Saturday, May 26, 2007

Review: Ruby T.

Originally published in Cityview Magazine.

A Foodie Divided:
The roots below Maryville’s newest hot spot might surprise you.

I have a confession: for the most part, chain restaurants make me cringe. I would always rather support a local business, and I feel like so often the quality suffers. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule—big restaurant conglomerates that manage to maintain the passion of a small boutique restaurant owner. I wouldn’t have thought to include the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain to be in that category, that they would be interested in opening a small, trendy, unique restaurant with little to no media fanfare or advertisement—but that is just what they’ve done. Ruby T opened not long ago and has quietly become a charming, bustling little restaurant.

With its use of bright lighting and slick stainless steel, the outside of Ruby T projects the feeling of a neo-modern diner. Inside, you’ll find an incongruous, but not unpleasing, blend of unstained wood, luxe patterned upholstery, and over-the-top light fixtures. Not a bit of “flair” to be seen. My guest and I were greeted warmly by the staff and continued to be very impressed by the level of service as the evening went on. It was a fairly busy Friday night, yet we were seated immediately (however, reservations are recommended for large groups). My only nit to pick on the atmosphere would be the salad bar placed in prime position. I admit that I hate salad bars and wish they would be regulated to fast food restaurants, but after checking it out I must begrudgingly admit that everything looked incredibly fresh and there were some unique choices such as edamame, marinated cherry tomatoes and mozzarella, and what appeared to be homemade dressings. And it seemed like the majority of patrons chose the salad option, further proving that I am mostly alone in my condemnation. Well played, Ruby T.

Perusing the wine list, I found it a bit limited, but I didn’t mind because there are some decent choices and very good values, such as the Cavit Pinot Grigio ($5.00/glass). Feeling festive, I was pleased to see some specialty drinks featuring fresh-squeezed juices and happily ordered a signature Ruby T Margarita ($7.00) from our darling waitress. This was a very nice margarita, one of the best I’ve had in a while, not too sweet and with lots of fresh-squeezed orange and lime juice.

My thirst quenched, we moved on to two appetizers—Chicken Dumplings ($7.00) and Thai Phoon Shrimp ($8.00). They came promptly with nice presentation and generous portions. The peanut sauce that accompanied the dumplings is positively delectable, and the dumplings themselves had the proper crisp yet tender exterior and delicious chicken and water chestnut interior. The shrimp were a surprise: they are served absolutely drenched in a creamy chili sauce. I actually really liked the sauce but found the application to be a bit heavy handed and the extra sauce on the side to be unnecessary. That said, these little crustaceans were addictive. The fried coating managed to stay crunchy even under the weight of the sauce, and there was a slow burn from the chilies that had me going back for more.

I found the entrée selection to be a little sparse, but there is something for everyone, including a comprehensive burger list on the back. I was in the mood for fish but disappointed to see only 3 offerings, 2 of them tilapia. And so, I went with the Chicken Oscar ($12.50) instead—the lump crab topping satisfying my craving. Topped with a generous mound of the aforementioned crab, a creamy sauce, and asparagus, the chicken was quite nice—seasoned well, moist and properly cooked, and another portion. The pile of steamed broccoli seemed unnecessary with the asparagus (and actually I would have liked more asparagus instead), but the white cheddar mashed potatoes were rich and flavorful.

My dining companion also enjoyed the potatoes but wasn’t blown away by his Ruby’s Ribeye ($15.00). The steak was on the thin side and weakly seasoned. Not bad, but not a great, steakhouse-quality steak.

At this point we were so sated that dessert seemed laughable. But on we forged, ordering the Double Chocolate Cake ($5.50). It was described as your typical decadent chocolate cake with an oozing, molten chocolate interior, but was actually something quite different. The cake was almost more of a sponge cake, with a depression in the center filled with warm chocolate sauce. However, I actually preferred this version to what I was expecting, because it was lighter and not as rich. Served with a wonderful vanilla ice cream, this is a dessert that can be easily split between two people.

