In 1985, my brand new husband and I bought an 85-year-old Victorian badly in need of work in East Nashville. While the area was definitely historic, that era was decidedly prior to when East Nashville got branded as Historic East Nashville, branding being the first step towards geographic desirability. Back then, no one I knew had a clue where East Nashville was, and Lower Broadway was such a tawdry mess that many people didn’t even know where the bordering Cumberland River was, much less that you could drive over it to get to another part of town. When people asked, I would tell them we lived in East Meade. To puzzled looks I simply responded, “You know, like Belle Meade and West Meade. East Meade, it’s east.”
The closest Kroger on Gallatin Road was known as the Murder Kroger, a distinction its parking lot had earned it at least once. The only place within a couple mile radius to offer table service was the Knife & Fork Diner a few blocks down from the Kroger; the only way to comfortably eat there was to light a cigarette as soon as you walked in the door, just as all the other patrons and servers did.
As our two children approached school age, we came back across the river to what was then another undesirable part of town—12th Avenue South. That neighborhood also had a Murder Market, along with blatant drug activity and one broken swing in the nearby park and several thriving numbers joints disguised as used car dealers. I told our realtor there were three words I did not want to hear: it needs work. And bless his heart, he found us a recently renovated cozy 1930 bungalow that was pre-12South branding affordable for a couple in the creative field, and more importantly, zoned for the terrific Percy Priest Elementary School. I put tens of thousands of miles on my car over the course of 7 years in that location, thanks to twice-daily round trips between Sweetbriar Avenue and Otter Creek Road.
Had I known that 20 years later East Nashville would boast such a bounty of creative, independent eateries and bars I might have rented out the crumbling Victorian and moved back across the river, post high school graduations. From the corner of Sharpe and Chapel, I could have strolled a mere six blocks to the Eastland Café and Rosepepper Cantina, and since the start of the year, the #1 reason I drove past my old house last week with a regretful surge of longing, Two Ten Jack. Located in the rear of the Walden Development (which is also home to Silly Goose and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams), Two Ten is Suite 105.
The name references a popular Japanese card game, which is your first clue to the cuisine, though the concept is brand new to Nashville. Co-owners Patrick Burke (Zumi Sushi in Hillsboro Village) and Jason McConnell (chef/owner of Franklin’s Red Pony, 55 South and Cork and Cow) envisioned an izakaya, a casual Japanese pub and community gathering place that Burke had come to love in his visits to that country. In addition to sake and other adult libations, snacks, small plates of traditional Japanese foods, yakitori and ramen give those of us hungering for something outside the farm-to-table local produce box an exciting and exotic alternative.
Though the expression “we eat first with our eyes” refers to the effect a beautiful plate of food has on the appetite, once inside the custom-made wooden front door, the gorgeous interior of TTJ serves up some serious anticipatory foreplay.
I always prepare for my first visit to a new restaurant by visiting the website and studying the cocktail menu and wine list, which are typically many pages longer than the actual food menu. I would especially recommend that for Two Ten Jack, which for starters (or finishers or in-between) features an elaborate 24 taps system. In addition to 16 craft beers, the other taps dispense cocktails with house-made tonics, a sake punch, a house sake, a house shochu (a Japanese version of vodka) and rotating varietals of house red and white wines (just $7 a glass).
There is also a list of Reserve Cocktails made to order by hand, as well as an extensive list of bottled sakes (including sparkling), nine more types of shochu, bottled beer, wine and spirits.
Burke and McConnell hit the chef jackpot when they snagged the delightful and vibrant Jess Benefield to create the menu and captain the bustling kitchen. Winner of the 2013 Nashville Scene’s Iron Fork competition, Benefield worked for Clay Greenburg (co-owner of Silo) when he was at Layla Rul and Lime, but credits her mad skills with Japanese cuisine to mentor and former boss Chef Robbie Wilson, the culinary director of Virago when it relocated to McGavock Street. “He worked under Nobu [Matsuhisa, the internationally revered Japanese chef and restaurateur] and taught me so much. He really instilled a passion for this food in me, and since then I have learned everything I can.” (Her study partner and co-chef is husband Trey Burnette.)
