Friday, March 13, 2009

not dead, just distracted beyond all sense of reason...

The standard blog death excuse post follows: I'm not dead I've just been busy with (choose 1 or more: life, work, marriage/family, 52 hours without power, consulting full-time on top of a full-time job, taking care of cats, etc... etc...). Actually only two of those apply to me, guess which ones (ahem... hint, the overly specific ones).

That being said there are several things to report on, and they shall be reported extremely soon. Briefly: Cafe 4 and I have had a spat, Señor Taco has stolen my heart and is officially one of my favorite restaurants in KVille, Negativland was AWESOME (as expected), Ephesus is extremely good and makes me happy. Oh, and we lost power for 52 hours some weeks back, but neighbors had power (with a long enough extension cord and an outdoor outlet perhaps we could have too) which started a massive decent into blog inactivity. That being said, throwing away loads of spoiled food (including many homemade stocks and broths which was really heartbreaking) made me appreciate how much we take for granted. It also makes me appreciate my gas water-heater (and makes me regret my choice in buying an electric stove... actually that should be regret *more* since I hate electric in the first place) and wonder what exactly I pay KUB for.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Really? Negativland!? Awesome!

As much as I prefer sarcasm over sincere fanboyism in this venue I can't help but be excited. The Knoxville Big Ears festival is coming, and while I couldn't personally care less about Phillip Glass, I am completely excited by Negativland!

If you've never heard (of) Negativland it is worth checking the albums Escape From Noise, Free, and Dispepsi to get a feel for their work. (OK, those are the only three albums of theirs that I've heard... I won't lie) I won't even bother at a half-witted, inept attempt to describe their music but other fans will appreciate the fact that Car Bomb and Timezones have gotten me through a good chunk of late night cynicism by driving me deeper into that particular funk.

To the uninitiated, their discography has a good selection of clips on their site. It should be known that they are some of the most outspoken activists for fair use (after fighting U2 and Pepsi-co for the right to sample from their works and use certain likenesses), and for that reason, they are freedom fighters and activists against censorship!

I suppose this gives me a great excuse to review the venerable Bijou Theatre and maybe even the Bistro at the Bijou!? I can't wait!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

It's official: The best restaurant in knoxville for tea drinkers...

... is Harper's Volkwagon's service department's waiting room. Recently the coffee fascist was awaiting the completion of much needed repairs to his sweet new TDI and noticed that they have both Earl Grey and English Breakfast freely available for those patiently (or anxiously) wiling the hours away while a car or van is being worked on.

This is clear evidence that a tea culture must be cultivated in this fair town and control of the tea monopoly be wrested from the hands of our fair mechanics lest they hold us all tea-hostage until the end-times arrive. Arise tea drinking masses and take back your preferred refreshment!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cafe 4 - reviews of our (re-)re-returns

After raving about Cafe 4 and its potential to revolutionize Knoxville dining in all three courses, I've been back twice, and a separate good friend who first suggested the cafe as a dining location has as well. The reviews are definitely mixed, and don't change my global opinion of the restaurant, but merely confirms some fears but reinforces some hopes...

Since our first visit for lunch I've been back for Sunday brunch and dinner, and the aforementioned friend went for brunch as well.

So first I'll be critical... brunch is not the greatest. Our experience wasn't bad per se. Like so many local establishments hot tea was lacking. When the wife ordered it our waitress got this somewhat pained look on her face and started into this kinda slow "oooh.. yeah... we only have Chamomile..." muttering. Clearly a calming warm tea to relax you is not what anyone needs at brunch. We need either booze (bloody mary, mimosa, or screwdriver) to chase off the lingering effects of the prior night, or our caffeine delivery mechanism of choice. Chamomile just doesn't cut it. The service was incredibly slow with my caffeine delivery mechanism of choice: coffee. But it did arrive, it was tasty, and overall it wasn't so bad. The staff was clearly bored since it was pretty dead at 11:00 on a Sunday.

I had the french toast, which was fine if not spectacular, but then again I am incredibly spoiled in the department as my wife makes the best-ever french toast. The wife got a quiche without crust and full of veggies that was very tasty and made me jealous (especially since it had been my first choice... damn!) The prices remained reasonable so we left 95% happy. With tea in place and slightly faster refills of my caffeine IV it would have been perfect.

