"All the big cities have food tours, but why can't Knoxville?" That was Paula Johnson's thought when she started Knoxville Food Tours back in the fall of 2010. It's three hours of city exploration, history, food, and fun -- and great for out-of-towners and locals who love learning and eating (like me!).
I used to think I was a girl-about-town, but I didn't even know we had a food tour in Knoxville until a few months ago. Lucky for me, a fellow foodie/coworker invited me to join her and other foodies on a VIP afternoon tour this past weekend. And from the looks of my expanded waistline, I obviously had a great time.
Read about each of our stops below.
Knoxville Visitor Center
301 S. Gay Street
The group met up at the Knoxville Visitor Center, which serves as a unique gift shop and home to WDVX, an Americana radio station. When I used to work downtown years ago, I'd bring my lunch to the Visitor Center for WDVX's "Blue Plate Special," which is a live radio show featuring performances by a diverse range of musicians and broadcast worldwide. I remember one time watching Tommy Emmanuel perform at WDVX for Blue Plate Special just days after his Grammy nomination. I sat there eating a hot bowl of chili I picked up from Market Square Kitchen around the corner, and there was Tommy Emmanuel, a famous Australian guitarist, less than 10 feet away playing songs from his Grammy-nominated album. Amazing.
For the Knoxville Food Tour, the Visitor Center offered samples of locally-made salsas and jams, including Tennessee Toe Jam (not made from real toes). I dipped tortilla chips in pineapple salsa and peach salsa, fresh and homemade like it came from granny's pantry. And I globbed some toe jam (fruit preserves) onto a shortbread cookie. I heard that it's called "toe jam" because it's so good it'll make you want to stomp your foot.
From the Visitor Center's we boarded a van, and Paula drove us down Gay Street over to our next stop at the World's Fair Park.
Windows on the Park
525 Henley Street
Located inside the Holiday Inn World's Fair Park
The last time I was inside this particular Holiday Inn was for an Adobe Photoshop workshop, which was at least five years ago. Boy, has it changed. Gone is the typical hotel restaurant with the awful breakfast bar and lunch buffet. Hello to Windows on the Park, a swanky restaurant with top notch chefs, thoughtful dishes, and a chic bar setup -- surrounded by windows (of course) facing out onto the World's Fair Park.
We met Executive Chef Tom Ortman and Executive Sous Chef Nicholas Drew, and the two of them prepared an exquisite lobster dish for the food tour group. The lobster was served with seaweed salad on top of vermicelli noodles dressed with a poppyseed and sesame vinaigrette and garnished with julienned carrots, daikon, pear, and cilantro. I took one bite, and all I could say was, "OH MY GOD." Talk about a gastronomical delight.
The lobster was unbelievably flavorful. When I've eaten lobster in the past, it typically came to me doused in obscene amounts of melted butter and often suffered from too much garlic (if that's even possible). But this lobster tasted pure. It was perfectly cooked lobster meat without strong seasonings and without butter. The combination of the lobster with the seaweed salad made me realize that I could no longer eat seaweed salad plain in the future. The two of them went together so well. And then to put it on vermicelli noodles took the dish to another level, making it even more extravagant and adding a soft noodle texture to balance the slight crunch of the seaweed salad.
But that's not all.
The poppyseed vinaigrette was so bright that it lightened the dish, making this a meal I'd want to eat every day in the spring and summer. The vinaigrette was the perfect sauce for the lobster, salad, and noodles, and it gave the carrots, daikon, and pear an elevated sweetness. Plus, there was a ginger zest that, along with the cilantro leaves, added a burst to each bite.
This was my favorite dish of the tour, and it was something made especially for the group by Chefs Tom and Nicholas. I'm hoping that one day it'll make its way onto the regular menu because I'd love to come back for this exact meal again.