Our entire meal, including tax and tip, came out under $80.00, and we ended up taking half of it home for leftovers. Ruby T is a great choice for those in the Maryville area seeking out a fun, trendy atmosphere and fairly priced food.

Food *** ½ (out of 5)
Atmosphere **** (out of 5)
Service ***** (out of 5)
Overall ****

Ruby T
216 W. Church Avenue
Maryville, TN 37801
(865) 980-1847

Monday, May 21, 2007

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover: T. Ho serves delicious Vietnamese in an unglamorous location

Originally published in Cityview Magazine in January, 2007.

The Merchants Drive area is hardly Mecca for gourmands, what with its proliferation of fast food and chain restaurants. One unlikely oasis in this barren culinary desert takes the shape of a small family-owned Vietnamese restaurant, located in a small, care worn strip mall just minutes from I-75. On our visit, it was a cold night and the shabby little strip mall was looking worse for wear. However, inside T. Ho it was warm and bright, and the fragrant Vietnamese food beckoned.

I was immediately transfixed by the (I assume) family photos that lined the wall in the main dining area. They are blown up and very evocative, and if I had any say I’d quickly replace the out-of-place French café paintings in the smaller dining area with more of the same. Quickly seated by our somewhat harried and distracted waiter, we placed an order for Tsing Tao beers ($3.25) and studied the menu.

The menu has been updated and now features some appetizers other than the signature spring rolls. The sampler ($7.50) included a large crab cake, wedges of fried eggplant, and some strips of fried calamari. The crab cake was crisp with buttery panko breadcrumbs and well seasoned, but I particularly enjoyed the fried eggplant, which managed to be crunchy yet not greasy or soggy inside. The calamari, while served a bit on the cold side, was tender and cooked properly. The real standout was the spicy chili dipping sauce that came alongside the trio. It was so good that we requested more of it to accompany our spring rolls.

The spring rolls that are served with all entrees are really spectacular. Delicately spiced with crisp, flaky layers, I could have easily eaten more than one. Given the choice between vegetarian or pork, I chose vegetarian—stuffed with peppery cabbage and delicious. As I mentioned before, we chose to dip these cigar-shaped delights in the spicy sauce that accompanied our appetizers, since we found the spring roll sauce to be devoid of any flavor. Heavy on the cornstarch, this “sauce” tasted just barely of red pepper flakes, but overall was just viscous goo.

After poring over the extensive menu I chose to go with one of T. Ho’s traditional Vietnamese dishes—Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Country Style Crepe—$8.75). I wasn’t sure what to expect and was pleased with the fluffy-yet-crispy rustic crepe that was set in front of me. The crepe itself was enormous, studded with shrimp and chicken, and stuffed with onions, bean sprouts, and mushrooms. Some sort of sweet sauce was puddle beneath the crepe, lending just enough spice without masking the delicate flavors of the dish. Alongside the entrée came a pile of T. Ho’s signature quick pickles—a slice of cucumber and shredded carrots with a very pleasant mild pickled flavor. A refreshing garnish to a very hearty meal.

My dining companions stuck to the traditional “House Favorites” side of the menu as well, choosing the spicy Pho ($8.00), Bun Bo Nuong (Beef with Thin Noodle—$8.75), and Stir Fry Beef with Lemongrass on a Hot Steel Plate ($9.50). They are not kidding about the hot steel plate—the sizzling dish could be heard before it was ever seen. While I didn’t taste any distinct lemongrass, I enjoyed the charred flavors in the beef and the freshness of the sauce. The pho, a traditional noodle soup, was indeed spicy and not for the faint-hearted. However, the flavors were so bright and intoxicating that I found myself sneaking spoonfuls even though I am not usually a fan of very spicy foods. The thin noodle dishes (this also can be ordered in chicken, shrimp, or a combination) are among my favorites that T. Ho serves, so I was as usual happy with this bowlful of noodles, salty sweet beef with caramelized edges, and multiple crunchy garnishes. While there are no desserts on the menu, I was glad for it, but those with a sweet tooth can order coffee or tea with condensed milk ($2.50)—a traditional Asian treat. However, after stuffing myself with so many Vietnamese delights I couldn’t imagine eating another thing, and was happy to retire next door to the Pint House.