The food menu has seven sections, with ramen listed last. Thanks in large part to Sarah Gavignon and her wildly popular Otaku South ramen dinners, most Nashville diners know that authentic ramen has as much in common with the packaged ramen of your dorm days as Juanita Lane’s Dulce cakes with Little Debbie’s.
Unless you plan to only eat ramen–and that’s a viable option–make note that traditionally, ramen is eaten last. If you want to finish with ramen, order from the other sections accordingly and save room. TTJ does not permit leftover ramen to be taken home and it would be a shame to waste that deliciousness.
At Two Ten Jack I have found the perfect bar snack, and it is Shishito Peppers, a small bowl of roasted skinny green peppers with charred, crackly skins that when bitten into, are juicy with a tad of heat, balanced with sweet, thanks to the honey-soy sauce and fig quarters, crunch from sticky peanuts.
Pigs were surely flying over Eastland Avenue when distracted nibbling of the tsukemono (daily house pickles) had me lift a bit of the tangle of pink in the right foreground with my chopsticks and put in my mouth before I realized they were beets. For the first time in a lifetime of eating almost anything except beets, I did not spit this bite into the nearest napkin. I don’t know what Chef Jess did to them, but I polished them off, in addition to the asparagus tips, radish and cabbage.
Other small plates we tried that won’t fill you up were the Poke–glistening pink squares of tuna with delightful tang from tiny balls of crisp apple that you can pile on wonton crisps to make a healthy version of nachos–and the Agedashi Tofu, squares of panko-breaded, fried tofu in a salty soy broth.
I admit, I have been known to grab a box of seaweed salad from my local grocery’s sushi cooler, but never again after sampling Benefield’s gorgeous, squeaky-fresh construction. I think I spy another shred or two of beet in there!
TTJ has a succinct selection of sashimi, maki and nigiri. I am typically a sushi purist and don’t go in for many of the specialty rolls popular with folks who can’t abide the idea of raw fish, but I couldn’t resist Benefield’s ode to the recently closed Eastside Fish, “Home of the Crunkest Fish Sandwich in Town” as they claimed, with the fans to back it up. The Eastside Fish Roll takes all the elements, with the exception of yellow mustard–fried catfish, pickle, onion and hot sauce–and turns it into a roll, adding a creamy fresh tartar sauce for dipping.
Yakitori comes one skewer per order, but there is more than one item of each grilled meat, fish or vegetable on a skewer, so it’s also ideal for sharing.
And finally we came to the finale–ramen. There are three types. The first two, tonkotsu (pork broth) and tori paitan (chicken broth), have the naming proteins in the creamy broth, as well as noodles, veggies and a soft egg split in half. And the third option is a vegetarian yasai shoyu with a surprisingly rich and flavorful vegetable broth. The burnt corn is so good that many regulars ask for it to be added to their carnivorous ramens.
One thing all three of these spectacular ramens have in common with their packaged imitators is the impossibility of eating it without making a complete mess of your face, your clothing and the surface the bowl sits on. This is not first date food, folks. And personally, I would probably dig into it with more of the relish it deserves sequestered in a private booth with close friends and relatives. Of course, by the time you’ve sampled your way through some sake, some shochu, a grapefruit negroni and the reserve cocktails, you’ll be slurping away with abandon, picking up the bowl with both hands to get the last delicious bit.
Barring moving back to 37206, I’ll either have to convince Burke and McConnell to open a branch of Two Ten Jack in the 212 (the Chattanooga Times Free Press just announced the fall opening of one in that city’s Warehouse Row!), or start a movement for a West Side-East Side shuttle. Whatever side of the StopAmp/AmpYes debate you were on, I think we can all agree–over a glass of shochu and a bowl of ramen–that a WS-ES connector would be a real uniter.
Thank you, Kay! Anyone else hungry now? Special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful photography as well.