601 12th Ave. S. 244-3888
Open nightly for dinner at 5:30, serving until 3 a.m.
6º started making a stir months before it even opened. The first blips of activity were recorded over a year ago, when people started noticing some interesting stirrings taking place in the former Javanco building in the area known as The Gulch. Concurrent with this were niggling rumors of a huge new restaurantone with a $1-million-plus price tag, that would be opened by people not from here. Then, on June 7 of last year, I received an e-mail from one Kevin Boehm, who introduced himself as the mystery manalong with partner/chef Scott Aldersonbehind the project.
Boehm was quick to point out that he and Alderson were not exactly strangers to Nashvillians, at least not Nashvillians who vacation in the Florida panhandle. It was there that Boehm opened his first two restaurants: Lazy Daze Cafe and Indigo Wine Bar. It was also there that he met Alderson, a native of South Florida, whose résumé includes stints at the Marina Cafe in Destin, Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, Bud & Alley’s in Seaside, and Cafe Thirty-A in Seagrove.
After opening the wildly successful Indigo in Springfield, Ill., in 1998and then later selling itBoehm began scouting about for a new challenge. Some pals here convinced him to give Nashville a look-see, reporting that the town was riding a wave of energy and vitality, stocked with a mass of young professionals flaunting their disposable income, all dressed up and no place to go!
Say no more, said Boehm. He contacted Alderson, who accompanied him on a scouting trip to Nashville. Boehm says they were encouraged by meetings they had with local chefs and restaurateurs, and by the restaurants that were doing solid business with creative, exciting food. They also made another fortuitous discovery: Developers Steve Armistead and Bill Barkley, the duo behind the $350 million plan to redevelop 14 acres of The Gulch into a 3-million-square-foot mix of residential, retail, and office space, were looking for an edgy, hip retail tenant. Badabing, badaboom, after some negotiations, the lease was signed in March 2000.
The buzz then began in earnest, and details about the restaurant started leaking out: 9,000 square feet of space, 200 seats, a free-floating mezzanine, a 35-foot bar in an open lounge, a stage for live music, a 12-seat sushi bar, a 2,500-square-foot show kitchen, lots of fish, coastal influences, a raw bar.
Is it any wonder that when 6º opened on Dec. 27, 2000, hordes of leather-garbed twenty- and thirtysomethings were fairly braying at the door? Once the gates to Oz were swung wide, they poured inside. The expansive and stunning sweep of the open room, the freestanding staircase ascending to the double-tiered mezzanine, the undulating bar, and the sleek contemporary furnishings all provided the perfect setting for the young and the beautiful to do what they do best: see and be seen.
Problematically, the titillating scene of 6º has gained the lion’s share of attention. In this paper’s recent “Best of Nashville” readers’ poll, 6º was named not Best New Restaurant, but Best New Bar. This has caused Boehm and Alderson some degree of distress. “Our purpose in opening 6º was to create a great restaurant that would also be a fun place to hang out,” Boehm says. “Scott and I are both restaurant guys first. I think the perception has been that we are a bar first and a restaurant second. We take some responsibility for that, but we don’t feel it is entirely accurate.”
My first visit to 6º was soon after opening, for cocktails at about 6 on a weeknight. We snagged a raised table near the entrance, and on a walk-through we admired the interior and exterior views from the mezzanine: the perfect synchronicity of an elegant dining room in repose and the skyline of Nashville at dusk, visible through the upper-level windows. We checked out the sushi menu, vehement in its unconventionality, and were thrilled with the Bill Gates (truffle-oil-poached lobster, black truffle, and Servuga caviar), the Castro (mojo-poached conch with mofongo and mango), and the Gunslinger (ancho-chili-glazed tuna, green papaya, pickled pears, and cucumber). We enjoyed the ambiance of the lounge area, which was quite relaxed at that time of the evening.