The Pint House was opened by the owners of T. Ho earlier this year, and is another surprising gem in this less-than-impressive location. The cozy bar features multiple televisions, a nook with dart boards and a foosball table, several booths, a decent beer selection, and live music every Friday night and alternating Tuesday nights. While at first it seemed odd to see a somewhat trendy bar in this part of town, it’s very nice to have a place next door to the already popular T. Ho where you can relax with a beer while digesting your excellent meal. Who knows, maybe Merchants Drive will become the next hot spot in town? Only time will tell.

Food **** (out of 5)
Atmosphere *** ½ (out of 5)
Service *** ½ (out of 5)
Overall ****
Price $$ (out of 5)

T Ho Vietnamese and Oriental Restaurant
815 Merchants Road
Knoxville, TN 37912
(865) 688-5815

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Seems I'm having massive spam issues since posting the site email address over on the right. For now I've taken it down, if you need to contact me please just leave me a message in the comments section. Thanks!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Does a Bear Dance in the Woods? (includes recipe!)

If tempted by the food at Dancing Bear Lodge, he might.

Originally printed in the April issue of Cityview Magazine.

This is a busy time of year—spring has sprung in all of its glory and suddenly your weekends are starting to fill up in anticipation of summers festive warmth. As you get busier and busier, don’t you wish you had a moment to get away for awhile? A chance to get out of the city and unwind in a completely different atmosphere?

In these instances, we are particularly lucky in Knoxville. Within an hour you can find a bevy of rustic getaways offering ranging from no-frills to truly luxuriant. One glaring void, in my opinion, has been in the cuisine arena. And if you are a gourmand, you can’t truly get away from it all without satisfying your more carnal urges.

This is where Dancing Bear Lodge rises high above its nearby competitors. And competitors there are, in Townsend alone there are thousands of cabins for rent. What sets Dancing Bear apart? For one, it has an excellent pedigree, owned by those experts in accommodations at Blackberry Farms. Also, it offers a great range of rooms and cabins, as well as a truly lovely lodge that houses the restaurant and would make a wonderful location for a mountain-inspired wedding or event.

But really, I’m here to tell you about the food, and the food is great. You won’t find a large menu, but what you will find is seasonally appropriate ingredients prepared with a skilled hand and served in an extremely welcoming environment. The dining area is small and warm and we were lucky to be seated next to a roaring fire on this cool early spring evening. Our charming waitress was quick to supply us with menus, including specialty drinks and a wine list. Feeling like we were on a mini-vacation, my dining partner and I chose to start with a White Dancing Bear Cosmopolitan (white cranberry juice, Cointreau, fresh lime juice, Finlandia vodka, $12), and a Dancing Bear Manhattan (Maker’s Mark whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, $10). Both drinks were fresh and delicious, although my Cosmopolitan was a bit sweet for my tastes. While we sipped our libations we perused the concise yet tempting menu.

While looking over the menu we were brought a napkin-wrapped bowl of Tennessee Cheese Puffs, the Lodge’s answer to a bread basket. These airy, cheesy puffs may have been the single best thing I put in my mouth all evening, and you must understand that I loved my dinner. They are that good.