Central Flats and Taps
1204 N. Central Street
I've been to Central Flats and Taps several times, but mostly for the "taps" and only a couple of times for the "flats." During the food tour, they served us every type of flat they make, so I got to try out flatbreads that I've never had before.
I really enjoyed the Greek's Greek and the Cluckin N Kickin BBQ Chicken (it's topped with Sriracha BBQ sauce!). But my favorite is still the formaggio and herb flat. It's perhaps the simplest flatbread they serve, but I think it has the best flavor. The olive oil is infused with herbs, and it's made of a variety of cheeses -- smoked gouda, mozzarella, pecorino, romano, and feta -- with fresh herbs sprinkled on top. I could eat this every day.
Aside from serving up delicious food, it's great to know that Central Flats and Taps uses as much local produce as they can. Plus, they also serve local and regional beer on tap. If it's Tennessee grown and brewed, then you can probably find it on flatbread or in a glass at this lively neighborhood restaurant and bar.
Boyd's Jig and Reel
101 S Central Street
After Central Flats and Taps, we headed back to the Old City and stopped at Boyd's Jig and Reel. As luck would have it, we met the owner's husband while he was on his way out to catch the Rhythm N' Blooms music festival going on downtown. He told us about the traditional Scottish menu and the bar that offers more than 250 (I think) different types of Scotch. He also said that the Jig and Reel is a musical pub, and their mission is to celebrate music -- particularly traditional Irish and Scottish music, which have heavily influenced bluegrass and Appalachian music. In fact, in the room next to the pub area are musical instruments that anyone is welcome to pick up and play. They even have sheet music available if you want to have a more organized jam session with friends and/or strangers.
We were seated at the bar where the manager brought out two dishes: Scotch eggs and fried cod (the fish part of their fish-and-chips). The fried cod was beer battered and piping hot. The fish was flaky and the breading was light, and it came with a housemade tartar sauce.
Now this was my first time to ever have a Scotch egg. If you don't know what a Scotch egg is, it's a hardboiled egg wrapped in a thick layer of sausage (and I mean THICK), coated with bread crumbs, and FRIED. It was served with a spicy mustard (maybe horseradish?), and I didn't realize that it was spicy until after I ate half a spoonful and my sinuses cleared up and my brain started tingling. Good thing I had a lemon drop shot to chase it down.
Scotch eggs are heavy. I ate a quarter of an egg, and it hit the bottom the stomach like a brick. I think it makes for great pub food though, and I probably could've eaten more had I not already eaten at two restaurants beforehand.
The Crown & Goose
123 S Central Street
After Boyd's Jig and Reel, we walked a few doors down to The Crown & Goose, another gastropub but with a British twist. They have great fish-and-chips and good beer. For our tour, Chef Jeffrey DeAlejandro created a special surf-and-turf charcuterie plate for us.
I love that he served the charcuterie on wooden boards. I'm sure it's silly of me, but I like and appreciate that it was served on a proper board. Chef Jeffrey presented us with lobster and mushrooms on cheesy polenta (I believe) served in an oyster half shell with chives sprinkled on top. It was a really great combination of flavors and textures, and the presentation in the half shell was creative. Also on the board was prosciutto (made from the neck of the pig) on a slice of cheese (I can't remember what kind!) and served with homemade pickles and a relish that reminded me of chow-chow.
The surf-and-turf idea worked great, and I hope this makes it onto the menu. I especially enjoyed the "surf" side of the charcuterie and liked the taste and textures very much. I could even see this as an entrée or main course. (Please, sir, I want some more!)
This was the last stop on our tour, and it was a great meal to end on. Paula did a fantastic job sharing the city's history as we went from restaurant to restaurant, and I'm glad I was in fabulous company during the tour.
There are two tours offered each day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And what's great about the Knoxville Food Tour is that you can explore new and different places each time, so you don't repeat the same itinerary. I'm looking forward to doing this again (and again) and joining Paula's walking tours this summer. Maybe you can join me next time!