Oysters on the half shell and signature cocktails bring NOLA to Market Square
The French poet Léon-Paul Fargue wrote, “Eating oysters is like kissing the sea on the lips.” Knoxville’s only raw bar, The Brass Pearl, opened on Market Square in early 2022 with a simple concept: oysters from various regions of the east and west coasts, fresh-caught seafood, hand-crafted cocktails, and “bubbles.” It is a delightful addition to the Square.
The interior design with its lofty ceilings, rococo mirrors, and black-and-white tile floor will have you thinking you’re in the French Quarter, and when you taste the house Po’ Boy of crispy shrimp, haddock, oysters, kale, and radicchio slaw, you’ll know you’ve arrived in The Big Easy.
Chef Ben Dawson, a Powell High School and Pellissippi graduate, honed his craft at the French Market and Cru, picking up innovative ideas as sous chef for Darin Hoagland at Oliver Royale. “Darin’s passion for the craft and his ability to break down techniques to teach someone new was like nothing I’ve seen before in a kitchen,” said Dawson. “I learned something new every day.”
While you are deciding, you might try one of the house cocktails, the Oyster Shooter of vodka, house mix, and an oyster, or a Martini, offered Dirty (Castelvetrano Brine, olive), Dry (Dolin Dry Vermouth, twist), or Classic (Cocchi Americano, twist).
The stars of the show are obviously the oysters. On the evening we visited, the selection du jour included the Sugar Shack from New Jersey (slightly salty with a sweet finish), Dukes of Topsail from South Carolina (high salinity, sweet and scallop-like), St. Anne’s Bay from Nova Scotia (briny, crisp, clean), Sarah’s Shore from Prince Edward Island, Canada (nutty, popcorn, lemon finish), North Shore Gold from Cape Cod, Massachusetts (brisk brine, sweet finish), with Bad Boys from Nova Scotia (buttery, sweet, umami).
We especially liked the “tasting notes” supplied at the table that allowed us to savor the differences among the varieties. If you’ve ever thought all oysters taste the same, it’s a learning experience. Along with the usual crackers and hot sauces, the Pearl includes a classic “mignonette,” a piquant sauce made with vinegar and shallots for sprinkling atop of the oysters.
The “bubbles” include one of the best sparkling selections in town, from Italian Proseccos to various French Brut wines, a Spanish Frizzante, and several particularly good California options. These are offered by the glass, so you may sample these as you do the oysters.
Adding several of the other starters—for example the whipped feta with Fresno chilis, honey on toasted sourdough, or caviar served with crème fraiche, red onion, chopped egg—make a wonderfully light and flavorful meal.
If oysters aren’t your thing, or you are in the mood for something heartier, there’s always a fresh catch. Ours was Chilean Sea Bass cooked to firm and succulent perfection. Fish ‘n’ Chips are crispy, beer-battered haddock and fries with chowchow tartar sauce and malt vinegar.
We loved the tomato-based Fisherman’s Stew of mussels, shrimp, fish, grilled lobster tail, spicy tomato sauce, risotto, and toasted sourdough. If you are feeling indulgent, the Lobster Bisque—served with sourdough crouton, crème fraiche, and chives—is delicious.
The New York Strip with blue cheese came with oyster mushrooms, demi-glace, buttermilk blue cheese, crispy shallots, white cheddar polenta, and asparagus.
We finished our meal with a Salt Bae—Blanco tequila, grapefruit cordial, aperol, lime, salt, and soda. It was a marvelous digestif, and we left the Pearl in true NOLA line-band fashion, humming “When the Saints Go Marching In.”