Whilst munching on the cheese puffs I immediately zeroed in on my selections for the evening: Tomato Basil Soup with Garlic Parmesan Croutons ($5); followed by Almond Crusted North Carolina Rainbow Trout, Butter Beans, Roasted Mushrooms, Spinach and Crayfish ($17). The soup arrived quickly and was exactly what I was craving—thick warm, bursting with flavor, and studded with crisp, fresh croutons. I ate every bite and had barely rested my spoon before the bowl was whisked away and replaced with the trout. Now, I am a huge fish fan, I cook it several times a week and really appreciate it when people know how to prepare it well. This delicate filet was masterful—the almond coating was impressively crisp and the fish was impeccably cooked, quite a feat when dealing with such a thin variety. Underneath, I found a bundle of wilted greens surrounded by the butter beans and mushrooms. While I did find the occasional undercooked bean, it hardly detracted from the rustic elegance of the dish. A topping of crunchy fried crayfish finished off a meal that felt both light and decadent.

My companion selected the Iceberg Wedge with Bacon, Sweetwater Valley Cheddar, and Buttermilk Ranch Dressing ($6); and then the Pan Seared Center-Cut Pork Chop with Marinated Mushrooms, Roasted Tomatoes, Green Beans, Mashed Red Potatoes and Fried Onions ($22). His salad was one of those that seems so simple, but can really leave a lasting impression if handled with care. The slivers of local cheese were especially nice paired with the smoky lardons of bacon. I encouraged him to order the pork chop as a test for the kitchen—in my experience as an avid restaurant-goer pork chops are much maligned and usually cooked to a grey, rubbery death. Not so with this hefty, bone-in chop. It was succulent, flavorful, and even though it was cooked completely through (I live dangerously and tend to like pork chops with a touch of pink), it was extremely tender. The accoutrement complemented the rich chop nicely, in particular the vinegary vegetables paired with creamy rough mashed potatoes.

We were quite full after this wonderful meal, but it was so cozy by the fire that dessert seemed to be an obvious decision. After being so delighted with our meal thus far, imagine my disappointment with our choices—an anemic sounding chocolate cake and a “New York-style” cheesecake. Regardless, by this point I was ready for something sweet and since I am normally a huge cheesecake fan that was our choice. Sadly, the dessert did not begin to match up to the rest of the evenings offerings, and while it was in the end tasty, it seemed reminiscent of a frozen cheesecake topped with a quick berry coulis. At a restaurant that succeeds in showcasing so many local specialties, why not a dessert that follows the same bent? Even a piece of really excellent pie would have been more than welcome.

But I can’t let this one small disappointment color the experience overall. Dancing Bear Lodge provides something that Townsend quite needs—a tranquil rustic retreat with world class dining and impeccable service. On our way out the door I mentioned how much I adored the cheese puffs and was delighted to receive the recipe in an email later that weekend. These are the details that will have those of us in Knoxville making the one hour drive again and again—dinner at Dancing Bear Lodge was a lovely little escape that left me wishing I was staying for the entire weekend. Sounds like a perfect excuse for another trip…

Rating (out of 5 stars):

Dancing Bear Lodge
137 Apple Valley Way
Townsend, Tennessee 37822
865.448.6000 phone
865.448.3075 fax
reservations for dinner are required

courtesy of Dancing Bear Lodge

Makes about 80

10 ounces cheddar cheese
2 cups water
2 cups flour
8 ounces unsalted butter
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cayenne
8 eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Grate cheese and set aside. Melt butter with water, sugar, salt, and cayenne. Once butter is completely melted with the water add the flour all at once. Reduce heat and stir with a wooden spoon constantly for 1 minute. Pour into mixing bowl and mix with paddle attachment for 1 minute on medium low to cool the mixture. Increase speed to medium and add eggs one at a time making sure each one is incorporated before adding the next. Fold in grated cheese. Drop with a small ice cream scoop (or you can use two spoons) onto sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a silicone liner. Sprinkle with paprika.

Bake for 11 minutes, turn the pan and bake for 11 more minutes. Serve warm.

This recipe is easily halved and once cooled, leftover puffs can be frozen.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Raising the Bar: Sapphire surpasses bar food with luxuriant surprises

I tend to think that every place has its purpose—a gym is for exercise, a restaurant for eating, a bar for drinking and other revelry. In other words, I don’t eat at bars.