My second visit was with six women on a Saturday night. We arrived about 11 p.m. After battling our way through the literally hundreds of young things juggling Cosmopolitans, cigarettes, and cell phones in the bar, we were happy to be seated away from it all, on the uppermost level of the mezzanine. Unfortunately, that wasn’t far enough away to hold an actual conversation. The noise level was nearly unbearable, and after an hour of shouting at each other over some selections from the late-night menu, we made a hasty retreat.
Though intrigued by Alderson’s ambitious and creative culinary portfolio, I decided to bide my time before paying an official visit to 6º. My policy is never to do an actual review of a serious restaurant until it has been open at least two months. For 6º, I stretched that time span even further, wanting to wait until some of the hullabaloo had quieted to at least a manageable frenzy. Finally, I could resist no more the call of the sea, which composes the bulk of the menu. With tremendous anticipation, I made reservations for a party of eight for 7 p.m. on a Saturday night in early May.
It was, from start to finish, a nearly unmitigated disaster. The only positive in the nearly five-hour ordeal was, in fact, the food, but even that was not enough to overcome the abysmal service. Inattentive, inefficient, uninformed, full of miscues and mistakes, it was a textbook example of everything not to do when waiting on customers. We were astounded at the combination of apathy and arrogance, particularly when the check for $680 was delivered. Also absent that evening was any liveliness in the room; even more notable in absentia was Kevin Boehm, who had taken his first weekend off in nearly a year. In his absence, much of his staff responded like teenagers whose parents have gone out of town and left them to their own devices. It was not pretty.
I made my fourth visit to the restaurant a week later, and everything that went wrong the Saturday before went right on this night. With Boehm back at the helm, it was a tightly run ship, one that reverberated with confidence and spunk. Our waiter was skillful and informedabout the wine and the menuand steered us gracefully through his recommendations. Thanks to the spot-on service, every subtle nuance and every bold statement emanating from the kitchen was enhanced and enlivened.
As for the food, which really is the reason to visit 6º: I love the house-made country breads and flavored butters; the startling burst of flavor from the lemongrass-ginger sorbet that accompanied the briny raw oysters; the intoxicating aroma and seductive sensory overload of the Thai shellfish steampot; the buttery avocado soup with a large dollop of chilled ceviche; the gorgeous presentation of the peeky toe crab ravioli; the citrus-spice zing of the house-cured salmon; the perfect simplicity of the freshly picked, locally grown organic lettuces tossed with truffle oil, kosher salt, fresh pepper, and a squeeze of blood orange. And that’s just for starters.
Alderson sparkles with seafoodfried, as in the Bayou fish fry with Creole seasoning, or grilled, as in the spring-run cobia with orange butter or the Low Country chowder, which comes with seared scallops, grilled shrimp, and steamed clams atop a bed of rice and sweet corn. Our only disappointment was the roasted salmon, wrecked by an overdose of soy. Carnivores will be pleased with either of the two dry-aged steaks: a black Angus tenderloin or New York strip. One of the most popular entrees on the menu is skillet-fried chicken with macaroni and cheese and Smithfield ham gravy.
Desserts delight, particularly the strawberry shortcake, the bleu cheese cheesecake, the homemade sorbets, and Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate.
From where we sat along one wall of the dining room, we observed the slow evolution of the room on a single Saturday night: It started out as a fine-dining restaurant populated by young and mature couples and foursomes engaged in serious eating and lively conversation; then, with the dimming of lights and turning up of music, it became the vibrant, energetic, youthful scene that 6º is popularly known for.
Can Boehm and Alderson have it both ways? Even more important, can these distinctly different groups of patrons have it both ways? After four visits, I think yes. On weeknights, and on weekends before 10 p.m., 6º is as fine a dining experience as you will get anywhereand a leading contender for Nashville’s Best New Restaurant. Yet while I was waiting for my car at 11:30 on that Saturday night, a steady stream of twenty- and thirtysomethings was just arriving, aglow with the flush of youth, and infused with their undeniable right to believe that the world is their oyster. At that moment, as late Saturday night creeps into early Sunday morning, 6º is theirs for the taking.