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!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mass edits are coming ...

I've decided to finally augment prior posts with photos that I've taken with the ole-cell-phone. So if suddenly posts have pictures and they lack explicit notes of edit... guess what, I did it unappologetically!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

McScrooge's ... a Really? from the past

It's one thing to vanity-google yourself and another thing entirely to peruse BeerAdvocate, read a review of a beer store you haven't looked at in a long time and find yourself completely agreeing with a review only to realize that it's your review from 9-10-2007, right after you arrived in Knoxville. For authenticity's sake what follows is simply a copy-paste of that review because my tone in describing McScrooge's. Of course this means it is a bit out of context so you can read the original and other quotes for the feelings of others on this particular booze-ateria.

"I also found this place thanks to the guy behind the counter at "The Leaf and Ale."

Firstly, their wine selection is excellent (the second best we've found in/around Knoxville) and their spirits collection is good too (if either of these things matter to you)... now onto the beer.

Our first trip there was great... the selection is effectively the de-facto Knoxville selection with a few nice surprises. For me the best surprise was the quantity of Rodenbach Grand-Cru on the shelf. I bought them out. It was great. I don't recall anything about the service on our first trip.

The reason for my poor service and quality review was the second trip. My father was coming to town and was very excited about the possibility of Rodenbach. I was disappointed to find zero on the shelf. A friendly guy asked me if he could help. The conversation was as follows:

Me: Yeah, I was wondering if you had any Rodenbach in back since the shelf is empty.
Him: What? Is that wine?

Ed Note: Fine, you don't know your whole selection. I understand.

Me: No, it's a Belgian beer you had last time I was here.
Him: Oh yeah. The really bitter beer. I had it once and I thought it had gone bad. It is SO gross. Oh, but I guess you like it.

Then he disappeared into the back, and found none. I also purchased, as a poor replacement, a Brugse Straffe Hendrik, which was 99% flat. It may be that this is out of their control or it may be old stock, but it was no good.

They have a nice Creme de Cassis for Kir (if you're into that kind of thing) so I may stop in when I am out there and check their beer selection but I will never drive all the way out there just for their beer. If you live in that part of the city then it will provide you with all the standard Stone / DFH / Delierium / Chimay / etc which are standard for Knoxville."

I suppose it makes sense to provide some additional information over a year later. I don't go to McScrooge's, mostly because it is so far west and we have perfectly good stores (soon to be reviewed) much closer to home, all of which are making a great effort to stock quality beers of both the Belgian and American varieties. I'd be a liar if I didn't admin that my interaction with the sales guy has also colored my view a bit and makes me less inclined to return. That being said I do refer people who live out west to the little Irishman if they require some high-gravity beer or a decent wine selection.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The French Market - une bonne crêpe

I am particularly picky about my French food as a Francophile (or maybe a Europhile), and after briefly living in Paris I am completely a snob. Paris will do that to you, don't hate me for it. Even if you do hate me for it, there is plenty of really good French food available on this side of the pond, and that's what I want and expect when I go out for it. Luckily for you and me, The French Market provides a good local crêperie!

The menu includes both crêpes and baguette sandwiches and various pastries including the misleadingly misspelled macaron (they labeled them "macaroon"; both are delicious but they are very different things, as David Lebovitz is quick to point out). Our party of four all descended on the crêpes, which come in two varieties (other than sweet and savory): galettes (partly buckwheat flour) and the standard wheat flour variety. Since there doesn't appear to be a bakery on-site I would guess they buy their bread locally and daily but that is still in the air (all the more reason to come back, no?)

I chose the vegetarian galette packed with spinach, artichoke hearts, and plenty of gruyere. Two others in our party decided on the crêpe mixte consisting ham, gruyere, and lots of black pepper. The final, and perhaps most adventurous member of our party chose the crêpe saumon with cured salmon and crême friache.

Since they lack a beer and wine license, which is a major shame because I really wanted a cool glass of Rosé to complement my meal, drinks are of the soft-drink variety.

After placing our orders we weren't sure if we were to pay immediately or after the meal and all stood around gazing at our navals waiting for some prompting from those behind the counter. Instead of providing any clue as to what we should do, they argued about orders that had or hadn't gone out. Finally I asked whether we should pay now or later to which they looked surprised and happily took our money. Ok, no problem.

