Memoirs of a food critic

“It’s a bad-ass feeling of peace in knowing the authenticity of that concept,” said Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro Executive Chef Shelley Cooper, talking about her commitment to true farm-to-table Appalachian cuisine with inventive twists. She is faithful to traditions she learned from one set of grandparents in Western Carolina and the other in the Mississippi Delta. “It’s my ancestry. It’s my history,” she says. 

I still remember her Appalachian Hot Pot, served in a mini cast-iron skillet. It’s a jambalaya of shrimp, crayfish, andouille sausage, wild rice, tomato, and Vidalia onion topped with a perfectly cooked, soft, moist sea scallop. Dishes like that make it worth the trip to Townsend.

In this time of coronavirus, living without restaurants, I looked back on six years of visiting restaurants for Cityview. Needless to say, it has been a rare pleasure. Our area is blessed with an abundance of great eateries and amazing chefs. Along with tasting their creations, I have enjoyed talking with them. Some—like Joseph Lenn of J.C. Holdway, Matt Gallaher of Emilia and Knox Mason, Jeff Carter of Sunspot, and Trevor Stockton of RT Lodge—picked up some five-star credentials at Blackberry Farm. Others, like Cooper, gathered creative ideas from kitchens all over the world. Like the finest artists, they are committed to their creations and willing to put in the long, arduous hours that the restaurant business demands. 

Since I began writing these reviews, the publisher has wanted to give readers a sense of the experience of each restaurant. If an opera singer waiter at Rebel Kitchen generously obliged me by singing “On the Street Where You Live” with me, that was included as part of the ambiance, as were his wine recommendations as a savvy sommelier. 

Great dining involves all the senses. “We ask that the diners abrir sus oídos –open their ears—to new things,” says manager Eric Ramos of Soccer Taco at Northshore Town Center.  

The aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg crème fraiche, and shallot oil from Chef Deron Little’s Pumpkin Bisque at Seasons is hard to forget, as is his Kentucky Bourbon Rack of Lamb, encrusted in almonds and presented atop a Kentucky mint bourbon sauce with cranberries and blue cheese mashed potatoes. 

“You eat with your eyes first,” says Chef Geoff Kenney of Harvest, a former artist, whose small plate of Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes atop a bed of roasted corn and green tomato relish makes our list of top dishes. 

At Emilia on Market Square, it can be hard to choose among Matt Gallaher’s Genovese-style Fisherman’s stew, the Prince Edward Island Mussels, and his varied dishes made with his house-made pasta.  Bucatini Carbonera, for one, is long tube pasta with Pecorini Romano, Parmigianno-Regianno, a poached egg, and Benton’s bacon. 

At two Top Chefs events, I’ve sat at a table with Allan Benton. Although his smoked hams are flown from Madisonville to the finest kitchens in San Francisco, Paris, and New Orleans, he remains self-effacing and down-home nice. “I’m the luckiest hillbilly there ever was,” Benton says with a smile. 

Knox Mason food
Knox Mason’s Shrimp and Grits

Who makes the best shrimp and grits? Knox Mason’s Low Country Shrimp and Grits—delicate, creamy grits paired with house-smoked ham, smoked sausage, green onions and shellfish butter—make the list, as do RT Lodge’s shrimp and yellow grits with Andouille sausage. 

Among the exotic offerings of Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, the Texas red beef chili with avocado corn salsa, corn, cheddar, crema and crispy tortilla, is worth a visit.

At Sunspot, where Chef Jeff Carter’s eclectic offerings appeal to vegetarian students and carnivorous professors alike, the fried avocado taco stands out among a selection of glorious tacos and the Black Bean Burger gushes with flavors you didn’t realize a burger could have. 

Harvest

At Kefi (Greek for “profound passion”) in the Old City, owners Jim and Lori Klonaris offer what they call “food for the gods.” Kefi’s Kokinisto, or beef short ribs, are slowly braised in St. George wine sauce served atop fluffy feta polenta and garnished with roasted tomatoes and arugula. With this, and so many choices that will someday be available to us once again, the gods are most certainly pleased.   

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