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.

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