At this point the cadre went outside to the extremely welcoming patio and took a seat, but I realized, as I finished paying, that I didn't have a glass for the can of Dr. Brown's Ginger Ale (it's like Rosé, right?) and didn't want to drink out of the can. I asked the woman behind the counter if I could possibly have a glass for my drink to which she replied "we don't have any ice!" Really?! Whoa. I was so taken aback that it took me a minute to explain that I didn't want ice (the drink was cold) so much as something to drink out of. Somewhat begrudgingly, she provided a small plastic cup and I retreated to the safety of the patio.

The food arrived promptly by the crêpe master of the establishment and we were all quite satisfied by the food. I quickly gobbled mine down and started trying to pick at my wife's (we had spent the morning caring for our huge yard and were both ravenous). For some reason she actually gave me a few full bites and it was also delicious.

The location is good, the interior and exterior of the restaurant are pleasant, and aside from the strange interaction at the counter, everyone in our party was quite satisfied. We will definitely be returning to try their sandwiches and desserts as well! Regrettably, rumor-has-it that the location is on its way out due to a California real-estate developer purchasing the space. Let's hope this is not the case!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cosmo's Café - so close but sometimes so far

Cosmo's Café is one half of what should be the perfect destination for foodies in Knoxville, sharing a space with Gourmet's Market.

It should be said, and early on in this mini-rant, that when the food at Cosmo's is good, it's very good. Breakfast covers the standard eggs, bacon, and potatoes range that you might expect but includes huevos rancheros (which I am biased against as a southwesterner), a fairly tasty breakfast burrito, and a very well laid-out omelette bar where your eggy concoction will be made before your eyes in real time. The coffee at Cosmo's is properly gourmet with two varieties of caffeinated and a decaf at all times.

Having been there on multiple occasions, early impressions were that this would be our de facto breakfast destination for a long time to come. During our first visits we were not exposed to "one Knoxville Standard Service" (which will be fully explained in its own rant later... all in good time, you'll get the idea soon enough) but rather the manager took personal interest in customers, the staff was fairly attentive and food was brought out quickly and warm. Prices were a tiny bit high but since that's the case everywhere in Knoxville we had no problem accepting it and enjoying well made food (and raving about it to others).

One friend in particular had custom omelettes several times in a row and they were all perfect. I had various breakfasts, almost always centered around my favorite part: potatoes, and the wife enjoyed her eggs and bacon tremendously.

Then, as is my particular gift to find, service started to slide radically. It started with "oh, we're out of potatoes." They had just opened. And potatoes are cheap and easy to keep warm and fairly moist and tasty even if it were later in the day. I don't get it. When I want (or need) potatoes that's a problem. Ironically, in this case it wasn't me ordering anything with the succulent flesh of potatoes, but the wife. Then food took forever to come out on multiple occasions. Sure, in one instance it was a time-change and half the staff didn't show up but... Actually, food not coming out became a serious problem. I'm pretty patient and unwilling to confront staff almost ever but I had to ask about my food multiple times. I was frustrated. Luckily, since coffee is self-serve, and was readily available I was never driven to caffeine-withdrawal spurred rage. The pattern of course was clear, there was no one driving the kitchen. No expediter, no manager keeping things going when it was desperately needed.

I would love for this to change because, as I said before, when the food is good, it's really good and I could use a stable, no-thinking breakfast locale when I just don't want to get going in the morning.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Old Mill Bread Company ... a bakery reward for going West!

I so rarely go to west Knoxville for anything unless forced that I would almost certainly never have found Old Mill Bread Company without being kidnapped. Luckily I was recently forced out of my comfort zone for training for work and found myself hunting lunch on Cedar Bluff. Monday I searched for some reasonable sustenance during the lunch hour and was excited by the non-chain option of eating at Old Mill but it was closed and I was forced into sandwich purgatory (actually Hell) at Subway. Great disappointment followed (no surprises here). Tuesday was Taste of Thai, and finally Wednesday we found ourselves in the same strip mall as Monday, but luckily this time we were not forced to eat bad bread or lousy sandwiches.

Old Mill Bread Company is precisely what I've wanted in Knoxville: a bakery and a no-nonsense sandwich shop. For $5.49 you can get a sandwich, made to order on homemade bread, and a cup of soup (for about $4.50 you can get a half sandwich and a cup of soup, or just a sandwich for around $3.50). Soups are made in house and are also very tasty as proven by the creamy chicken tortellini. Our small clan chose any combination of meats (turkey, roast beef, and chicken salad) and toppings and everyone was happy. The sandwiches were made to order extremely quickly and came with a single bite brownie to top off the meal.

