About 460 million years ago, a dramatic range of volcanoes rose up from the Earth's crust from Georgia to Canada, building higher and higher toward the heavens through violent clashes of heat and stone. Earth had given birth to the Appalachian Mountains. In more recent news, Chattanooga's more than 100-year-old Stone Fort Inn gave birth to the TerraMae Appalachian Bistro a few weeks ago, seeking to capture the wide cultural range of the Appalachia's expanse in a high-end menu. Thus, I decided to roam through their Appalachian Trail of dishes last week.
120A E. 10th St.
Chattanooga, TN 37402
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you'll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it's the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it's worth it.
Atmosphere and service
I walked in the wrong door. The TerraMae waiting area is in the room to the left of the main staircase, so don't stand in line for the check-in to the Stone Fort Inn like I did. Once I made it to where I was supposed to go, my party was greeted by the assistant manager, who proceeded to give us a tour of the restaurant.
The room I was seated in had massive stone walls and huge windows running across one side to let in natural light during the day. I was there early enough for some sunlight, but it quickly dwindled throughout the evening, with just a few low, ambient lights giving the room an intimate glow. TerraMae's kitchen is open and viewable from this room as well.
My server was apparently an IT guy, taking down my order on an iPad, and he said we were his first table since they'd opened because he'd be working with getting their computer system streamlined. He did a fabulous job streamlining my service as well. He was funny, attentive and knowledgeable about the place, even with us being his inaugural table.
We began with an amuse-bouche (mouth amuser): a one-bite hors d'oeuvre their chef, Robert Stockwell, does at the beginning of each meal to tantalize the palate. These are free and will change with the chef's whimsy, but on this evening, I had a bite consisting of bleu and goat cheeses, candied onion and a red pepper sauce, so it bit back a little bit and had me primed to bite into more things.
When the appetizers arrived shortly after, I started with shrimp, quail and beef brochette trio ($9), wrapped in applewood smoked bacon and served with chow-chow, spicy cranberry Dijon, and peach and apricot reduction.
The meat morsels were juicy and flavorful on their own—and you can't go wrong wrapping something in thick-cut applewood bacon to boost flavor—so they didn't need the other condiments. However, the mustard was a nice dance of bitter, spicy and sweet flavors, and the reduction added a fruity tang to the meats. The chow-chow—a proud Southern Appalachia staple—packed a nice fermented punch.
I also sampled the focaccia bruschetta ($7). These grilled dough triangles were drizzled with black cherry compote with "flavors of spring" compound butter and a warm Brie dip. The melted Brie in the dip, along with more of the cherry compote, was heaven in a bowl. It had a rich creaminess with a lightly tart sweetness from the compote. The pores of the bruschetta soaked this goodness in like a sponge, and the whipped compound butter added a savory-spiced element to this flavor extravaganza.
There was no way I was going to walk out of this place without first trying the bison, venison and Kobe burger ($15). This was one of the best burgers I've tasted. Though not as tender as a straight-up "Kobe" (Wagyu) burger—I've discussed Wagyu cattle before—the bison and venison gave this highly indulgent, thick red meat patty a rich, slightly gamey flavor. The burger was cooked perfectly to my medium specification.
Although the burger was certainly the star of this show, the toppings were equally intriguing complementary co-stars and not simply typecast afterthoughts to the lead role. The jowl bacon was a refined, housemade throwback to this Southern Appalachia soul food pork cut—and isn't technically bacon because it's taken from the jowl rather than the belly. The crispy pickles were housemade as well. The locally sourced Sequatchie Cove Farmstead cheese and Lee and Gordon lettuce were welcome additions on the scene. The thick, creamy cheese was softly melted into the steamy patty, and the tomato and hydroponic lettuce brought a cool veggie freshness to the stack.
However, the wild mushroom pesto was what really pushed this sandwich to ethereal burger bliss. The meaty, earthy flavor of mushrooms scatters well through fat, and this wild variety was potent, distributing heavily throughout this savory sauce. These rich umami elements also intensified the flavors of the entire sandwich itself—an effect similar to MSG but without all the salt.
And then there was the brioche bun, which had a slight toasted crispiness and was soft and flaky in a delicate sort of way. Yet, it was able to take the punishment from all the juices cascading down this mountain of components without completely falling apart.
The four fries served to the side of the burger were about the size of Lincoln Logs and stacked in a similar manner. They were triple-cooked with a firm and crispy exterior and a comforting feather-soft interior. They had just the right amount of salt, as well as freshly grated Parmesan melting down into their non-greasy, golden-fried goodness.
Moving on, I sampled the snapper ($26), which was perfectly seared and brought several welcome friends to this flavor party. The steamed clams and mussels were perfectly cooked and a good complement to the rest of the components—which was refreshing after my apocalyptic disaster with a mussel dish a few weeks ago.
The gnocchi had a crispy breading with a soft interior and was divine, soaking up the flavors of the snapper, shellfish and tangy saffron tomato water jus, along with sundried tomatoes, wilted Crabtree Farms rainbow chard and fava beans. All of these flavors worked harmoniously in an Appalachian, outside-of-the-box square dance.
Widely consumed throughout much of the world, bread pudding is truly a universal dessert, crossing all class and cultural boundaries—albeit with different ingredients and preparation methods. Historically, you simply take some stale bread and mix it with some sort of sweet concoction, bake it and BAM! You've revitalized it into your own personalized masterpiece.
I highly doubt TerraMae uses stale bread, but this dessert ($7) truly hearkens back to a traditional staple of hard-working mountain folk up and down the Appalachian range. It was soft and creamy, spiced with freshly grated cinnamon and nutmeg, and adorned with walnuts. Down South, we love our bourbons, which are some the best in the world—and a hell of a lot better than our mountain moonshines—so the black cherry bourbon sauce with this pudding was a highly flavorful homage to a Southern Appalachia tradition.
Although still in its developing stages, I see no reason not to give TerraMae 4 stars for coming out of the gate with a bang. The ambience was charming, the service couldn't have possibly been better and the food was of the utmost quality. And even though this is a finer dining establishment, you don't have to break your wallet for a nice dinner in an upscale atmosphere because, like the epically awesome burger I had, there are some options in the $10-$20 range. The Stone Fort Inn itself is a beautiful, historical hotel, and this new restaurant is a gem just waiting to be mined by locals and tourists alike.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga's food scene. You can find him at romanflis.com or on Facebook and Twitter, or you can contact him at email@example.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.