Chef Robert Stockwell is merging two unlikely partners in cuisine for a blend of tradition meets technique at the new restaurant TerraMae, located at the newly revamped Stone Fort Inn.
The Portuguese-named, Appalachian-styled bistro officially opened for dinner service Wednesday night. During the day, the owners hosted a preview luncheon in the sun-soaked dining room.
Sitting at a long, white tablecloth-covered table amid the rustic chic decor and ruby red holiday centerpieces, guests nibbled on a nine-course tasting menu that exhibited TerraMae’s flavors and dish presentations, both of which will be additions to the Chattanooga food scene.
“We’re having fun with different ways we can do [food],” Stockwell said. “When someone sees a carrot, they might think, 'I’ll glaze it in honey.' I see a carrot, and I want to juice it or turn it in a paint, make a form out of it.”
Houston to Chicago to Chattanooga
Stockwell’s resume can read like a who’s who within the American restaurant industry. He got started in his hometown of Houston and worked in Chicago and other cities before returning to Texas.
He has cooked in kitchens for Chicago chef Robert Green—who came out of Rick Tramonto’s kitchen at Tru in the Windy City—and Houston chef Randy Evans. Stockwell took to heart the modern gastronomy ethos as written by chefs like Thomas Keller, who pioneered the sous vide technique of packing food in airtight plastic bags before cooking it at precisely measured and low temperatures.
David Mitchell, food and beverage director, brought Stockwell into the fold of owner Mark Oldham and general manager Troy Tarr. Mitchell knew the chef from their shared days flipping burgers at the beginnings of their careers. After visiting and cooking for the team, Stockwell packed up his house in Houston, moved to the Scenic City and set up shop.
Following the map
TerraMae uses the Appalachian Trail as a road map foundation. This allows the menu to cover a wide swath of ingredients and dishes, from elk and venison to scallops and snapper.
"Indigenous” is a favorite word to describe the bistro’s focus, and it’s one the team has a right to use: They source produce from local and regional farms, including Crabtree Farms off of Rossville Boulevard, Humble Heart Farm in the Huntsville area, and Lee and Gordon Greens in Chickamauga.
Stockwell will also change the lineup seasonally depending on what the farmers have in their fields. The menu writing process—one that saw several versions before the final collection of 27 dishes—was itself an investigation of traditional local foods. The sous chefs and cooks provided input about what they remembered eating from their mothers’ kitchens during their childhoods.
Above all, TerraMae’s menu is an expression of Stockwell’s personal style, something he has had to rein in when working for other chefs.
“A lot of it is the modern techniques, but he’s taken it to another level because he tries it on his own and wants to make it his own,” Tarr said. “That’s the uniqueness of it because you’re getting styles from people like a Thomas Keller or Grant Achatz from Alinea in Chicago, but [Robert is] taking it to another level because he’s seeing it further than what they’re seeing it and trying to make it even more a technique of his own.”
The chicken and dumplings, for instance, is a far cry from the form most Chattanoogans expect: The dish arrives at the table on a long plate with the medallions of moist chicken separated from the dumplings and the gravy artfully spread underneath.
The kingfish dish, served with poached wild mushrooms, spinach puree, mussel cream and red-striped sorrel, borrows a shade of black coloring from black squid ink. The scallop appetizer is a stack of two scallops stuffed with Andouille sausage and bound with prosciutto.
Stockwell plans to continue the bistro’s work to stick with the traditional Appalachian spread.
“We really want, in the future, to start researching what grows wild and start incorporating that,” he said.
TerraMae will also host a pioneer in the Appalachian food movement—chef and author Mark Sohn—whose book “Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture and Recipes” has sparked a new interest in the strain of American cuisine.
The menu at TerraMae includes appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, entrees, vegetarian options and desserts. Prices range from $7 to $34. The bistro is open for dinner service only Wednesday through Saturday, and reservations are recommended.
Updated @ 1:56 p.m. on 12/14/12 to correct a factual error: Mitchell is the food and beverage director, not the owner.