At the end of meal I could not resist a low-fat oatmeal chocolate chip cookie (delicious) and a loaf of honey whole wheat bread to bring home for the fam.

Service was prompt and very friendly. Payment is cash only which might catch you by surprise so see an ATM first. Questions were answered without hesitation and hints about making sourdough at home were given for only a small fee (ok, none). If you're stuck out west for work or errands make a stop you won't regret it!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Taste of Thai ... not Thailand but delicious

... actually, I don't know if it is anything like Thailand, having never once been to Southeast Asia! I've had loads of Thai cuisine in cities and towns all over the West, Southwest, and NYC, and Taste of Thai is comparable to many of them. I was hoping for a spice-fest of incomparable proportions after reading the reviews declaring the food edible lava. Regrettably, it did not live up to those standards at all, but having visited it twice in two days (thanks to an enterprising co-worker), I can say it is certainly very tasty.

I have many favorite dishes in the broad selection of Thai dishes, and most of them are present and accounted for on the menu: Curry (of course, but of several varieties including green, red, yellow, masaman, rama, and my favorite, penang), Tom Yum Gai, a chicken soup with coconut milk also available under a similar name, beef salad, green papaya salad, and a wide variety of noodle and rice dishes including the requisite Pud Thai. The heat selection is on a scale of 1-5 where 5 is meant to be "Thai Hot," an often feared and always respected title. Being into very spicy thai food (or macho according to friends) I, of course, demanded at least one dish be a 5 (and I always order Indian food "Indian hot" because I'm like that).

Our party ordered one rama curry with pork (3/5 for flavor), one red curry with beef(5/5 - Thai hot), one garlic sauce with chicken (3/5 to prevent the chicken from being over-powered), and to start a green papaya salad and an order of crab cheese rolls along with the requisite Thai iced tea. The tea is delicious, and a mandatory experience for those unfamiliar with the delightful drink. The concoction of condensed milk, tea, and sugar is pretty amazing and recalls melted rich vanilla ice-cream! I had never had crab cheese rolls and they were tasty regardless of their authenticity (I have no idea... are they traditional??) The green papaya salad was extremely tasty and is highly recommended. It lacked the tiny dried shrimp it often has, which are delicious, but remained a great appetizer and I even resisted licking the plate clean.

The main courses arrived and I was disappointed to find that the "thai hot" red curry was just not hot, but it was tasty. It was a bit heavy on the coconut milk, which while being required for all curry, isn't generally the predominant ingredient in the sauce. After getting past my disappointment at not fainting from capsaicin poisoning (often a goal of mine, unless the source is raw cayenne, and then I am punished but unexcited) I found the dish quite tasty. The asian eggplant was perfectly cooked and the dish was well executed. The rama curry was equally tasty and not intended to be nearly as spicy a I had hoped mine would be. The garlic sauce chicken was, strangely, spicier than my curry, quite tasty, and seemed to satisfy.

The service was attentive, friendly, and with a great sense of humor. Our server was in the midst of explaining that to make the papaya salad they had to get a papaya from the tree, which wasn't quite finished growing according to him, but the salad arrived in the midst of the story. His disappointment was palpable and made the joke even funnier.

Dessert was just not to happen but the fried ice cream was definitely calling me and will have to be revisited sometime when I don't make a complete pig of myself.

Strangely I was to return to the restaurant less that 16 hours after my first visit during a lunch break from work. I was really excited to try dishes that I had missed from my first visit: tom yum gai and beef salad (that was lunch if I had my way). I found that the lunch menu is a very abbreviated version of the evening menu so I was to be denied both soup and salad and ended up with Rag Nar (chicken, broccoli, wide noodles, and gravy) which was quite tasty but has 0 spice (and usually does so I was surprised when they gave me the ole 1-5 spice option). Others in my party ordered Pud Thai (which looked tasty and the inexperienced thai diner who ordered it seemed happy), Red Curry (ordered with 2/5 heat and was exactly as spicy as the night before), and cashew chicken (which also looked good and nothing like the standard chinese version of the dish).

