Taking the world of Scotch by Storm

* A version of this column was first published in the on-line edition of Friday’s Knoxville News Sentinel.

Instant weather barrier.

Instant weather barrier.

The drinking world boasts countless aficionados of Scotch whisky and undoubtedly as an offshoot of that, numerous Scotch whisky “purists.” They’ll instruct you as to which Scotch to drink with which cigar, which to drink in the unlikeliest months of a hell-heated summer and clutching firmly to their tartan mythology, whether it’s somewhat unethical or even pedestrian to actually add a cube of frozen water to which, or even any, glass of Scotch whisky. Sometimes the Scotch ambassadors are so wound up about their personal code of properness that they may as well be drinking like an Englishman.

Scotch, like most adult libations, can bring a little levity to the table or party. So don’t be fooled or forced into thinking that all those pre-mature notions have to be applied. Once we get past the old stereotype of Scotch being the preferred beverage of crotchety old men, the sooner we can knock down all those other barriers of coerced thought and what to drink with whatnot.

In the meantime, we are left with our own personal exploration of different Scotch whiskies and the quest to find “those which please us most.” The following acts as just a sampling of some of the myriad of Scotch whiskies that are readily available to begin or continue your pursuit.

East Tennessee’s newest Scotch comes from the Isle of Skye on Scotland’s northwest side. Appropriately dubbed for the wee bit of inclement weather that rolls through the Hebrides, Talisker Storm is a golden, almost amber colored whisky. Its smoky whiffs of burning wood are both alluring and warming, while the dried fruit and honeycomb flavors make for an easy drinking dram. Talisker Storm is a must try for Scotch whisky followers.

Conversely, if you’re looking for a tried and true Scotch, I’m a long time fan of the Oban 14 year from the Western Highlands. About ten years ago, I did a trek through Scotland and my “walking the Earth like Kane” journey led me to a tour of the Oban Distillery. Like most tours they are simply precursors to the free samples at the end. My lips had discovered sheer bliss in a glass, and Oban became and remains one of my three favorites. I credit that fondness to Oban’s unique caramel aroma and the cheerfulness it has brought to many Burn’s Night Suppers.

Finally, the deep northern Highlands malts as well as the Speyside malts, also have much to offer. If you’re looking for a beginner single malt Scotch, you might best be served by sampling a Dalwhinnie 15 year Single Malt from the rugged north of Scotland as it is lighter and leans to the softer side of Scotch. And the Speyside distilleries are always well represented by the Cragganmore 12 year Single Malt with it’s sweeter nuances and friendlier flavor profile.

Four for four, now that's a good lineup!

Four for four, now that’s a good lineup!

Respect the Tomato

* This post is part SIX of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The Tomato Head comes in at a respectable number five of Knoxville's Best.

The Tomato Head comes in at a respectable number five of Knoxville’s Best.

Before moving to Knoxville in 2000, I use to come to town and visit friends for the weekend. Inevitably, we would make our way to the Old City for music, drinks and dinner. And at some point during the weekend we would follow ritual and swing into the Tomato Head on Market Square for a sandwich.

What struck me as oddly familiar was just how much Market Square reminded me of what downtown Chattanooga looked like when I was in college. Outside of Jax Liquor Store on Market Street, the downtown Chattaboogie nightlife consisted of counting tumbleweeds and listening to cricket music. That’s all changed. And the same can finally be said for Knoxville.

It’s easy to give kudos to developers and investors and politicians for the resurrection of Market Square and much of downtown Knoxville. But from an outsider’s perspective, I give credit to Tomato Head – for sticking it out, for having a vision, for giving people a reason to come to Market Square for years. Weren’t the two synonymous for the longest time?

And the reason people came to Tomato Head wasn’t merely that they were the one sure thing in the area. No they were better than that. Tomato did then what it has always done; make original, homemade, fresh and tasty sandwiches, salads and pizza. The food is always great and interesting and it’s the only restaurant in Knoxville that I have never heard a negative word about.

The Tomato Head has a remarkably well balanced and seasonal wine menu for a restaurant of its size and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better lunch date then the menu’s much beloved Lucy. So if your appetite takes you out for said food make sure to order something that includes their homemade hummus. It put the nit in the shiz.

