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

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