Lunch found all of the tables jammed and the staff working double-time but the service was prompt and friendly.

The only strange thing is the menu posted in the window which insists that entreés are not to be shared! I saw no evidence of this being enforced as I ate off of everyone else's plates both days (not that I'm embarrassed about it... I was a complete piggy!!)

Don't be put off by the dire warnings of insane heat that pepper the newspaper clippings in the window (ahem... that pun is pretty terrible), I've seen no evidence of said spice (and would like to)! If you find yourself in West Knoxville for whatever reason, probably against your will, this is one more good lunch or dinner option to investigate.

Barley's Pizza or hardware and feed

Barley's Pizza is one of the first restaurants I found while researching Knoxville on the interwebs before moving here. I was focused on priorities; in that case, Belgian beer available in bars. As it turns out Belgians are not the reason to go to Barley's, but there are many good ones!

The history of Barley's as a local chain is actually part of what makes it interesting. Starting in the nearby and truly hip Asheville, NC as a pizza joint and later micro-brewery, they expanded to the nearby lands in the hope of pushing good pizza and beer on the masses. The full history is on their website, and an interesting read, but what makes it interesting to me is what happened to their microbrew. Highland Brewing, also out of Asheville, actually started in the back room of Barley's and has blossomed into a quality brewery. Suffice to say, as I'm not reviewing Highland at this point, that their Kashmir IPA and their Oatmeal Porter are both delicious. I would love to say the same of their Mocha Stout but, since it isn't sold in Knoxville, I can't sample it. In fact, neither is the Kashmir, but I've had it in NC while visiting family and it is high quality.

Since Barley's is one of my standby "I don't want to cook tonight" haunts I've been there many many times with lots of folks. The service is consistently good. Certainly, I've had a few nights where the small tip reflected the service, but that happens so rarely that it never makes me hesitant to go back.

Barley's beer list is substantial, both on tap and in bottles, and has in fact introduced me to some beer I would never have tried otherwise. Depending on the server and the current beer selection they may or may not have an up-to-date beer list that matches anything resembling reality. That's fine, just go the bar, read the chalkboards behind it listing the beers or look at the taps. The high-gravity beer list (beers 7% and stronger) is not terribly impressive but that's a function of Knoxville and its available selection combined with an incredibly high beer tax rather than Barley's itself. For me the standby beer is Rogue's John's Locker Stock, or just Locker Stock, which is a brewer's special of sorts that rotates constantly. The Locker Stock is often fabulous and never bad, and it's to the point that unless I have a hankering for something else specific I just order it and then ask what it is right now.

Pizza is definitely the star of the menu and many of the off-the-menu pizzas are simply amazing, or compose your own. The wife and I tend to stick with a vegetarian, hold the mushrooms (allergies, I love them personally) and add ham on sourdough crust. It's not very vegetarian but it is delicious. Every other pie I've had has been equally good, and to start the hummus is pretty delicious, as are the chips and queso. For those not interested in pies, the sandwiches, including the Sunspot Burger, are delicious, as are the accompanying fries.

Since Knoxville passed the indoor smoking ban Barley's is even more pleasant inside in the evenings, but during the summer months it is worth braving the smoke to enjoy the inviting patio where you might even see the Barley's hawk that lives on the roof. The upstairs bar has a different selection of beer as well as billiards and other bar games. There is an entire subset of Knoxvillians who only go upstairs, and another set who only go downstairs. Investigate both for yourself and report back!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Allen Biermakens wins one for South vs. West

Anyone unfamiliar with Knoxville needs to know a few things about this strange burg. The city is divided along cardinal directions, each having its own character. North Knox is really cool, melding into Fountain City, and has the food co-op, Senor Taco, the Fellini Kroger and plenty of other exciting and bizarre sites to behold, including two ghetto-chic and cool neighborhoods in Old North and 4th & Gill. East Knoxville has great soul food, bbq, Philippine food, the Zoo, and the Holston Hills neighborhood as well. South Knox is traditionally rural and one often crosses city limits and enters the county. South Knox has many pros and cons and at least one great neighborhood in Lake Forest as well as some interesting Mexican restaurants, a panaderia, and a homebrew shop in the small burg of Vestal aimed at proper homebrewers: Allen Biermakens. West Knox is everywhere-USA where one is most likely to find the big-box stores you despise yet still frequent, gated communities, and standard urban sprawl. West Knox also has Fermentations (or The Fermentation Station according to their website but every reviewer just calls it Fermentations).

