The Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro Stays True to Its Mission of Authenticity
When asked how she makes her Fall Squash Soup both creamy and light, Shelley Cooper lights up with the passion that she brings to her creations. “We begin with the vegetable stock, which we make in-house,” she says. “We add enough cream for velvety richness and smoothness. Peanut dust and bacon bits add flavor, and pomegranate seeds provide the pop.” With her pulled-back blonde hair, large eyes, and sly smile, Cooper could be played by Kirsten Dunst, if she were making a hiking movie in the Smokies.
As executive chef of the Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro since 2015, Cooper has found joy in following her vision of true Appalachian cuisine with inventive twists. “I’m doing what I said I was going to do,” says Cooper. “It’s a bad-ass feeling of peace in knowing the authenticity of that concept. In fact, our roots have gotten deeper. We have expanded upon the concept.”
Growing up, Cooper spent summers with her paternal grandparents on a farm in Western Carolina, where they cooked on a coal-burning stove and kept freshly grown food in a storage shed on the side of a mountain. On her mother’s side, family visits were to the Mississippi Delta, where they also had an extensive garden and fresh pickings. After culinary school at Johnson & Wales, Cooper cooked in Charleston, Los Angeles, New Zealand, Alaska, and Hawaii—picking up creative ideas along the way.
Among the most popular items on the menu, the Appalachian Hot Pot exemplifies what Cooper is all about. Served in a mini cast-iron skillet, it’s an Appalachian jambalaya with shrimp, scallop, crayfish, andouille sausage, wild rice, tomato, Vidalia onion and fennel broth. A pepper vinaigrette on the side adds bite. The scallop is perfectly cooked, soft, and moist. “Shelley has a way with scallops,” says Mark Oldham, who, with his wife Sharon, bought the property in 2013. “And she has a unique talent for blending these flavors and bringing out the best.”
Amid the tall trees just off Lamar Alexander Highway in Townsend, the new Bistro building has a hunting lodge feel with wood beams, bark walls, and a roaring fire in a majestic fireplace. Marshmallows and pieces of chocolate are always on hand to bring back memories of campfire S’mores.
Among the “Little Bits,” the Smoked Pork Belly & Egg comes with creamy corn grits, cabbage, a quail’s egg, and benne seed bourbon-cured apples. Each bite has such taste that you want to make sure and take your time.
Two “From the Garden” standouts are the Charred Caesar Salad of broccolini, cornbread dust, soft-boiled egg, anchovy, and shaved hard cheese; and the Rainbow Beet Salad that complements different-colored beets of different subtle tastes with carrots, radishes, curly spinach, goat cheese, blistered grape, and shallot vinaigrette.
Main dishes (“From the Farm and Sea”) include Wild Coho Salmon served on wild mushroom corn risotto, bacony baby greens, and hominy cream. For unabashed carnivore couples, the two-pound smoked, Bone-in Ribeye for two is reminiscent of a thick Delmonico cut, served with a loaded potato, caramelized Vidalia onions, wild mushroom casserole, vegetable medley, and the house steak sauce.
Desserts include Apple Whiskey Crumble of spice streusel and whipped cream butter, Vanilla Crème Brûlée, and Chocolate Hazelnut Tart with a raspberry puree.
Dancing Bear’s unique dishes come at fine-dining prices, but the experience and the tantalizing tastes make it worth the price.
The Cityview Rating:
The Cityview Rating reflects the totals of the five categories: Ambiance, Service, Food, Presentation, and Price. (25: Out of this World; 20 to 25: Excellent; 15 to 20: Very Good; 10 to 15: So-So; 5 to 10: Not Recommended; 0 to 5: Don’t Eat Here)
Ambiance 4 stars
Service 5 stars
Food 5 stars
Presentation 4 stars
Price 4 stars
137 Apple Valley Way
Townsend, TN 37882