…on good food, questionable judgment, and making life work
Knoxville/East Tennessee has a noticeable shortage of fine dining options, which is not a terrible thing if you are a budgeteer:
Look, I can be pretty happy with a hearty chowder and a pile of hand-cut fries. But Knoxville is a well-known test market for fast food/casual dining chains (I’m looking at you, Ruby Tuesday, the veritable Godfather of every TGIO’Crapplebee’s in the US) and that can make finding a mom-and-pop hard to find here. It’s hard to convince people to take a chance on an unknown quantity (read as: no corporate office) when they can get a predictable, if not pedestrian, fajita or drive-thru chicken sticks. No judgment here if you like chains (I have a Velveeta problem), but since my town is riddled with them, my natural inclination is to spurn them. I’d rather give my money to someone who is creative and is skilled–and I’m not being a snob here–craft and skill are necessary in making something even as simple as fried chicken, soup, or a reuben. My opinion is that international corporations leave no room for creativity in their kitchens–they can’t by design.
This is also why I cook at home so frequently. That and the miser thing.
We have a few good local restaurants here, and there are some good things are starting to happen down on Gay St, but don’t get me started on Market Square…we don’t have time for that rabbit hole.
Foothills Milling Company has been on our list for a couple of years now. The opportunity to go presented itself in the form of reservations with a couple of FMC veterans. We went on a Wednesday night, which incidentally, is when they feature half-price bottles of wine.
We started the evening off with some cocktails—there was a Manhattan with house-made apple bitters—delightful; a well-prepared Sazerac; and I had Matt mix me up one of the house specials–the“Winter Old-Fashioned,” which was made with Maker’s Mark, muddled orange & cherry, and brown sugar-cinnamon syrup. Great drink, warmed me in multiple ways on a blustery cold night, and you can bet your sweet bippy that I’m going to try to make that syrup at home. I think it would also be a welcome addition to any brandy cocktail.
We ordered the house-made sausage board, which included a pickled bologna, bockwurst, currywurst, and a smoked sausage, accompanied by plentiful toast points, a powerful house-made mustard, and some spicy house-made pickles. (Are you noticing a house-made pattern here? THANK YOU, GOD.)
I ordered the goat cheese gnocchi with lamb ragu, because lamb. Just a fantastic dish–tender dumplings that leave you with the delightful tang of goat cheese on the finish. The ragu was uncomplicated and really just elevated the gnocchi, as a proper sauce should.
We asked our waiter, Brad (this guy is a gem—make sure and ask for him when you make reservations; this is service of the highest order), if they would consider doing a tasting menu for our table of four, because hey—you don’t know if you don’t ask. He politely told us they’ve never done tasting menus, which prompted us all to make puppy dog eyes, and he chuckled and said he’d pass along our suggestion. Super guy, we were able to share a few laughs, and he’s just a consummate professional.
The manager, Patrick, then surprised us with one of their newer appetizers—a flatbread topped w/cured salmon, dill mascarpone, the thinnest slices of red onion I have ever seen, and capers. A well-crafted appetizer, perfect size for sharing. Think: well-heeled lox on a bagel.
We settled on ordering four different entrees, and agreed to share samples of each; a poor-man’s tasting menu, if you will. We got the Lobster Tails w/cornmeal tempura, sourwood honey sriracha aioli, sweet Thai chili, sesame roasted mushrooms, jasmine rice; Duck Two Ways: Smoked duck leg and Moulard breast, port cherry demiglace, praline sweet potatoes, and braised red cabbage…
Cobia and Shrimp: Creole seared shrimp, and crab salad, sherry cream herb grits, and roasted asparagus…
…and Pork and Shrimp: Smoked Berkshire pork shoulder, sautéed shrimp Creole bbq, Falls Mill grit cake. Our dinner partner swapped out the grits cake for the fennel and roasted pepper potato cake. (You’ll notice the lack of pics for the lobster and the pork entrées–I…uhh…thought better of asking our dining companions to please not eat their dinners until I had photographed them–a demonstration of restraint for which I am not well-known.)
I’m not going to split hairs here, the entrées are well-described on the menu. Everything was solid–not a single miss on any of the plates. Every entrée was thoughtfully constructed with a great balance of salt-acid-sweet-fatty, and sometimes smoke. My sense is that they cook very clean here, by which I mean they don’t rely on typical restaurant tricks like buttering everything to death or adding a lot of extra salt to cover up any poor quality provisions. The cooking was perfectly executed, and there was no way to miss the expert-level skill in the kitchen.
We did all agree that the Pork and Shrimp was the best dish at the table. Hey, somebody has to win the title.
The wine list is exceptional. We may or may not have shared bottles of Cloudline Pinot Noir, Layer Cake Primitivo (think European Zinfandel), and a delightful California blend, Besieged.
I’m usually not a dessert person, but my tablemates outvoted me, and frankly, I’m glad they did. We ordered the Grand Marnier crème brulee, which came with a side of fruitcake. Which sounds wrong. But it was so, so right…and that custard just screamed Grand Marnier! Grand Marnier!, while the fruitcake was delightfully orange-y and texture-y. Yeah, now I’m making up words because there aren’t any to adequately describe this dessert.
Then there was the brownie sundae. I bogarted the house-made toffee (I’m a toffeeslut–my tablemates knew that going into this) and that brownie? Unlike any brownie I have ever had. It’ll be unlike any brownie you’ve ever had, too. Less a brownie and more a crushing defeat of the laws of physics. It was chewy, chunky, tender, sturdy, and God only knows how they got that much chocolate in there. I’ll admit, I’m dubious of desserts that are garnished with marachino cherries, but when the confections taste like this? I can forgive. Oh lord, can I forgive…
The ambiance is warm and welcoming, although if you aren’t a regular, be prepared to be noticed as you enter. I thought maybe it was just my fabulous dress and fetching boots, but my tablemates informed that everyone gets the once-over from the patrons if they are not regulars. Harumph. It was a really nice, easy hang, and it seemed as though everyone in the place felt free to laugh and delight in their Dionysian escapades.
I usually sigh every time I am back in East TN and presented with the challenge of finding a place to eat up to my standards. For the longest time I’ve felt pretty meh about even the best reviewed Knoxville dining establishments. Maryville is a bit off the radar for me though as it’s about an hour from my family’s house but I’ll remember this if we are ever in the area.