Within the first week of arriving in Knoxville, deprived of my homebrew gear which stayed with a friend when I moved, I arrived at Fermentations on Kingston Pike looking to replenish my stock. The store itself provides both wine and beer equipment and supplies but seems to focus on wine. Moreover the staff was completely uninterested in talking to customers or, it seemed, in taking their money. Sure, I wanted all-grain equipment, which they don't stock due to low demand, but one would figure that money is always good in a business situation. No, instead the staff would much rather have been in the back room in a private homemade wine tasting amongst the staff (on a Tuesday afternoon) than help me any more than selling me a "make your first batch kit." We were not amused. Luckily next door was a Russian store "International Delicacies" which had enough exotic salami to calm me down after a bad homebrew shop experience.

Today, on the eve of brewing a "belgian ginger porter" I needed some 2-row pale and belgian dark candi sugar and decided to venture into Allen Biermakens on Martin Mill Pike at the intersection with Ogle. This particular intersection is one of the most bizarre in K-Town, but also is the home of two institutions: the aforementioned homebrew shop and Mo's Restaurant, also known as King Tut's restaurant. Since both businesses exist in such proximity I treat this as proof that the intersection is some sort of cosmic nexus for interesting.

Where Fermentations was snotty and uninterested, even if clean and well laid out with all the standard and attendant books and basic equipment, Allen Biermakens is a real shop. All of the necessary grains and extracts are available. A stock of hops is stored in a small fridge next to the register, and wine and beer equipment flows from the walls. Prices are reasonable and the owner is extremely helpful. When we discussed the proper temperature for toasting barley to make "toasted barley" for a recipe he went straight to the wall and pulled out a very well-loved copy of Papazian's The Joy of Homebrewing and, without missing a beat, opened to a recipe describing toasting of Barley.

Sure the prices are very slightly higher than Northern Brewer or some other mail-order shop but, as usual, the personal service and benefit to the local economy are much worth not paying shipping. If you are a first-time brewer or an old hand, check out this great little shop in Vestal.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Market Square Kitchen - the diner realized

After complaining previously about breakfast in Knoxville, and its availability to the hung-over or merely peckish brunch diner it should be known that there are breakfast locales which are successful in fulfilling the needs of this diner. One of the two with perfect scores to date is Market Square Kitchen at the corner of Market and Union facing onto the square.

The food is exactly what you need when you have an appetite: eggs, bacon, biscuits, coffee and/or OJ, served with a side of hominess that makes the experience perfect. You coffee cup will be either kept filled or at least filled promptly upon request, and you food will be out very quickly. The service is polite and eager to please, and the owner is truly interested in your experience. What more do you need at breakfast time? Fairly often I need simplicity in the morning and I find a very satisfying simplicity at this perfect Diner.

Golden Roast is Alan's amazing roast manifest

Golden Roast can do very little wrong in my world. When I first arrived in Knoxville and did not have internet at home yet but 100% relied on access to do my job, Golden Roast filled that need. They also provided coffee, which is critical to my life. "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems" covers it even if my last two jobs haven't relied on my advanced degree in mathematics at all, in fact I might as well not have the degree... I digress.

Golden Roast is in many respects a standard university-area coffee house with comfy couches, WiFi, and loads of students studying, talking, or philosophizing as they are wont to do without self-consciousness. What makes The G-Roast unique is the proprietor, Alan, and by extension, the beans he roasts.

Golden Roast is a very different place early in the morning when Alan is at the helm. Not only is he a roaster whose beans are phenomenal, but he is also an amazingly attentive barista who is absolutely willing to work towards absurdity for the proper caffeine addict (yeah, he once made me a triple shot red-eye). I have never once had a badly made coffee drink delivered to me by his hand, and he is extremely welcoming to everyone who enters his door. Don't be shy about asking for a fresh scone with your cup of joe or Numi tea.

