I have an intimate relationship with a treadmill at the Downtown Y, which means that I’ve spent a fair amount of time watching the transformation of what was once on unattractive tan cyst on the south side of the Holiday Inn into a nearly gleaming, white beauty mark. That might be an overstatement, so I’ll defer to others better read in matters architectural to debate the nature of beauty–I’m content to say that it’s a hell of an improvement.
But in conversations with friends about Knoxville’s new luxury hotel, the Tennessean, it is not aesthetics that are on the agenda. It is the idea that there’s a $3,000 room, the Governor’s Suite—complete with a real-live, honest-to-goodness butler—that dominates the conversation to the exclusion of any other topic. And I confess that when I look at this building, the fact that such a luxury exists in Knoxville crowds my mind so completely that I can’t even imagine that this spot would have any amenity within my budget. And that makes it altogether easy to forget about ever visiting the hotel or even its bar.
And yet, if you’re an eater even remotely like me, you’ll be sadly disappointed if you don’t get over the perceived barrier and make your way to the Drawing Room. Situated on the second floor of the hotel, the well-appointed lounge is open to the public and full of comfortable arm chairs, wingbacks, and sofas in varied textures and colors. The look alone tells you much about the comfort and luxury to be found here, but while there’s certainly, and thankfully, no happy hour specials on chicken wings, the menu isn’t frighteningly pricey. And the nibbles and small plates are beautifully done and worth every penny, especially if you deserve a little spoiling from time to time.
I should come clean right now: I was spoiled (and spoiled rotten) during a visit with chef Carlos Valerio. Neither I nor the Mercury paid for the glorious array of food that the chef presented, but I would (and will) gladly pay my way through another binge–especially if there’s plenty of fig and prosciutto flatbread. And, if my diet allowed it, I’d buy a whole damn loaf of Valerio’s pâté and eat it all (#NotSharing).
Seriously, I fell in love with Valerio and almost everything he fed me. And I may have said so aloud.
It’s almost cliché to use passionate as an adjective for chefs—in Valerio’s case, the word may be inadequate. The man is ebullient about food and virtually buoyant when he describes elemental flavors and basic technique–the building blocks of great cuisine. You compliment him on the quality of his charcuterie, and he’s ecstatic over a new way to cure Soppressata. Mention the refinement of his pâté, and he revels in memories of breakfasts in Costa Rica that he describes as “pâté slathered all over baguette with a cup of Joe”.
Still, Valerio’s enthusiasm manifests itself on the plate with de rigeur elements of haut cuisine: beautiful balance, intense flavor, and elegant presentation. Consider that flat bread—it’s a treat for the eye with bright green arugula dotted by dark little chunks of fig and threads of prosciutto, but it’s the secret sauce of honey, sea salt, and mushroom oil that elevates the humdrum idea of easy bar food into a luxe bite. The chef’s use of mushroom oil is epiphanous—especially in the age of truffle oil, which Valerio says he intentionally avoided.
“The mushroom oil is nice and really flavorful. A lot of people will use the truffle oil [in this kind of dish] but I’m not a fan of it, to be honest with you, because it’s too intense,” he says. “This mushroom oil is very smooth, light on the taste and isn’t going to overpower the food.”
It does, however, pack a wallop of umami that infuses every bite with a rich and meaty luxury. Wine connoisseurs will appreciate the long finish.
Other options might not strike you as standouts until you’re eating them. A charcuterie board may look like any other tray of meat and cheese until you taste what good cured meat does to the palate. The difference between an inexpensive salami and a particularly nice one is often decided by what drives the flavor. Producers can save money by using salt and MSG to create flavor, whereas a well-aged product derives its intensity from glutamates that occur naturally in a slow (and, therefore, expensive) curing process. The glutamate factor is what drives umami and makes good charcuterie worth the effort.
Likewise, the Drawing Room’s “Study de Fromage” may look like another cheese plate on the menu, but it’s a beauty that gets its extra bump from a little dish of fresh and glistening honey comb. And if cheese is your jam, then Valerio’s Quattro Fondue may melt your heart. It’s an indulgent mélange of havarti, fontina, smoked gouda, and pepper jack. Honestly, I was unimpressed by the thought of ye olde dull Jack, but it’s a great melting cheese and contributes mightily to keeping the texture gooey and not glumpy (yes, that is a word). Even better it adds a mild but useful kick of spice to liven up the fondue.
Valerio also includes a bold choice in his line-up: Anchovies Espanoles. These are almost what you think they are, and they are served, like many great bites of seafood in Spain, straight from the tin. “These anchovies come from Spain, from Majorca to be more specific, and on the day that we tried him I just fell in love: they’re natural MSG,” Valerio says. And it’s true—there’s a lot of glutamate and, ergo, umami in these little cousins of the herring. Packed in oil, they may strike you more like boneless sardines than the flat little salt bombs that populate your grocery store shelf. It’s a tough sell, but I promise you it’s worth a try.
But in the midst of all this neat snacking, my heart was won and my salivary ducts were made most moist by the chef’s pâté, which I’m almost certain is the finest that I’ve eaten in this country. It’s a country pâté so it’s a textured loaf, almost like a meatloaf, and not a smooth spread. A typical combination of duck, pork, and chicken, the loaf is accented by nuts and wrapped in fat before cooking. Here, caul fat, the traditional wrapper, is replaced by bacon, and Valerio replaces the typical pistachio with walnuts, pecans, and toasted peanuts, all of which add an allure to the taste and texture. But it is his use of lamb in the dish that takes this from merely very good into the realm of outstanding eating.
The lamb adds a fascinating bass note to the flavor that helps smooth out the already tame impact of liver in the dish. In fact, if I didn’t mention it to you, you probably wouldn’t even notice the liver because it complements and folds into the lamb’s distinctive taste. The texture, though not a paste, is smooth but still meaty and spiked by the soft resistance of the cooked nuts. The taste is lingering, immensely satisfying, and just made to go with any number of the Drawing Room’s well considered wine choices and distinctive cocktails. Despite my current temperance, I was awfully tempted to wash this pâté down with a Smoked Ol’ Fashioned or an esteemed 1889 Sazerac.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the quality of a city’s eating landscape can be measured by the quality of its snacking: In this case, we may have moved up a notch, even two. And so while I can only fantasize about what it’s like to have a butler pack my bags as I gaze at the Governor’s Suite from my vista across the way, I can certainly see myself in the Drawing Room snacking well enough to insure that my treadmill never gets lonely.
The Drawing Room
531 Henley Street
Breakfast, Mon.-Fri.: 7-10 a.m., Sat., Sun., and Special Holidays/Weekends: 7-11 a.m.
Evenings, Mon.-Thu.: 3-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat.: 3 p.m.-1 a.m., Sun: 3-10 p.m.
Dennis Perkins' Home Palate is a tasty exploration of local options for eating out and eating well by way of restaurant reviews, features on fun or unusual foodstuffs, and interviews with local food purveyors and tastemakers. It’s a candid and personal look at what’s right (and sometimes what’s wrong) with eating in Knoxville and its environs. He is also the artistic director of the Knoxville Children’s Theatre, has directed and performed at the Actor’s Co-op and Black Box Theatre, and is a foodie par excellence.
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