Walnut Kitchen combines a neighborhood feeling with farm fresh cuisine
In its 100-year history, the two-story red brick building on High Street in Maryville has been a hotel, bawdy house, laundromat, and market. Thanks to cattlemen Jim Simpson and Jason Parkerson, it now houses Walnut Kitchen and WK Butcher retail shop, offering hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and pork raised on local farms, dressed and dry-aged in an upstairs room, then trimmed by in-house butcher Ashley Gaylor.
Gaylor got his start at 8 years old in the meat department at a market owned by his great-grandfather, local icon Cas Walker. He worked for 17 years at Butler & Bailey Market in Rocky Hill and two years at Southern Natural Farms processing plant in Lexington, Tennessee, from which Simpson and Parkerson supply some 20 regional restaurants. They started Walnut Kitchen to supply a restaurant of their own, dedicated to seasonal and local farm products. “We try to keep everything as close to home as possible,” says PR director Melissa Brinley.
With large windows and tall ceilings, the main dining area is bright and airy. The walls – of brick, interspersed with distressed plaster over cinderblock – dampen the noise level to allow private conversation. A long, open bar is backed by shelves displaying a collection of over one hundred and fifty whiskies and other spirits from which the WK mixologist can whip up a variety of craft cocktails. The Walnut Old Fashioned with muddled Luxardo and Orange and the Ramblin’ Rose with grapefruit-infused vodka, ginger, and lime are not to be missed. Ranch-style wrought iron ceiling lighting gives a farm atmosphere that is accentuated by a wall of walnut stumps from a fallen tree, reclaimed barn wood surrounding the upstairs office wall, a scythe mounted on one wall, and a wine rack crafted from a re-purposed chicken coop. The wine selection is impressive, as is the list of over fifty craft beers. There are five areas which diners can choose from—the main open area near the bar, the “butcher room,” a private dining room which seats 14, the rooftop patio, and the “kitchen room” where guests can see the chef at work from tables or sit at the bar for a real immersive experience. The Butcher Room is decorated with portraits of folks famous to the regional food scene: Joe Love of Richy Crème donut fame, Lena Edison owner of the 411 Restaurant, Steve McNeilly of Walland and Blackberry Farm, and others. It’s a testament to those who came before and a touching note of gratitude for our shared history. Speaking of the kitchen bar, there is a weekend “Tasting Menu” with food and wine parings chosen by the chef—call for reservations–it is not to be missed.
The Walnut Kitchen staff welcomes diners with a smile and hello. “The back of the house and front of the house, we all get along,” says waiter Wesley Gosselin. “They want us to be a family and we very much are one. I am a foodie. We take it very seriously to try and make sure we know what goes into all the dishes and how everything is prepared.” Our food arrived at just the right time, and Wesley had that magic tough of always seeming to be there when we needed him.
With his robust frame and enthusiastic smile, Executive Chef Alex Gass reminded us of Emeril Lagasse as he darted about the open kitchen. He cooked at Bistro by the Tracks then as a private chef on the road with stars like Elton John, Van Halen, and Widespread Panic.
The farm-to-table experience begins with a heavenly fried okra in corndog breading served with Benton’s bacon ranch dressing, hot sauce, and chives. Believe us, you haven’t had fried okra quite like this. The local cheese plate features Coppinger with a vegetable ash, Cumberland from Sequatchie Cove Creamery, and sheep’s milk Brebis served with house-made white peach jam and grilled Tellico Grains Bakery sourdough. The Butcher Block has house-cured summer sausage, homemade bratwurst, home pickled vegetables, pimiento cheese, mustard, and house specialties—grit chips and a savory onion jam. If you love the heft of grits and the crunch of a chip, you’ll love these. Gass presses prepared grits, chills and slices them into triangles, then deep-fries them—the result is pure bliss.
This is one of the few places in the area where you can find rack of lamb, and perhaps the only place (that we know of) currently serving wild boar. In addition to the perfectly-done lamb with a wonderful wood char finish, we also tried the filet. It is in the filet that you taste the difference in locally raised and perfectly-aged beef. Tender and flavorful, it was a delight. The Gulf Grouper is a delectable and summery dish, served with farro, pickled fennel, pecans, and orange. We are duck fanatics, and the duck breast, with a delicate thyme polenta, shallots, and oyster mushrooms, was a poem. A surprise off-the-menu treat from Chef Gass was a dish of shrimp and grits, served in a creamy Tasso-style gravy that melted in our mouths. We need to confess that there was a bit of a tussle of who got to take the leftovers home!
As you would expect, the food is served in a simple, non-fussy style allowing the fresh aromas and colors of the season to shine through. The cast-iron pan of cornbread that accompanies every meal is delicious. In fact, a friend that stopped by our table said he was asking the kitchen to buy some to take home. Generously sized tables, and simple serving dishes put the spotlight where it should be—on the food.
Appetizers range from $10 to $18 and you could easily have a light weeknight meal with a glass of wine and a few of these selections. Neighborhood patrons can drop in for a $14 burger or $22 vegetable pasta in crème fraiche. Other entrees range from a hanger steak priced at $27 to the rack of lamb priced at $40.