Now for a bit of bad news which is merely hearsay but I respect the speaker's taste so I will repeat it. He also showed up for brunch, fairly early, and it was dead. He received prompt service and oh-too-prompt of food delivery. He ordered a-la-carte: cheese grits, bacon, and a sweet roll. The grits and bacon were just cold, and arrived less than a minute after he ordered. The sweet roll tasted very good but was clearly not made day of. These kind of foibles can sink a ship. I hope they were a one-off and will never occur, but this is exactly what has driven me away from other local breakfast joints and I hate to hear it.

Now for the good news. When my father was visiting we let him buy us dinner there. It was great all around. We once again started with the requisite parmesan and truffle oil fries (amongst three of us the portions were only a little large) and random beers around the table. A word of recommendation to the serving staff: when someone orders a nice American craft IPA feel free to provide a glass... this ain't no Bud here... Dad had the fried chicken and herbed waffles and declared it delicious. My beautiful wife had the roast chicken with potatoes and followed suit. I had a perfectly rare burger with black pepper aioli and concurred. No dessert was in the cards, and it likely never will be if the portions remain so large. After dinner we had coffee but the tea selection, two weeks after our brunch visit, had not been refreshed. When I not-so-delicately suggested to our server that he mention this to his manager he pretty much ignored us... whatever, I'm not sure what I expected.

Lest I sound too harsh it should be noted that I'm taking my wife back for her 30th birthday (her choice!) later this week so clearly I'm not too put off. I simply do not want see my favorite to-date restaurant in this bizarre town get my official black-listing. In fact, once they get their espresso machine going and their baristas trained I hope to go there and never dare to step into Coffee and Chocolate again.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Crown and Goose ... another near miss in Knoxville

I have to start this post with some football snobbery and a bit of nomenclature: for the duration of this post football will refer to what the rest of the world calls football while "football" will refer to what Americans call "football" and is most definitely what the rest of the world is forced to call "American Football" (a strange distinction for them but they're used to it if they've ever witnessed Australian Rules Football, another bizarre game enjoyed in essentially one nation on earth). Is this an old and trite rant from football snobs to everyone else? Absolutely! That it requires repeating makes me, and my five football love brethren, sad. We're a mopey lot.

In another time and in another place we lived near an absolutely wonderful pub. It was, in many ways, a perfect pub. The interior was literally imported from Ireland, the food was high quality yet readily affordable if you paid attention, and the beer was fantastic for any taste. Of course if you were looking for Bourbon, Scotch, or Irish Whiskey, all were readily available and in great quality and quantity (how can that be bad?). Their Sunday brunch was fabulous after a co-ed football match or an ugly cyclocross race. They were within walking distance and their waitresses even put up with me after I'd had a snifter too many and said stupid things (it happened once...). They hosted the remnants of rugby squads after tournaments. And, very importantly, their big screens played every important football match: from Serie-A, to the Premiership, the Bundesliga, or EuroCup and Champions League, they were on to be watched.

After our move here there was nothing that even sounded similar until the announcement of Crown and Goose's opening in the Old City. Everything sounded right in the description including promises of football on the screens, high quality food and beer, and the location could not be more perfect, especially with the addition of their "beer garden" or even better, beautiful patio and alleyway seating...

This is one of those so-close, so-far situations I've found, so let's start with the beer. To be honest, a pub should have pub specials, and they do make some effort. They have the standards in Guinness, Bass, and Boddingtons, and they have three very well-made micro-brews, brewed by the Calhoun's family of brewers. Their ESB is a good example of the style as it should be, fairly mild, low carbonation, and a nice malt/hop complement. The IPA is the low spot in their brews, not because it isn't very tasty--it is--it just isn't an IPA. A good pale ale with mild hop aroma? Yes. An IPA? Nope, but try one, you'll like it. Their stout is a wonderful thing. Truly, one of the best examples of the style I've ever had; served on nitrous and in a 20oz serving, life is pretty good. Otherwise, there are far too many boring domestics and even boring imports. Where is the Beamish? or Murphy's Oatmeal Stout? They do try with Highland Brewery's Oatmeal Porter (which is pretty tasty) but only in bottles instead of draught. How about an exotic brew from across the pond? None to be found. Luckily, I should repeat, their stout is delicious.