When he is not at the helm the service is generally good with the standard college student coffe-shop employee foibles. Usually the service is great, sometimes a little lax, but I've rarely been annoyed. They don't pull shots with the methodical care of a doctor the way Alan or Meg (at Old City Java, who, by the way, uses Alan's beans) do, sometimes they have a hard time multiplying ounces of coffee by cost per ounce without the cheatsheet provided by Alan, and often have a hard time adding the $0.25 credit card surcharge but... they're good people all of them. And to their credit every time an unfamiliar face walks in and asks for a machiato expecting the sugar-laden poison produced by Starbucks, whoever is behind the counter explains that while they will be happy to make a machiato it almost certainly not what the customer expects and perhaps they'd like a nice flavored latte.

Alan's beans are what makes the shop remarkable as opposed to simply very good. After purchasing a very reasonable home espresso machine (a low end professional quality), I became further obsessed with coffee than ever before. Since the machine came with a year's worth of "high end Italian" beans (ground and whole, in fairly distinctive aluminum tins), I used those beans and pulled pretty mediocre shots. I assumed it was me. I spent weeks reading every corner of Coffee Geek and Whole Latte Love trying to figure out why I couldn't pull a good shot. I adjusted the grind of my burr grinder. I experimented with tamp pressure. I assumed the problem was me, or the machine (how much pressure was I getting really?). I spent nearly an entire caffeine-addled year suffering through bitter shots with little crema. After investing in 1/2lb of Alan's espresso grind it was like my machine magically came to life. My first shot was not perfect, but it was worlds above what I had pulled before. I suddenly had beans that would allow me to start drawing shots that were not embarrassing to my most fascistic coffee snob friends. And for that I am thankful to Alan.

I am not purely an espresso junkie either. I am not prejudiced against a good brewed coffee, or french press, or cold-filtered brew. And Alan has me covered on that front too. His collection of Fair Trade beans such as Mexican Chiappas, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Sumatran Mandheling, East Timor, and Kenya AA should keep anyone who loves the black brew. There are numerous flavored coffees, which may be wonderful though I don't drink them, as well as decaf for those who don't like the shakes. The roast even has separate in-shop grinders for flavored and non coffees so they don't pollute East Timor with Creme Brulée (one of the worst things that ever happened to my coffee), which is why they'll ask you what you're buying (they're not *that* interested in your coffee tastes). And before I am snarked for ever having coffee ground more than 3ms before I drink it, having a grinder at work nearby on Campus is not an option, so I buy small amounts of exciting coffees often and suffer through oxidation over the following days.

Food at G-Roast is affordable, healthy, light, and perfect for a quick bite, including pita sandwiches, tasty soups, bagels and the standard accoutrements one would expect from such a locale. Recently I've seen a sign for yogurt and granola, and I can attest to the fact that scones or cookies are a perfect and, ahem, healthy breakfast option. In fact, more than once, a slice of cake from the case has called my name and I've been able, only barely, to demand that it get behind me (satan).

So go see Alan, have a nice coffee or tea drink, use his WiFi, sit in a comfy couch, and bask in one of the coolest spots in all of Knoxville.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Coffee and Chocolate... should be *so* good!

Coffee and Chocolate has everything... a killer espresso machine, gorgeous (seriously gorgeous) chocolates and pastries, great location and ambiance, and yet it often falls just (or a lot) short of being one of the definitive coffee houses of Knoxville.

Located just off of Market Square facing onto Union Ave, it is the obvious place to get a morning coffee after brunch or a night cap after a date on the square.

I've never had a perfect, or even amazing shot pulled by the staff. I've had a good shot, but nothing amazing. I've had perfectly decent cafe au lait, but there were grounds in the bottom. I've also had a taste of an absolutely terrible cappuccino (no one saw new grounds put in the portafilter but didn't realize it until we were already on our way home... ick) pulled by a barista with an icky low-cut v-neck shirt exposing way too much chest hair for food service. Just because it's the fashion doesn't make it good. I've also had downright hostile service of the sort that makes me think "gee, I really don't have to tip."

My absolutely favorite experience also happened to be my first impression... oops. I was with a great coffee snob friend of mine (who, BTW, can pull a real shot and knows the difference). After a lovely breakfast on the square (to recover from a fairly good hangover) he and I ditched the breakfast party to get something strong and caffeinated in us. The lights were on, the door was open, the cases were lit, a barista was inside, and the espresso machine was on... and we were informed they didn't open for another hour. Really?! Holy moses. No espresso for me and what's that taste in my mouth?

