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VOL. 38 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 07, 2014

Japan, Tennessee meet in East Nashville at Two Ten Jack

By Jennifer Justus

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In the food business, being “in the weeds” means being super busy. And that’s also how we would describe Nashville’s booming restaurant scene. In this column, Jennifer Justus, journalist, author and food culture writer, keeps us up to date on food, dining out and trends with bi-weekly reports from the table.

You know things have changed in East Nashville when a restaurant puts up a valet stand. It happened on opening night at Two Ten Jack.

And even though the valet guys didn’t stick around for regular service, which began two weeks ago, the fanfare over the restaurant’s opening has been warranted. Two Ten Jack, named for a Japanese card game, brings Nashville its first izakaya.

An izakaya (pronounced like ease-a-ki-ya) is a Japanese bar that also serves food, and the bar before food part is intentional. The “i” in izakaya means “to stay,” with the “sakaya” meaning “sake shop.”

“You look at a restaurant or bar, and usually they’re one or the other,” explains Culinary Director and Chef Jason McConnell, who after opening Red Pony, 55 South and Cork & Cow restaurants in Franklin, opens his first restaurant in Nashville. “We are a bar that serves interesting, cool food.”

His business partner, Patrick Burke, who opened Zumi Sushi in Hillsboro Village with McConnell as consultant, says that in Japan, residents are less apt to drink without eating.

Two Ten Jack

1900 Eastland Avenue, Suite 105
454-2732
twotenjack.com

At an izakaya, identified by red lantern hanging at the door, folks gather after work to eat traditional Japanese bar food – bowls of ramen and yakitori (grilled meat on skewers) – and to drink sake or shochu, which McConnell likens to Japanese vodka.

At Two Ten Jack you’ll find a couple versions of shochu on tap, one with house tonic of pineapple with a kick of ginger, as well as a list of cocktails, selection of beers, sake and Japanese whiskeys.

To further understand the concept, which hit cities like New York and San Francisco a few years ago, consider the 1930s farm shirt that hangs on the wall fashioned into horizontal slats from old tobacco barn wood.

Burke says the patchwork shirt of indigo was one of the first pieces they acquired (off Ebay) for the restaurant.

“It just became a really cool piece that we thought was a great connection between being in Tennessee and the similarities we found in rural Tennessee and rural Japan,” he adds.

“The izakaya is an everyman hangout. It’s approachable, casual, a place where you can imagine people coming in off the field after a hard day’s work to catch up, to eat, and have some drinks.”

Locally grown indigo also colored the fabrics from Southern Hues that hang along the restaurant’s windows. Burke adds that practically every detail a customer’s hands could graze – tables, metal work, seats, wood along walls and lighting – has been made here and pulled together by designer Evan Barbee and Powell Architects.

“Really, it was a community effort,” he says.

The result feels comfortable but exotic – clean lines ensconced in a cave of earthy wood with a square bar at the heart of the room.

Delays in the project, Burke says, helped develop the details.

McConnell and Burke began planning the neighborhood pub idea in September 2012.

They explored the option of taking the space where Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams draws crowds today, but ended up waiting until the later phase of the Walden development.

Dumpling fanatic

Meanwhile, an employee at Cork & Cow introduced McConnell to Jessica Benefield, who now works as Two Ten Jack’s executive chef. Benefield trained with Robbie Wilson, formerly of M Street, who came to Nashville from Matsuhisa in Aspen.

“I was born in Alabama, but moved here when I was six months old. I am, in all respects, a Nashvillian,” Benefield says. “I’ve watched [Nashville] change, and I’ve been in the Nashville restaurant scene for 18 years.

“I’m over hearing that you have to cook a certain way here. We’re not some Podunk town where everything has to be fried.

“That’s just not Nashville anymore. I’m really excited to give something to Nashville that Nashville deserves.”

Benefield, who lives a half mile down the road from Two Ten Jack, says she hopes it will draw diners hungry for great, casual food regardless of cuisine type.

“When you think of City House, you don’t think ‘Oh I’m not in the mood for Italian.’ I really want that here as well. I don’t want people to think ‘Oh I’m not in the mood for sushi or Asian.’ I just want it to be like ‘I want to go there because I know it will be great.’”

Benefield focuses on Japanese and quality ingredients over stressing about local food footprint. For instance, they make the dumplings by hand. “I’m a full-on dumpling fanatic,” she explains.

“What’s always bothered me about dumplings is the wrappers we get. It’s kind of like the difference between fresh pasta and dried pasta. We’ve put ourselves in the position to make our own gyoza skins, which is quite the undertaking. It’s a lot of work. But we’re doing it.”

Also on the menu, you’ll find meatballs, short ribs, Japanese fried chicken (JFC) bites seasoned with curry, octopus and scallop salad, bowls of ramen and sushi including nigiri and maki such as a playful Nashville roll with catfish, tartar sauce, pickled okra and cornbread crumb.

Grad school diet

Burke’s interest in Japanese food stems, after all, from sushi.

“I was in grad school at Vandy and eating a lot of sandwiches and burritos and what-not, and I started eating more sushi. I was doing two degrees at once, so I didn’t have time to work out as much as I should, so I started eating healthier,” he says.

It led him to open Zumi, and then he learned about other aspects of the Japanese food culture. He visited lots of izakaya, ramen shops and robata in Japan.

“The reality is they don’t eat (sushi) very often,” he says. “We don’t sit down at Morton’s or Kayne Prime or whatever your high-end special occasion food is…that’s reserved for special occasions, and in Japan, it’s the same way. They do eat a fair amount of sushi, but they eat a lot more ramen and izakaya food. It’s their comfort food.”

But McConnell’s interest in this cuisine reaches even further back. He remembers cooking with his mother from an old Betty Crocker International Cookbook.

“Foods that were exotic at the time…” he explains, “I made a lot of dishes out of that.”

He says the style of food in certain areas of Japan is very similar to what we do in the South.

“I think there are 35 really hardcore ramen shops (in the United States),” he adds. “You would think we’d have more…it’s either you’re a sushi restaurant or hibachi. That’s it. We wanted to do something really authentic with a little bit of our spin on it.”

‘Fickle’ food

On a recent Friday at Two Jack Ten, a trippy version of “Que Sera, Sera” played before the Pixies as the wait for a table grew to over an hour. The bar and parking lot were jammed. And true, some potential patrons have worried about the limited parking at Walden. But East Nashville remains an urban area. (And for true parking torture, I like reminding people of some lots in Green Hills where fighting for a spot takes the aggression of a mongoose.)

Go to this new restaurant, then, with some patience. Or Zen, maybe we should say, which brings us back to the food and bowls of ramen in particular.

The noodle soups star at this show and hold treasures in their silky broth like floating islands of soft cooked eggs and life rafts of pork.

“It’s a huge focus here,” Benefield says. But it’s also labor intensive with bones cooking down for 24 hours. “This broth has made me cry on multiple occasions. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s really fickle.”

So we’ve included a link to a sample ramen recipe below – not because we expect you to make it but rather to inspire appreciation in every scoop.

This recipe is inspired by Tampopo, a Japanese film about a ramen adventure: www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Tampopo-Special-Ramen-Noodles

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