The menu is another issue. The issue with the menu is definitely not one of quality. Everything I've eaten has been quite tasty without exception. The complaint is generally with cost. This is not pub food. I know it is, as advertised, a Gastropub, so my complaint may be moot in many eyes but $14 for fish'n'chips, no matter how tasty, is pushing it for fish and chips. $30 for Filet Mignon or Scallops and Foie Gras makes perfect sense and doesn't offend, but the scale is shifted pretty far to the outrageously expensive in a city which doesn't seem to support it. Moreover, if I see as many Millers and Buds on tables as I do I'm surprised if those dishes sell to match expectations. Of course, this problem is not reserved for the Crown and Goose, lots of places fall into the same price range... it could be that I'm cheap.

Moreover, when the price is reasonable the portions may lack. I love Bubble and Squeak, but for $5 it should be more than a saucer-sized three bites, and it isn't. Actually, if you think about raw ingredients along with required preparation, with any amount of bubble and squeak (potatoes, cabbage, some oil and egg) the profit is about 500% above of ingredient cost. You could charge an extra dollar for a trough full and still make out well, so make a potato monster happy (even at the risk of making me look like a pig!) and do so. Please? I'll order an extra IPA to cover the difference if that helps.

Personally I find the chips lacking as they are a bit droopy rather than crispy, but it may simply be that I prefer frites to chips and the chips I've had in London and Oxford were not a fair representation of the style. Perhaps the English prefer droopier fries and I am more Belgian in my preferred potato preparation. That I can accept. The wife adores their chips so certainly we are a house divided on that particular subject.

When the pub first opened they were closed on Mondays. I've always held the opinion that the day we most require a pub is Mondays as a way to hide from the miserable return to reality with which we so recently dealt. Very often the only solution is strong drink, good friends, and greasy food. Tuesday may be a bit slower starting than Monday was but we'll be cushioned by our pleasant experience Monday evening (even if we are pained by the headache Tuesday). Luckily my streetside ranting at their door was clearly heard by someone (or at least I like to delude myself into believing so) as they started opening on Mondays and having a great happy hour to boot. Monday's Fish'n'Chips are half price as are their draught beers! Suddently a 20oz IPA and a 20oz Stout to wash down some chips makes Mondays down the pub much much more reasonable.

Back to the subject of football... I almost never see football but rather "football" and occasionally Lady Vols Basketball (the latter of which is 10000 times preferred to the prior). I have it on good authority that if I simply demand football be played, one of the numerous stations providing the great game (Gol, Sky, or Fox Soccer Channel) will but put on the big screen instantly. I don't necessarily doubt this as I have seen Bundesliga on the big screen and a random, obviously bored server and I talked football for a while... it must be put to the test. Let us arrive en masse on the day of a good match and drink heartily while acting out our best hooligan antics! I'm sure if we are relatively polite, tip well, and drink better we will be tolerated but it will require a crowd to put this to the test. If I alone start cheering on Tottenham (Go Spurs!) while everyone else is attempting polite conversation I may, very likely, be asked (less than politely) to leave. NOW!

The service is generally a bit slow but there are several good bartenders who will take your orders promptly, ply you with booze, and make sure your food arrives promptly. Tables are a bit more hit and miss (often miss) but they did feed me oohhh... a "few" pints on my birthday (after not so gently inquiring to my party about my designated driver) so they can be forgiven. Just don't expect instant seating and you'll likely be happy.

Really, my hopes may be inappropriate, and I've had just enough poor, but never bad, experiences at the Crown and Goose to make me hesitant, but I do keep returning. Often Monday nights are most palatable as they're quite quiet and service at the bar is prompt. When I have company in town I almost always take them there once hoping that will exceed my poor expectations and provide good atmosphere and food, and sometimes it does.

So, to the pubs of the world, in particular Crown and Goose, put some football on the screens, feed me some quality potatoes, and keep the beer flowing with prompt service and you'll see me far too often for my pudgy waistline. Please? I'd appreciate it even if my clothes don't!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Cafe 4 ... living up the the hype of "New American" cuisine

The case could be made that I am extremely critical of Knoxville. I am. There is so much potential for hipness, much of it unrealized or at least under-realized in places where that is unacceptable. Market Square is a perfect example; there are three restaurants residing there which disappoint me because I want them to be as could as they could be: Trio, Tomato Head, and La Costa. I've had really good meals, and meals varying from perfectly mediocre to out-right bad at all of them. What's worse is that each time I go back to any of those three my prior angst is only reinforced when what I want is to be proven wrong!