Luckily for the owner their location is perfect and I do end up going in on a fairly regular basis, and their tea selection is good enough to keep the wife happy, but I really wish they could clean up their act and make this my primary coffee destination. Luckily, until then, I still have Old City Java and The Golden Roast (both soon to be glowed about here).

Monday, December 8, 2008

Big Fatty's for breakfast...

Breakfast is the king of meals. Actually that should be stated as "any meal where bacon can be made a central ingredient is the king of meals" (especially according to my wife). On trying to do something exciting and new while my mother was in town, we opted away from Cosmo's Cafe, Pete's Coffee Shop, or Market Square Kitchen as we'd already visited them with her. Previously in line at Cosmo's someone behind us, who was unwilling to wait 3 minutes to order a meal, suggested to their rather large pre-Church breakfast group they go to Big Fatty's. Then Metro Pulse reviewed them very positively in one issue and they earned a runner's up in the Best of Knoxville reviews so... it sounds great!

The dining room is friendly and has some fantastic art lining the walls. The stray foosball table and cubby holes on one wall are a bit out of place but somehow right at home at the same time. We were greeted politely and seated ourselves as expected. So far, so good.

When our server first came to the table she deposited a small pile of strawberry muffins covered in a sticky, sugary, and delicious sauce of some sort and said someone else would be along to take our drink orders. When that someone else arrived and took my coffee order, along with my mother's, life was going swimmingly...until a show stopper: my wife ordered tea. "Oh, we don't have any." he responded. Really? No tea? Really? Not even Lipton's or some other generic tea that comes in a basket and is never looked at? Nothing. Full stop. You want something warm to drink because it's November, grey, and depressing out? Drink coffee. My wife ordered water. Strike 1.

The menu sounded appetizing, if not surprisingly expensive for what was advertised, consisting of standard breakfast foods including eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, grits, and biscuits. What else do you need or want? Well, they also included Lox and cream cheese, a delicacy I let myself have at most once a year lest I eat it daily and gain 30lbs immediately. Mom and Wife opted for the "Little Fatty" with bacon, eggs, "hash browns", pancakes, and a biscuit. Ok, it's not little and sounds pretty yummy. I wanted Lox. "Ooohh... we don't have that. I should have told you," responded our server. Now, ok, it's not the end of the world but nothing else on the menu was calling to me after getting my heart set on salmon, capers, red onion, and a well toasted bagel bound together by pure fat. Not only that, none of the ingredients are terribly perishable. The only problem might be the bagels but how hard is it to arrange for delivery? And there's a high-end grocery store half a mile down the road. Strike 2. Ok, fine, I also ordered the "little fatty" because it was easy (yeah, an exciting lot my table was, right?)

The food arrived promptly and warm so no real complaints there but... the hashbrowns were not. They were in fact home fries, which I happen to love (here's the widely known secret: I love potatoes more than any other food on the planet), but were not as advertised. The biscuit was fine but not exceptional, the pancakes were likely from a mix, the bacon was a little dry, and the eggs were just fine. Now, nothing on the plate was bad per se, just not exceptional. I suppose the cost could be attributed to the number of ingredients on the plate, but not their quality. I was disappointed. Strike 3. Damn.

Just to add insult to injury, one of my servers, while refilling my coffee grabbed the mug by the rim instead of the handle. Don't touch where I'm going to put my mouth, that's not cool. Blech! Strike 4?

I love breakfast and I hate disappointing meals. I have gone through tons of restaurants that start great and I eat there almost exclusively for months straight as quality goes down, and then I always end up moving on. At least in this case I'm not overly attached.

I understand that dinner is a different story entirely, and I am open to that possibility, but I will go cautiously into that meal and try not to get my heart set on any NYC delicacies then.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Soccer Taco... Goooooooool!

Being from the Southwest originally I grew up with fantastic access to both New Mexican and Mexican cuisines (very different things and two of my favorites), thus I was fairly suspicious of Soccer Taco. I am also a life-long soccer player and all around fan of 'the futbol' and so rarely do you find a football-centric restaurant or bar that actually means it that I've come to expect a major letdown. A good friend from home assured me that it was a real find so I've been forced to investigate... often.