Sure, I have fallen prey to the occasional vinegary chicken wing or platter of fried variety meats, but never of my own volition. When dining outside of the home I prefer to eat at a place known for a specialty other than flaming shooters.

And so it was with a bit of trepidation that I went into Sapphire with the intent to eat a meal, rather than raise a glass. While Sapphire is a lovely, upscale lounge, it still makes me think more of happy hour than food to devour. But, you see, I was so wrong.

The space itself is lovely, a gorgeously polished room with plenty of seating, anchored in the center by an enormous bar. Seeing Sapphire earlier in the evening was different, a definitely smaller crowd and much more laid back than the sometimes raucous beautiful people of downtown who hold court until the wee hours of the morning. We were quickly seated at the table of our choice and given multiple menus—for specialty cocktails, wine, food, and a new sushi menu. Sushi? Indeed, we were lucky enough to choose to dine at Sapphire after Chip Meyer, former head chef at Nama, had come on board. More on the sushi later.

Being a bar, the specialty drink and wine selection was thorough and interesting. I decided on a Pom Fizz ($10) to start—a dazzling concoction of premium vodka, pomegranate juice, and champagne.

I was surprised and impressed by the extensive menu, with different sections for hot, cold, raw and sweet foods. The options for starters were wide ranging—from kettle chips with blue cheese to salads and more, but my companion and I opted for the tuna tartare ($12). On the menu the tartare is said to be accompanied by quail egg and avocado, but if the quail egg was there, I didn’t notice it. Regardless, the tuna was excellent, with clean fresh flavors illuminated by creamy avocado and wasabi-spiked tobiko caviar. The chunkiness of the tuna and avocado made it a bit hard to eat, and the texture-freak in me wished for something crunchy to scoop the fish up with—maybe I should have ordered those kettle chips after all. For another starter, I ordered the Lobster Shooters ($12) for the table, intrigued by the “coconut curry” they were served with. Sadly, this dish was one of the few disappointments we had all night. The sauce was overly sweet, almost dessert-like, and completely overwhelmed the chunks of lobster. The presentation in 6 shot glasses was unique, but I would have preferred a much simpler preparation that showed off the delicate flavors of the meat, rather than cloaking it in a cloying, viscous liquid. If I could do it all over again I would have chosen the raw oyster shooters in a heartbeat.

A more substantial menu item—and arguably the best value to be found—was the Chicken Wellington ($9). Served atop a mountain of rough mashed potatoes, the chicken was cooked properly; the puff pastry flakey, and the mustard sauce on top added a piquant punch. This hearty dish, accompanied by a salad, would make a perfect meal for one. Not the most inventive menu item, but tasty and a nice option for the less adventurous diner.

To round out our meal we ordered a sushi platter for one ($15), and glasses of crisp white wine—Domaine du Poup Grassa ($6.50). While Meyer will take requests for the sushi platters, we wisely gave him free reign and were rewarded handsomely for the decision. Slabs of gorgeous ruby-red tuna, the best eel I’ve ever tasted, and inventive rolls—this is really where Sapphire shines. The sushi menu is new—it debuted in early January—but is by far the best choice for dinner; I highly recommend letting the chef work his magic and put together a great meal for you.

Stuffed as we were, I forged ahead and inspected the dessert options. Just like the rest of the menu, they are wide-ranging and unique. I am tempted by the Caramel Jack Bananas ($5), the blueberry and Stilton crostini ($8), and the gourmet chocolate sampler ($8), but settled on the sweetened mascarpone with poached seasonal fruit ($6). The resulting dessert was quite pretty and extremely sweet—even if I hadn’t been so full I don’t know if I could have managed more than a few bites. I loved the creamy mascarpone, but the cherries served alongside seemed to be dried or candied and then poached in a sweet red wine based liquid; delicious, to be sure, but probably overwhelming to anyone without a major sweet tooth.

