Yakitori and ramen shine at East Nashville izakaya-style eatery Two Ten Jack 

Jumping Jack

Jumping Jack

I love eating in bars.

I love the high seat and the high table, the conversation with a good bartender and the convivial atmosphere of happy people dining and drinking.

When Two Ten Jack was announced, I was excited to have an izakaya-style restaurant in East Nashville. The casual establishments, Japanese in origin, are popular on the coasts, but not so much here in flyover territory. It's a place to meet after work, hang out, grab a few beers and maybe eat a bowl of ramen. And though they can serve sushi, izakayas are known more for yakitori, the succulent little skewers grilled and served with a sauce rich with mirin and soy.

Having been there a few times now, I can say my excitement was warranted. But let's just acknowledge the elephant in the room first.

In these pages two weeks ago, Steve Haruch said it best about non-Japanese people running a Japanese restaurant (which is the case at Two Ten Jack): "Food is culture. It's transmittable."

I think the notion of "authenticity" in dining is almost worthless. It's a word that's been co-opted by marketers and brand specialists and anybody with a blog as a code word for "this stuff is good." If I tell you that something is authentically Southern, what does that even mean? That it's like I the food I ate growing up at my mother's table? Or yours? That it conforms to whatever set of clichés and predetermined ideas about what great Southern food tastes like? That it was made with lard, not Crisco?

Now if I tell you something is authentic Japanese cuisine, does that really convey anything?

Once you push on the word a little, you realize that a restaurant being authentic, in and of itself, means almost nothing, because I've eaten a lot of bad authentic food in my lifetime. The better question: Is it good?

And in that respect Two Ten Jack, in the Walden development on Eastland Avenue, is "real" or "authentic" or "genuine" or any code word you want to use, because the food is very, very good. The fact that Jessica Benefield — the talented chef who was most recently at Virago — isn't Japanese matters not a bit, because holy hell, can she cook.

It took exactly one plate to figure that out.

The tsukemono, or daily house pickles ($5), came with five different pickles on that plate, and the pickling process drew out different joys from every one. The garlic became more mellow while the asparagus became more tart, white and red radishes kept a wonderful astringent crunch even while sliced so thin, and the kimchi (a nod to Korea) lit up our palates with a wonderful low heat. The plate changes daily depending on what the kitchen can lay its hands on. It's a delight.

Out at the bar, there was much to sample. The beer list is a very well-chosen mix of local craft beers and a few select outsiders. High-gravity fans will love the fact that Belgians like La Chouffe's golden ale are featured — careful, that 8 percent alcohol by volume will catch up to you — while witbier enthusiasts will be happy to see Hitachino Nest white ale, a supremely good beer to pair with food. I toggled between those two and Black Abbey's Champion on my trips.

The elaborate tap system serves more than beer: A variety of cocktails, sakes, tonics and shochu-based drinks are available, and there's much to like about the latter. Shochu is distilled from barley, rice, sweet potatoes or buckwheat and is Japan's national spirit, outselling sake for at least the past decade. Used as a base, it's a great alternative to vodka, and at 50 to 60 proof instead of 80 to 90, it carries a much smaller punch. The best version we tried was mixed with a margarita-like flavor profile — think lime, but not too sweet — and without tequila's bite.

With the exception of the ramen — we'll get back to that in a minute — Two Ten Jack's menu is filled with small, sharable items. Of the traditional small plates, the crispy Brussels sprouts ($7) had us comically fighting over the bits in the bottom of the bowl with our rather poor chopsticks skills. The shishito peppers ($7) were charred, sprinkled with a bit of katsuobushi (a dried fish) and drizzled with a honey soy sauce, giving that great sweet/salty/umami trifecta.

The sashimi and maki (sushi rolls) were all dutifully good. Benefield leans more toward the cooked side of maki, and the Gojira (Japanese for "Godzilla," $11) lived up to its name, each piece with panko shrimp, cream cheese, jalapeño and Sriracha proving nearly impossible to eat in a single bite. The Always Sunny Roll ($10) — a play on the Philadelphia-based sitcom name — naturally came with cream cheese and smoked salmon, adding in some pickle for an acid contrast and a little bit of crunchy salmon skin. My one complaint is that the rice, such an important part of the taste of sushi, gets overwhelmed on the rolls. I thought the nigiri (single pieces) had a much better balance, and in particular, the sake harasu (salmon belly, $5), hamachi (yellowtail, $5) and maguro (tuna, $6) were outstanding.

(There was a catfish-based "Nashville" roll on the menu that we didn't get a chance to sample. Benefield said she was experimenting with an ode to the departed East Side Fish — an OG King Fish Roll — to take its place. If it's even in the same area code as its inspiration, the roll has potential.)

The one salad we managed to try was the green salad ($8), built around a couple of different Japanese greens, puffed rice and some pickled tomatoes. It was light and almost summery, with the grain making us want to sprinkle Rice Krispies over a few more things at home.

In my mind, though, the star of the menu is the yakitori ($4 to $8 per order). Each skewer was a deceptively simple combination of protein and seasoning, frequently a sprinkling of shichimi (seven-flavor chili pepper) or drizzle of soy and miso. Every bit of the chicken — from the heart to the tail, from the leg to the breast — ended up grilled in front of us. And while we liked the wing with its black pepper rub, we loved the chicken meatball and the chili kick it brought.

There was more than just bird on the yakitori menu: Thick slices of pork belly came with dots of mustard ponzu; a sliced, charred ear of corn came with a bit of miso butter and horseradish like a play on elote, the Mexican street-food dish; big, plump scallops were grilled to perfection with a dab of mustard; some wonderfully fatty bits of skirt steak came with a sorghum soy. If sushi speaks to something sublime, yakitori speaks to something primeval. Fire plus animal equals delicious.

So if you think all of that was building up to a great bowl of ramen ($14), you'd be right. Benefield's tonkotsu broth — that rich, almost creamy mixture of pork goodness — is excellent, particularly with perfectly done noodles and a soft egg floating in there. But we miscalculated our appetite after gorging on other things, including a mushroom yakitori that we just had to go back and try again. We also had trouble sharing our ramen, but that may have had more to do with user error than anything. A proper ramen strategy should prioritize the large bowl that's almost a meal itself, and frankly, we kept getting distracted by other things like the garlic noodles ($9), a simple bowl of noodles topped with black pepper, crab butter and kokuto, a type of brown sugar. Holy crap, were they tasty. I still daydream about how well they go with beer.

The restaurant had some issues in its first few months with crowds and wait times. We aimed our visits toward the middle of the week and had only a half-hour wait at most, but on the weekends, you might expect longer. Warm weather has allowed the restaurant to open up the patio, adding a third or so more tables to its capacity, which will relieve some of that pressure. Reservations are available, but only for parties of six or more.

In all, Benefield and her partners — Patrick Burke and Jason McConnell — have brought a distinctive piece to a Nashville dining scene that needs to add more width than depth right now. Is it authentic? I don't know and I don't care. Two Ten Jack is a place I'll return to soon because it made me happy. Maybe someday I'll have a perspective that allows me to compare it to places in Tokyo, but until then I'll settle for it being very good.

Two Ten Jack is open 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The bar opens at 4 p.m.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.


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