It’s going to knock you out; Knoxville’s “must try” Pizzeria is number six on the list

* This post is part FIVE of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Cheese glorious cheese! The D'Amato at Hard Knox Pizzeria.

Cheese glorious cheese! The D’Amato at Hard Knox Pizzeria.

Every Top 10 restaurant list needs a pizza place. And although Knoxville isn’t known for making pizza pies or any Italian food for that matter, there is one pizzeria worth frequenting. Located in Western Plaza, Hard Knox Pizzeria will knock you out. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, Hard Knox is focused on their craft of delivering hot and fresh pizza from their classic wood-burning oven.

"Wood is good" at Hard Knox Pizzeria.

“Wood is good” at Hard Knox Pizzeria.

And the menu reflects that; they have pizza, flatbread and calzones. And if you’re freakin’ lost, they have a salad. That’s it.

For lovers of white pies, I highly recommend the D’Amato pie with loads of mushrooms and some nice dollops of ricotta. Old school red sauce traditionalists should check out the Bonecrusher pizza with its “real deal” Italian sausage and a nice, sweet-meets-heat combination of their divine tomato sauce and crushed red pepper.

Hard Knox is scaled back dining with stools and a few tables. I usually grab a pie to go and take it just down the street to Bearden Beer Market for some beers and revelry. Remember with a 750-degree oven, your pizza cooks in minutes and there’s not much else that beats the smell of all those fresh cheesy, saucy, crusty pies popping out of the oven, one after the other.

Knoxville’s Best Q comes in at a smokin’ hot # 7

* This post is part FOUR of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Winner, winner - chicken dinner.

Winner, winner – chicken dinner.

Woo Hoo Bar-be-Que!

That’s what the guys at Dead End BBQ on Sutherland Avenue could have named their restaurant… it’s that good. If you’ve been following my blog for most of 2013, then you might recall this review I did for the Knoxville News Sentinel over Memorial Day.

Dead End has a lot going for it; clean and open atmosphere, wafting aromas of smoky aphrodisiacs, and sink your teeth into, succulent Q! Actually for a BBQ joint they also have a surprisingly good and perfectly-paired wine list of fun, meat-friendly reds.

But the proof lies in the pudding pork. And brisket. And my favorite, the Competition Chicken!

George’s Competition Chicken rules the roost when it comes to achieving that mixology of art and science. Smoky, savory, seductively sweet . And you may not be the type that likes to add sauce to their Q, but if you do- better make it the Dead End Red. It’s the Hoo in the Woo Hoo!

And I’m willing to bet that their banana pudding is better than your mommas.

Indeed, “the search is over.”

Suffering summer succotash is that a Rock Star in the making?

Somebody has a tasty, easy-peasy recipe to share and one helluva future! I recommend this version with a glass of Prosecco.

Special thanks to WBIR and the Knox County Health Department.

The one thing that’s keeping Number 8 (on Knoxville’s best restaurant list) from moving up…

* This post is part THREE of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Italy meets East Tennessee at Knox Mason.

Italy meets East Tennessee at Knox Mason.

Knox Mason’s fairly recent opening, in the old Harold’s Deli on Gay Street, has been well received in a short amount of time. The restaurant’s renovation offers a sleek and clean atmosphere and finally gave the spot a much needed and updated facelift. Plus the modern artwork commemorates the past with a nice tip-of-the-hat to Harold Shersky.

Focused menus are becoming more and more obvious in Knoxville and KM’s emphasis on combining the locavore trend with some international touches is apparent. You’ll see such influences in their Braised Pork Belly with regional ingredients from Monroe and Grainger Counties. Placed over some provincial but Italian inspired polenta, the entre also has some All-Southern black-eyed-peas tucked away for the ride.

A must keep on the menu at Knox Mason.

A must keep on the menu at Knox Mason.

Likewise, the comfort of both Southern and Italian cuisine has no greater friend than warm, filling potato gnocchi with locally grown tomatoes, squash and basil. And although the ingredients and menu is likely to change soon as we meld into autumn, I’m guessing they’ll keep that bowl of San Marzano tomato soup around for just a little big longer.

Guaranteed belly filler.