While Sapphire’s décor is lovely, the atmosphere can come off as cold when there aren’t a lot of people there—the large, lofty space is hardly cozy. However, once it fills with revelers it is undeniably convivial and ultimately comfortable. When Sapphire first opened I admit that I found it smug and too proud of itself, but I’m pleased to see that it has evolved into an upscale neighborhood watering hole, of sorts—very inviting after all. Parking is easy to find in the State Street garage and you can take advantage of Sapphire’s back entrance, making this one of the more accessible restaurants downtown.

Between the happy hour specials ($5 mojitos and martinis, $3 house wines and champagnes) and fresh, delicious sushi, this bar could easily become one of my favorite restaurants. If you want great sushi downtown with no wait, please give Sapphire a try.

428 S. Gay Street
Downtown Knoxville

Preview: Fleming’s Brings the Upscale Steakhouse to Knoxville

Originally printed in Cityview Magazine.

The American Steakhouse—dark leather; men in perfectly tailored suits; the scents of charred meat, cigars, and brandy commingling in the air—this is not an environment that exactly welcomes everyone across its threshold. And yet, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar seeks to do just that with a large open space both clinging to and shrugging off old “steakhouse” stereotypes. This is purposeful—Fleming’s has made including its potential female clientele a priority; rejecting the old school notion that steakhouses are dark, masculine, and smoky. In fact, you’ll find that smoking isn’t allowed at all, so leave those stogies at home. Fleming’s means to join the new order of the steakhouse by creating a restaurant that would appeal to women and families as much as stockbrokers; by offering lighter options on the menu; and by employing an open floor plan that wouldn’t be possible if there was smoking allowed at the bar. While the open bar and kitchen area can sometimes create a rather raucous, noisy dining environment, overall the atmosphere is warm and convivial.

Fleming’s is the mastermind of one Paul Fleming—the very “P.F.” behind the monumentally successful P.F. Changs Chinese Bistro. Fleming’s sets itself apart in many ways, but one standout is the innovative wine program, featuring 100 wines by the glass, as well as selected specialty bottles running up to $600 a bottle. The Fleming’s chain has a wine manager employed but does not have sommeliers at each location—rather, every member of the wait staff receives thorough training on the varieties of wines offered, as well as their best food pairings. Another unique offering from the restaurant is the choice to order “tastes” of wines, enabling the customer to order three 2 oz. glasses of wines from the same varietal; allowing you to try a multitude of styles without breaking your budget.

But your budget might be a concern at Fleming’s. While the food is top-notch, the prices reflect it, and the average Knoxville diner might balk at having to order everything a la carte. While the creators of Fleming’s might have had a more affordable alternative to the typical New York Steakhouse in mind, the prices for this market may take some getting used to. However, the food will not disappoint, whether you choose one of the expertly cooked steaks (I can say with authority that the 12 oz. filet mignon that I tried was impeccable), or any of the tempting starters—“family style” side dishes ranging from “Fleming’s Potatoes” (potatoes au gratin, touched with jalapeno) to steamed broccoli with hollandaise sauce. The portions are what you would expect at such an American restaurant—generous and enough for multiple people. Please don’t overdo it at dinner, though, because no matter what, you must save room for dessert. I thought I had reached my breaking point, yet a chocolate mousse cake that was as smooth as silk kept calling me back to the table, as did a peach cobbler that would make your grandmother smile.

The service is quite enthusiastic, no doubt reflecting the intense 3 day training session the staff went through before Fleming’s opened its doors in late summer. The training staff at Fleming’s is quick to point out that they choose to hire for the “hospitality gene”, meaning that they often choose personality over experience.

So, head to Fleming’s for hearty portions of excellent food, an unsurpassed selection of wine, and service that will make you feel catered to. Skip it if you can’t handle the sticker shock when you get the bill, but overall I think that it’s a great choice for special occasions and the odd craving for a nice hunk of meat.

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
11287 Parkside Drive
Knoxville, TN 37934
For reservations, call: 865-675-9463