Chef Matt Bolus of The 404 Kitchen wants you to believe that what he's doing is simple.
Look at the small menu! Look at the ingredient-driven dishes! Look at the small room!
And yes, in one sense, it is simple. There are no immersion circulators in that tiny kitchen. There are no foams atop his entrées or supremely intricate plating tricks. The entire menu is 18 items. The dining room — 30 or so seats carved out of a shipping container, with a few more outside — is elegant but not showy.
I asked him to describe his food and he called it "fresh, honest and uncomplicated food."
To the uninitiated, Bolus is speaking in fluent Chef Code. The code takes a variety of forms and is not dissimilar to Coach Speak, frequently heard in the buildup to any major sporting event. "Uncomplicated," might as well be Bolus saying "we'll be lucky to field a team out there tonight against those other boys." "Honest" is no different than claiming "we play them one game at a time." "Fresh" might as well be "we just want to play hard and compete every week." There's nothing wrong or dishonest about what Bolus is saying. It's just the cloak of modesty that belies the fact that he and his kitchen are turning out some legitimately great food.
Take his red grouper ($28), for example, which was parked on top of a bowl of cannellini beans. At first blush, it's a pretty straightforward Italian preparation of protein on top of vegetable, but one bite shows the level of technique at play here. The fish is perfectly cooked, skin on, and seasoned well. The beans are soft but not mushy and punctuated with guanciale — a cured pork made from cheeks and similar to bacon — and Brussels sprouts. Bolus can claim all he wants that this dish is "uncomplicated," but there's nothing simple about the depth of flavor here. Each bite displays a richness you wouldn't normally associate with grouper.
At the other end of the spectrum, 404's crudo starter ($11) was an exercise in delicacy. Paper-thin slices of fluke were sprinkled with touches of orange confit, pecans and microgreens. Just because there are few ingredients, though, doesn't mean it's simple — too much of any one piece throws the dish out of balance. But that wasn't the case here, as the citrus and crunch contrasted well against the flatfish, resulting in a series of perfect notes.
The menu plays out like this, a series of proteins set against well-conceived partners: Sheepshead with pumpkin risotto and brown butter ($26), dry-aged tri-tip with farro, butternut squash and root vegetables ($28), chicken leg confit with sweet potato, hen of the woods and arugula ($24).
When it strays toward something else, the preparations remain distinctly Italian. A pork ragout ($22) with turnip greens and fromage fort (a soft, strong cheese generally created out of other leftover cheeses) is a particular strength. The entire dish is fortified with spiral gemelli pasta, and it's a hearty plate. And while the cioppino ($24) is actually Italian-American, it's no less excellent. A rich tomato broth holds in-shell mussels, shrimp and squid with just a touch of saffron. Save the Tuscan-style bread for the end and dunk it in the liquid.
When Bolus says "uncomplicated," what he doesn't mean is "easy." With each dish, I became more impressed with the food coming out of that kitchen. And by "that" I mean "that tiny kitchen." Take a walk past the bar and you'll see Bolus, sous chef Sam Tucker and a couple of other people operating in a space that's less than 200 square feet in size. To be clear, that's a chef, sous, cook and dishwasher and all of the attendant equipment in a space that might be an average living room. Bolus wouldn't say whether the staff had to sign a pre-nup in order to work in the kitchen, but they're all probably familiar with each other now in ways that weren't on the employment application.
It's a far cry from Watermark, just across the street, where Bolus and Tucker both worked. With a big kitchen, bigger menu and large dining room, it's the antithesis of what 404 is trying to do. I asked Bolus if this was intentional, and he said yes. The menu and feel are much more inspired by Fig in Charleston, where Bolus got his start. "A lot of thanks goes to [Fig chef] Mike Lata for helping me know who I wanted to be, culinarily."
Like the team at Fig, Bolus isn't afraid to fill the menu with challenging starters. Smooth burrata cheese was paired on one occasion with apple, celery, walnuts and agrumato, a rich lemon olive oil ($13), and on another night with burgundy truffles, leeks and Benton's ham ($18). Coppa di testa — a cured head cheese — would have been fine just smeared on brioche, but the shaved fennel, orange and Dijon added a brightness to the pork's over-the-top richness ($11). Even a cauliflower dish comes with a play on spaghetti — squash cut into tiny noodles and topped with a puttanesca sauce ($8).
There are a number of side dishes that can be ordered for the table, but the best is the radishes ($7). The bagna cauda-style preparation, a Northern Italian way that literally means "hot bath," finds the root vegetable still crisp, but floating in warm butter. We just couldn't stop eating them.
I'd love to say there is a wide range of dessert options, but honestly, the only thing I can remember is a version of a charlotte that Tucker dreamed up. It's not that the others weren't good, it's that the charlotte — a mix of warm pear, brioche and caramel topped with an ice-cream-like sabayon — so completely blew the curve that it was all the table could talk about.
The small but well-thought-out wine list features varietals from five continents. The prices run the gamut, from an '09 Mr. Black's shiraz from Australia for $44 to a $275 bottle of Shafer cabernet sauvignon from the Stags Leap area of eastern Napa. The bar features some eclectic tastes as well, and you're just as likely to be recommended a French whiskey as a good bourbon.
Bolus can use the word "uncomplicated" all he wants, but I'm not falling for it. What he's doing — getting maximum flavor from seasonal ingredients through an Italian lens — is hard. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.
The 404 Kitchen only opened in late October, but if it maintains this strong start, it will be one of the best restaurants in Nashville. And that's not code, it's a fact.
The 404 Kitchen is open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.