Guaranteed belly filler at Knox Mason.

Space and seating is tight so you might make a beeline there right after work. But truly the one knock on Knox Mason (and why it isn’t higher on my list) is the stemware, or the absence of.

He told me that he felt like an interloper.

He told me that he felt like an interloper.

Perhaps, in an effort to be trendy, they went with the little apple juice glass I use to drink out of ‘round about the time I was getting to sit in the big boy chair. Food and drink compliment one another. That’s why over time stemware and those aroma-enhancing bowls were created; to open up the wine and let it dance with the food. It’s the same reason they don’t serve their beer in a coffee mug.

Knox Mason’s service is excellent and the kitchen is rocking it out!

* The Top Ten list continues next week with a look at K-town’s killer BBQ joint and the one restaurant that administered CPR and maintained a pulse in Market Square during the dark ages.

Number 9 on the list of restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, TN – Anaba Sushi

* This post is part TWO of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The world's my Japanese style oyster at Anaba.

The world’s my Japanese style oyster at Anaba.

There are three rules I recommend that you follow when visiting number nine on my list. First, sit at the sushi bar. Service in the dining area of Anaba is often belated, so in order to get that extra attention, you‘ll need to belly up. Second, ask for Sei (pronounced Say). He is the owner and classically trained sushi king of Knoxville.

From Japan, Sei trained at his father’s sushi bar back in his hometown of Osaka. And his wife Tomo owns the sushi bar on Kingston Pike that bears her name.

Finally, make sure to order off the day’s specialty list. You won’t know what you’re missing if your natural instinct is to always bury your nose in the menu book- looking for cleverly named sushi rolls.

Sei knows fish better than anyone else in town and works to bring in unusual and fresh fish. What makes that so special? This is Tennessee after all; and being landlocked doesn’t bode well for us in getting fish that is both straight from the sea and off the beaten path.

The artistic nature of the other sushi chefs at Anaba is a welcoming break for diners looking to request a unique creation. My muse and I always enjoy the arrival of a beautiful culinary dish and getting to see and taste just where the chef’s imagination led them.

Anaba is located in the same parking lot as the Pizza Kitchen off Northshore Drive. Their daily specials will often include fish like kona kampachi, bronzini, and shima-aji, Just don’t eat the shima-aji! It’s limited.… and it’s all mine!

Ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee: Number 10 – Chez Guevara

* This post is part ONE of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Having dinner with Chez Guevara.

Having dinner with Chez Guevara.

Every town has its hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants, its haunts, its dives. And number ten on my list of Knoxville’s restaurants worth checking out might just be a little of all the above.

Tucked away in the corner of Suburban Plaza, Chez Guevara is easily overlooked by plaza giants, Barnes & Noble and Trader Joes. And that might be the point. The Mexican restaurant/bar that was formerly known as La Paz, doesn’t have a lot of tabletops and it isn’t open for lunch or on Sunday. Which means, it’s usually packed to the gills and doesn’t look like it could possibly handle much more traffic.

With lighting like the lounge of an old American Legion, Chez is a dream for the lover of dimmer dining; unless of course you get caught just inside the entryway during sundown.

It has its regulars and something you seldom see in the local restaurant scene – some of the same hustling servers they’ve had for years.

With an all-wall mural of memorabilia that features an extensive amount of Elvis and Miller High Life nostalgia, Chez looks like a quasi mix of an off-beat Graceland meets brewery gift shop. Catholic prayer candles, notorious autographs, Latin American artwork, ghosts in the mirror, and grape clusters that would make Bacchus blush, are all part of the décor and mood.

Like most Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants, you won’t go there for the wine, but their margaritas have a reputation and strong following. Regulars will often recommend the Elvis Burrito or a Zapnin off the menu and for good reason. They’re tasty, filling and a solid indication of what type of food they serve up at Chez Guevara.

There will often be lines (both to get in the restaurant and use the restroom) so be patient and order another Modelo or Pacifico. Take it all in and make sure to try their locally famous salsas.

The Channel: A summer cocktail for England’s southern beaches

* This post is the third and final installment of new cocktails inspired by some of Europe’s best summertime retreats.

Numero Uno by Pimm's.