To be honest I've personally only explored a fairly small section of their menu because it calls to me. Luckily I've gone with numerous friends and sampled from their plates as well, and thus far every dish has been extremely tasty. So what part of the menu is it whose siren song demands my full and undivided attention? Among the strangely sports-themed menu titles there is one in particular that I can't avoid: "The Real Mexican Team" wherein lies a short list of dishes including Tortas, Huaraches, Sopes, Quesadillas, and (most alluringly) Tacos, and a list of meats to put inside said dishes. The list of meats is what keeps me coming back. Thus far I have had tacos with lengua (beef tongue), cachete (beef cheek), buche (beef stomach), pastor de verdad (steak and pork marinated in red chiles), and each is amazing. There are other exciting meats that I haven't tried (yet) including chicharron (pork skin), cabeza (cow head), chorizo (sausage), along with the standard carnitas and and azada. The tacos come individually wrapped in foil to keep the heat in and the delicious corn tortillas soft, with sides of onions, limes, and a wonderful (and wicked hot, and I'm no heat wuss) red chile sauce that is mandatory.

Others in my various parties have explored the menu further and I can adamantly say that the enchiladas are not disappointing, nor any combination from the "Power Play Combinations" section of the menu. Every time I've been there a number of tables have ordered the fajitas which, from their restaurant-filling smoke, smell delicious. That they are ordered by many parties at the same table every time I'm there, I am willing to bet they are a good choice as well.

Appetizers include the standard chips and salsa, which I suspect are made in house as they are particularly tasty, and shrimp diabla (which I cannot find on the online menu), which is a spicy shrimp ceviche that I have on good authority can be so hot that it is almost inedible. When I ordered it there was nearly no heat and I was disappointed.

The beer menu is perfect for the food; many draughts to select from including Yeungling, Tecate, and some standard domestics. The beer comes in two sizes, small and large, and I point this out as a disclaimer: large is essentially a pitcher. It's great if you're not driving but if you are, a small is a wise choice. The same is true of the margaritas, which I have on good authority are pretty amazing, but a large is essentially a gallon of tequila and driving afterward is almost certainly felonious.

Desert is delicious in the form of either a sopapilla (dough fried hard with sugar and cinnamon) or fried cheesecake (which alone will account for four days of caloric intake).

The service is always prompt, polite, and they are more than willing to refill your chips or beer before you're done with what's in front of you.

My only complaint is that rarely when I've been there has soccer been the main attraction. There is certainly soccer on one or two of the smaller TVs around the booths but generally a big American football game happens to correspond with my visit and that's the main attraction.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Standards of judging

It's only fair that if I'm going to critique Knoxville as a whole that some standards by which I judge others be set (mostly) in stone ahead of time.

  • I like good service. Not overbearing service, but appropriate service that keeps its distance when it should, can be found when it should, and knows the menu. That's it. If you meet those standards, or even close, you get tipped really well. Period.
  • Know your specials. Better yet, the higher end your menu, the better your servers should know your specials--to the point of having tasted each one if possible. As a server know what rare interesting ingredients are included, including possible allergens (see later note on this). This should be a matter of pride and separates good servers from lousy ones.
  • I like beer. A lot. Craft Beer, Belgian Beer, Hoppy Beer, Dark Beer, Light Beer, Ale and Lager. I homebrew. I'm probably a beer snob, to be fair. If your restaurant is proud of its beer (micro-brewed or otherwise) and your staff knows nothing about beer that will certainly be a mark against you. For example, if I'm at a bar and I ask about a certain beer's style, and my server knows nothing and doesn't even bother to ask someone, like say... the bartender, they aren't doing justice to a fine thing. If you say you like "Dark Beer" and recommend Amstel Light you fail (true story).
  • The same goes for wine as well. If you boast about your wine list, at least minimally educate your serving staff so that I can pick and choose my wines to meet my food. I am ignorant in many ways about wine and need, and actually want, that service fairly often, and in fact I enjoy being steered by a knowledgeable sommelier into an exciting experience. Do me the favor of having your folks know what they're doing with booze.
  • My wife has many many allergies, some of them life threatening, all of them frustrating to her and sometimes others. Be honest about your food content. We'd much rather know up-front that a kitchen is not careful with allergens (for example) than finding out afterward via anaphylaxis and epipens. Servers should know what is in every dish or be willing to ask up front rather than thinking that someone asking about allergies is simply picky about their food. I know that Mr. Ruhlman has a different opinion, but dying in your restaurant will certainly color one's view of the food.

With the rules set in stone, clear, and completely malleable at a whim, it's time to start talking Knoxville in all its glory.