Let me start with the philosophy about food,” Aaron says. “They are the same. It is grandma cooking — straight-forward, simple cooking. The food philosophy is the thing that ties the restaurants together in a big way. It is about keeping it simple and taking a few ingredients and making them delicious.” There is one dish in particular that showcases the restaurants’ relationship. “If you look at the core of goulash, it is a City House dish through the lens of Eastern Europe, instead of Italy. You start with a noodle — spätzle — and braised meat in a sauce, which is a very Italian idea. The dish is constructed similarly to how a pasta at City House is constructed.” That is how they are similar. How are they different? One notable difference is the use of meat. “Tandy does an amazing job with the use of vegetables, and a lot of his dishes are vegetable-forward; here, we are meat-forward. And that speaks to Eastern Europe. I have always been interested in butchery and sausage making, which is a big focus in Eastern European cultures — and the Midwest, particularly so,” Aaron explains. “The differences for me are a lot smaller than the similarities.”
Strong German and Polish influences can be found in Midwestern regions of the country. Hailing from Milwaukee, Aaron was curious to explore these immigrant influences. “I started with Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the Midwest and expanded to Eastern Europe as a bigger umbrella,” he explains. “I started exploring what I ate growing up, and that led me to Eastern Europe.” On the menu, you’ll find quintessential Eastern European comfort food you recognize: paprikash, beef goulash and braunschweiger, and quintessential Eastern European comfort food you don’t: obatzda, kluski and würzfleisch.
Three StyleBlueprint staffers have visited Kuchnia + Keller on four different occasions. Between the three of us, we explored most of the menu. A crowd favorite was the smoked whitefish, served with schmaltz potato pancake, dill gremolata and labneh. The würzfleisch received strong reviews, as did the obatzsa and beef goulash. But truthfully, we found the menu challenging to navigate. Over-ordering on snacks will prevent you from being able to enjoy plates, and that would be a mistake — one we have made. So, we went to the expert for guidance.
Goulash is a very good introduction dish, according to Aaron. He also suggests the relish tray, which can hang out throughout the whole meal. The citrus salad (more parfait than salad) is also a lighter option that can act as a counterbalance to richer dishes. “While it’s rich, I wouldn’t say it’s heavy,” Aaron explains. “We want to introduce you to these very unfamiliar things. We are doing things differently with food, but also with the entire beverage program. We want it to be a great bar, as well as a great restaurant. It is cool to see people recognize the effort we put into doing those things. Juliet Ceballos drove the wine list in a really awesome direction and challenged me personally. I trusted her in finding some really interesting things to go along with this Eastern European food.”
Those of us in the neighborhood watched Kuchnia + Keller from the start, as the Southern Broom & Mop Co. building transformed. Two years later, the space is complete — and large … 6,450 square feet to be exact. “We wanted to have a lot of spaces for different types of interactions,” Aaron says. The communal tables are designed for large parties, and Aaron wants to be able to accommodate a 10 top on a Friday night, without hesitation. Booths along the windows are ideal for a date night or dinner with Mom and Dad. The bar is a place to hang out, and the kitchen bar is a place to see the action. A backroom offers quieter dining space, as well as opportunities to host private events. “I didn’t know in my wildest dreams we would be building a restaurant this size. My dreams were a bit smaller, but Tandy came to me with the opportunity. Having German food in Germantown was a happy accident, cherry on the ice cream. I love things like that.”
Aaron is quick to credit his staff in the success of the restaurant. Erika Gluck is Kuchnia + Keller’s hospitality director; as we learned, Juliet Ceballos oversees the wine list and training for front-of-house staff; Buddy Buttram is bar manager and the cocktail man; Aaron’s wife Christen Clemins is marketing manager (and the one who makes life possible for him); Tandy Wilson is Aaron’s business partner; Mark Shelton holds court as chef de cuisine and Sal Avila as sous chef; and Katie Fair is to thank for the pastries.
“I think what led me to this point is a combination of hard work and really wanting to have my own voice in food,” Aaron says.
Stop by Kuchnia + Keller to experience it for yourself!
Small plates continue to reign supreme, and the result of this popular trend is sharable portions that allow you to access more of what the chef has to offer. Known elsewhere as tapas, mezze and snacks, neither Nashville, nor America, created small plates. But Geist Bar + Restaurant is jumping on board. “The menu goes back to classics, with a chef’s spin,” owner Doug Martin explains. “The menu evolved to a small plates concept because of the movement in the dining scene. This type of dining seemed to resonate more. It also creates a casual, communal and social experience.” Small plates create a singular experience that takes you from bread and butter to fish and farro. It is a small menu of small plates, and that was intentional. “Everything is done with purpose,” Martin assures us. At the time of our visit, the menu included 18 small plates (as well as an off-menu beet dish). We shared (small plates, remember) the raw beef, beets and goat cheese, seared polenta, burrata and winter squash and roasted tile fish – the polenta and fish being the most memorable.
Availability allowing, our next order will include radicchio Caesar, raviolo that comes deconstructed and the burger. “It is a simple burger,” Martin explains. “If you go into a restaurant with a cool bar, a burger is a staple. But we are way more than a burger joint … that is not our identity and not what brings us to the dance.” So what does bring them to the dance? In our opinion, it is the entire experience. The food is memorable. The cocktails are creative. The ingredients are local. The staff is hospitable. The atmosphere is friendly. And we gladly welcome them to the neighborhood.
Another long-awaited opening, Geist officially joined the neighborhood last week. Martin announced the project in summer of 2015, and we have been anxiously awaiting news of the opening ever since. The building now home to Geist was formerly home to the Geist family. The century-old blacksmith shop earned its place on the National Register of Historic places in 1980, and Martin and local design firm Sobremesa Design preserved its rich history. The adjoining home couldn’t be repaired, which opened the way for an outdoor garden and courtyard. “It is not a German beer garden, and it is not a rooftop bar,” Martin says of the outdoor space. “It is a lively and casual mix of both.” The courtyard is accessible through the bar, which is the ideal place to kick back and enjoy an evening out. “This is a line you will hear me use a lot: it is more fun to drink in a bar than a restaurant. I wanted to create an atmosphere where you can do both. Belly up to the bar and have a good cocktail and a good meal, or have a date night in the middle room. Geist is fun and bar-forward, but the food still comes first.”
“I don’t want to drink too much of the Kool-Aid, but the response has been really good,” Martin tells us. “We started with a few bar nights and gave away whatever food was in the kitchen. We wanted people to get used to the atmosphere and to know we are open until midnight in the bar area. Being able to control the atmosphere of the space is really critical and is something we can do. Some of the flow happened organically, but a lot was intentional.” Whether it be a for a cocktail at the bar, dinner in the dining room or brunch in the courtyard, have an experience to remember at Geist.
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