Numero Uno by Pimm’s.

Sun drenched beaches and summery cocktails aren’t usually the first thing to come to mind when one brings up merry ole England. That being said, they do exist and sometimes those lesser known spots are the best. Inspired by the golden-kissed color of its sandy beaches, Bournemouth Beach is our English destination. Located on the English Channel, this Dorset County gem is one you probably won’t catch through major media outlets. Bournemouth’s “in-the-know” status is simply spread by word of mouth.

The following cocktail known as The Channel is dedicated to my Anglophile friends, Robert & Kelly.

The Channel is all English; cucumbers, limes, ginger soda and the old-school libation, Pimm’s Cup No.1. Softly muddle some generous cucumber slices in the bottom of your glass and fill with ice. Shake 3 parts ginger ale and 1 to 1.5 parts Pimm’s Cup as well as a splash of fresh lime juice. Pour the shaken concoction into your glass until full. Garnish with sweet mint, cucumber and lime wedge.

Now chase it with a warm beer, kick back, enjoy your fish and chips and try to relax before the weather changes!

The Amalfi

With neighbors like Pompei, Sorrento and Positano, you know the Amalfi Coast is in good company. This southern Italian getaway brings the best of Italy together: breath-taking scenery, oceanic daydreaming, fresh cuisine and tourist-pampered indulgences. That was the inspiration behind this next drink, The Amalfi; I wanted to bring together some of the best that the boot has to offer, from the Venetian popularized Prosecco, to an old guard Amaro, to some of the continent’s best produce.

Italian sunshine in a glass!

Italian sunshine in a glass!

Amaro is a classic herbal spirit (often used as a digestivo) that can be both fruity and bitter. The Amaro Bolognese produced by Montenegro is my personal choice because it tends to show off more dried fruit flavors while escaping the nasty side of other Italian bitters like a Fernet Branca. One sip (if you can get past the smell) of Fernet Branca and you’ll swear off such liqueurs forever. Actually you’ll just swear a lot and wonder who dipped your tongue into iodine. Luckily, Montenegro is nothing like that.

Combine three parts Prosecco, one part of the Amalfi Coast’s famed limoncello (in this case I used the batch I enjoyed making this spring with the mayor of Rocky Hill) and a splash or two of Montenegro Amaro – depending on your herbal aptitude. Shake well and gently pour over several blood orange slices and ice.

The Prosecco will cause a little bubbly action so take it slow. The combination of limoncello and oranges create a nice sunshine like glow in the glass while simultaneously producing a popping citrus-like prowess.

Cocktails for the second side of summer- welcome to The Riviera!

Beach front view, the French Riviera on the rocks.

Beach front view, the French Riviera on the rocks.

If you didn’t already know it, summer has passed its halfway point. So? So, get busy. Enjoy a lake or ocean of cathartic waters! Enjoy those extended citrus and vegetable aisles at the market! Enjoy some travel-inspired summer time cocktails!

Today’s post is part one, of a three part experiment with creating new summertime cocktails, which were inspired by a little daydreaming of the beaches in France, Italy and yep – even England.

Wednesday’s inspiration comes from the Côte d’Azur, a name designated by the blue coastline of the French Riviera. Think of the cooling hues of aqua, azure, teal, lavender and seafoam. Add the glitz of Monaco, Saint-Tropez and Cannes and you have the backdrop for this all-French libation, The Riviera.

The Riviera combines two parts of the contemporary French Gin, Magellan and one (to 1 and ½) part St. Germain Liqueur. You can learn more about Magellan and its flavorful grains from my Gin review for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Non-gin drinkers will enjoy adding a splash more of the St. Germain to the drink as its elderflower sweetness provides a counterbalance to the strong presence of juniper berry in the Magellan.

Mix these two beautiful French spirits over ice and garnish with lemon and lime. The result is an elegant cocktail, with some strikingly blue and cool colors, that will have you ready to dive right in.

Classic aperitif meets modern wine bar at – Drink.

* A version of this column originally ran in Saturday’s on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Sit for a spell

Sit for a spell

I like to drink, you like to drink and I think that’s exactly where we’ll end up.

