Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Review: Marty's Bistro

Originally published in Cityview Magazine.

Rooms For Improvement

Downtown’s newest upscale eatery has the right idea, but needs to find its footing.

When I think of hotel dining, I usually think of just one thing: room service. I used to have a job that required extensive travel and one of the only things I liked about that was coming back to my nice hotel room after a long day, getting into the enormous bed, ordering room service, and watching loads of bad television.

Because of this affinity, I’ve never given much thought to eating in restaurants housed by hotels, especially here in Knoxville. And so when I heard that an attempt at fine dining was being made at the downtown Hilton, I was as curious as I was apprehensive. Could Marty’s Bistro be as good as it sounds? The description on the hotel website promises “eclectic new American cuisine with a special focus on regional ingredients and classical presentation…enhanced by our seasonal wine list featuring the best of California as well as alternative selections from around the world.” I really don’t look for much else from a local restaurant, so I was ready to go check it out.

The hotel itself was recently renovated and presents a gorgeous, open lobby upon entrance. Marty’s Bistro is tucked away next to the “Market Café”, which serves breakfast and lunch. Further down the lobby you can find a Starbucks and The Orange Martini, featuring specialty drinks and a casual bar menu.

Marty’s is a small restaurant but could clearly be opened up to include the Market Café space for larger occasions. The décor is sedate and contemporary, and much to my (and the harried solo server) surprise, the restaurant was at least half full. It seems that the rainy, cool spring night has kept many hotel guests in for the evening, giving the restaurant an unexpected boost of business. We were seated promptly and given menus and a wine list.

The wine list is more than adequate with a good range of prices for all diners. Don’t expect a sommelier in your server, however. Our server mistakenly thought that Sauvignon Blanc was a red wine and seemed flummoxed by the different varietals. However, all menu items are thoughtfully graced with wine pairings—usually at least two choices per dish (one available by the glass and one by the bottle).

The Low Country Crab Cakes ($9), while definitely more “southwestern” than “low country”, were packed full of lump crabmeat and topped with a grainy mustard remoulade and loads of spicy corn kernels, all puzzlingly resting atop a cornhusk. A perfectly fine start to the meal, even if wrongly named. The suggested Sauvignon Blanc wine pairing was indeed a nice match to the zesty cakes.

However, upon spying my neighbors Bleu Cheese Caesar ($4) I felt like I should have made a different choice. A tidy bundle of whole romaine leaves arrived encased by a Parmesan crisp and topped with a sprinkling of Stilton. If it tasted anywhere as good as it looked, I’d say it was quite a nice little salad indeed.

My dining companion quickly zeroed in on his entrée choice, the grilled Veal Chop with Bacon-Onion Polenta and Roasted Shallot Sauce ($26). I had a bit more trouble making my choice, but ultimately settled on the Lemon-Thyme Chicken served on a bed of Tomato Gnocchi, Fresh Asparagus Tips, and Sun-dried Tomatoes ($17). I’m not usually a chicken person but was tempted by the tomato gnocchi—not something you often see on menus around these parts and I was curious as to whether it was house made.

When I ordered the chicken I was told that it takes a bit longer to prepare than other dishes, but when it arrived I wasn’t sure why. It is basically a bone-in paillard—a thin breast cutlet. Seared to golden brown on each side, the chicken was nicely cooked and served atop a hearty serving of tomato gnocchi and chunks of asparagus and sun-dried tomato. The gnocchi had a non-uniform appearance that made me think it was indeed made in-house, but it was slightly heavy on the tongue and doughy. The flavor was good, however. The asparagus was asparagus, and while I’m not sure where the “lemon-thyme” flavor was, everything was tossed in a serviceable wine sauce.

My dining companion’s veal chop was a more impressive dish to look at, with a thick bone-in chop accompanied by two small wedges of fried polenta, steamed asparagus, and shallots. However, the smoky charred flavor brought on from the grilling tended to overwhelm the delicate veal flavor. The bacon polenta was delicious and my partner wished there was more on the plate to balance the enormous chop. Overall the dish was well prepared (after all, it is simply my preference to have veal seared instead of grilled) and lovely to look at.

The dessert options ranged from a pecan pie to a cheesecake, but we went with the one dessert made in-house, a chocolate torte. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what we received—a rather basic chocolate layer cake reminiscent of cake mix and layered with an insipid, over chilled chocolate mousse. Honestly, it was a disappointing dessert, especially as it was described as “melt in your mouth”.

I think that Marty’s Bistro is making an admirable attempt to be the only upscale restaurant housed in a downtown hotel. The space is nicely decorated and it seemed to be a draw to hotel guests. However, to attract a local crowd the hotel needs to have more people on staff (the sole server/busboy/host was in a complete panic by evening’s end, and I can’t blame the poor guy), revamp the menu to reflect more of the promised focus on local and seasonal ingredients, and promote the new space by including it on the signage outside the hotel. I think it is exciting that this endeavor is being made, and with continued efforts I feel that Marty’s Bistro could establish itself among other fine dining options in the downtown area.