Luckily the newest addition to Market Square does not fall into any of the traps that have so colored my view of food in this fair city. Cafe 4 completely satisfied with impressive portions, quality food, and amazing looking deserts. Before I rave about the menu, note one thing: every dish can easily serve two, maybe three if anyone is watching their diet! We were astounded by the size of the portions, and we weren't alone if the looks of surprise on other diners' faces were at all telling.

The meal started with french fries with parmesan and truffle oil from the appetizers menu. If you can't tell from the photo, that plate could easily replaced an entire meal for me and I am a potato monster. I honestly believe I could live on frites alone and I was astounded by the portion delivered. The potatoes themselves were slightly oily but absolutely delicious. They even possessed a property I've never found in fries before: as they cooled slightly they became more flavorful as the truffle oil became more apparent. The mayonnaise dipping sauce with which they arrived is unidentified on their menu and by the staff (and I forgot to ask) but is also delicious.

Food service was a tiny bit slow so we had to fight our instincts to devour every single fry on the plate before lunch arrived. When the food arrived, perfectly hot and ready to be enjoyed thoroughly, a few fries remained by some miracle of discipline.

The wife ordered the meatloaf sandwich (with BACON! naturally) with fries while I ordered the fried pork tenderloin sandwich with a light salad (below). Neither of us expected what we were to discover: if you order an entree you will almost certainly not order dessert! My pork tenderloin was so large it almost made the teeny-tiny bun above and below comedic. I almost never eat anything breaded and fried and didn't think through, or bother to ask, how this sandwich was prepared. I assumed, for no good reason, that I'd be getting pork tenderloin medallions lightly fried and on a small sandwich. Instead, as far as I can tell, I received an entire tenderloin fried to perfection. None of this is meant as a criticism at all as the dish was a complete success, but even after I cut a large portion off to stick back inside the bun and eat like a proper sandwich, half of it is now in my fridge for a Christmas eve lunch . The wife took my lead, or maybe I took hers, and cut her sandwich in half. Hers was a very moist chunk of meatloaf which contained roasted peppers by our guess and was scrumptious with the perfectly fried bacon. After the opening portion of fries hers went a bit unattended but we were assured they heat up well later!

After having stared at the espresso machine in the front I really looked forward to ending the meal with a perfectly pulled shot but alas, the machine is not up-and-running, but the waitress suggested a cup of coffee which is brewed from Golden Roast beans in their own custom blend. The coffee was not as strong as I might make it, but stronger than any coffee I've had in a restaurant in Knoxville and was perfect after the huge meal I had just ingested.

The wine and beer list are quality and not outrageous in cost, but since we had plenty of chores to do later today we both skipped out. Certainly in the future we will indulge in a glass or two of wine or some good American craft brew before an amazing dinner and dessert session.

Service was good if a bit slow. After having talked to several friends who have also gone, we're all assuming this is still opening jitters and that should get worked out. The only other real criticism is that the hostess is on the other side of a fairly imposing entry-way from the door into the cafe and it's not clear where one should stand to get seated quickly. I assumed it was me but there were several parties all staring at each other in the entry way hoping we'd get service. This will certainly get worked out soon.

Since it is extremely cold right now the gorgeous patio is empty, but during the summer months it will be a perfect place to sit and enjoy a Wittekerke or a nicely chilled glass of Rosé while people-watching or watching one of the bike races around the square.

Hot Tea is seriously not this hard

Dear Knoxville,

It should be understood that while I personally love coffee and would almost never skip it for tea, there are those who appreciate those special little leaves in a way that we java drinkers can't possibly appreciate. My advisor was one of those, my wife is one, and even you might be one so... Why can even high-end restaurants in this quaint burg keep a small stash for those occasional outliers who might request an alternative to the daily brew? Tea is perishable but tea bags kept well will be fine for many many months, are quite affordable, and even provide good profit margins since you are charging for one bag plus hot water! If you want to be properly high-end, you can provide a lemon wedge (just like the water, but on the side please), a bit of cream (a-la the coffee you already serve), and some honey (local honey for extra points!) just to separate yourself further from your non-tea serving competitors!

This is a plea to the restaurateurs, present and future, of East Tennessee to be considerate. This mere act may change a "really?" to a "quoi" and a "quoi" to a "good" in my modest rating scheme! Go nuts! Try some Earl Grey and some mango Ceylon if you want to be exotic!