K-town’s swanky, hip, and mood enlightened drinking establishment, “Drink.” opened a few months ago after years of fashionable planning. The latest venture by Knoxville restaurant magnate, Randy Burleson, “Drink.” is a posh and sleekly polished wine bar located next door to his flagship restaurant, Bistro by the Tracks.

Bistro’s longtime wine and spirits manager, Lana Shackelford, has also taken over the portfolio of Drink.’s three self-serving wine dispensers as well as its full and eclectic collection of spirits. Her aptitude for selecting incredible and unique wines for Knoxvillians to sample is a tribute to her personal research and patient commitment to doing the homework. You’ll notice that just as soon as you circle the collection of wines to choose from, coming across both dependable selections as well as several exclusive wines you’re going to want to instantly learn more about.

Some of Lana's Libations

Some of Lana’s Libations

Lana’s creative application of thought provoking and conversation-starting names for her seasonal cocktails are just as appealing as the wine selection. And a recent meet up offered a challenge to her innovation by crafting imaginative cocktails using the nearly 100-year-old classic Italian aperitif known as Aperol.

In Italy, Aperol and Prosecco (Italy’s famed sparkling wine) go together as well and as often as prosciutto and cantaloupe. Known for its orangey, herby flavor profile and vivid blood orange color, Aperol’s lower alcohol content makes for an irreplaceable and inspiring mixer in cocktails.

Take for example Lana’s enhanced and Italian-inspired rendition of the aforementioned Aperol and Prosecco spritzer. The “Vespa” cocktail adds the influential elderflower element of St~Germain Liqueur to the traditional recipe. The result is an off-sweet cocktail, with a slow and soft fizz development. The “Vespa” successfully combines that subtle orange undertone to an inquisitive floral cocktail. It will have you humming along for the ride.

Everyday Patron

Everyday Patron

A second experiment in Aperol mixology spawned “Rosemary’s other baby.” With a clever take on Nashville- made Corsair Gin, Lana was able to balance some of the Aperol’s fruity nature. Corsair creates one of the more unique gin interpretations with its woodsy aromas and Indian-like spiciness. Throw in a little muddled rosemary and you have an angelic combination of the herb’s evergreen fragrance, the gin’s offbeat attribute and Aperol’s predisposition towards bright citrus and freshness. It’s the kind of shared drink that makes for better neighbors.

One might think Aperol’s flexibility would have been proven well enough after tasty run-ins with Italian Prosecco, or French liqueur or Tennessee gin. But a rendezvous with tequila shows its strength as well in appealing to south-of-the-border libations, namely Mexico’s distinctive Don Julio Reposado Tequila. With lime juice, honey, and bitters mixed together with the Aperol and Don Julio, the “Spaghetti Western” is reborn. This is Italian fashionista meets Cinco de Mayo, simultaneously chic and festive.

Are you thirsty now?

Are you thirsty now?

Limoncello with the Mayor of Rocky Hill

Zen and the Art of ZestingThis past Tuesday, I got together with an old colleague for my third attempt at limoncello. What I discovered between round one and round two made a world of difference in the final product. First, don’t use any pure grain alcohol (PGA) or Golden Grain when concocting this homemade hooch. Instead, opt for a 100 proof vodka (Smirnoff blue label works well) and be thankful you paid a little more. Likewise, spring for some organic lemons. You’ll have no nuance of a chemical component in the final product since the lemons (and thus skins) aren’t treated with mouth-numbing carcinogens.

Lou & Lemons

My second experience in making limoncello also taught me to use big, fat lemons. Handling and zesting the little guys can get tricky and it’s hard enough just to keep the white pith from the lemon zest. My friend, Lou “the Mayor of Rocky Hills” demonstrates the perfectly zested lemon. Here is just another instance in which that Fine Italian Hand comes in… well… handy.

There are a hundred recipes on line for limoncello and most are fairly similar. Using only four ingredients (vodka, lemons, sugar and water) means these little tips will be the difference between good limoncello and furniture cleaner.

After the zesting is complete, the vodka is poured over top then sealed and stored for anywhere from two to four weeks. Ours is resting in this airtight plastic gallon drum, where we will revisit it in March for step two which involves the addition of some simple syrup and a little more Italian patience.