So it is with dining. It is fairly easy to find a great meal in most major cities. You look. Listen. Use your instincts. Voila. I find that in small places however I am often overcome by the pastoral vibe. I have to remind myself to "look for the ball." Failure to do this often produces a boring dining experience. Or a horrid one. The important thing is to use the same Epic tools to look for fun and good things no matter where you are or no matter how bleak the landscape may appear to be. Do not fall prey to the "can't be anything here" trap. Because the truth is, there usually is something delightful just waiting to be discovered. With the correct attitude, the search is half the fun.
Recently, I found myself in Kingsport, Tennessee. My nerves somewhat jangled. By the airplane which delivered me there. That boarded from the aft. WAY aft. Picture where the tail attaches to the fuselage. With the wing over the TOP of the cabin. Like this:
I felt like a paratrooper. Which for me is not a happy feeling. Anyhow, having survived the flight I discovered that the area of northeast Tennessee is just gorgeous. Reminiscent of my beloved Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. But certainly not urban. Not a whole lot happening. Apparently not an Epic-worthy restaurant in sight. And when I have an experience like a paratrooper flight I get HUNGRY. Consider it the need to re-celebrate life if you will. Or the re-entry into life. With no place to conduct the culinary celebration.
I pondered this dilemma as I waited for my suitcase to appear at the baggage carousel. When it appeared and circled toward me it passed under one of those airport signs for a restaurant. Glancing at the sign my gourmand radar lit up. I was in this manner introduced to The Troutdale restaurant of Bristol, Tennessee. A rather convincing piece of evidence to add to my argument against carrying on luggage. Had I carried on my suitcase you see I would never have seen the sign and would have probably been at Waffle House that evening. After attempting to find a liquor store. And a dining love affair would have been forever missed.
I admit I was fighting an irrational prejudice. As all prejudice is. I could not imagine that a marvelous restaurant could be found in a town known mainly for NASCAR events. But I was wrong. Happily so. The Troutdale occupies a beautiful restored mansion. You get a feeling of comfort, ease and serenity when you ascend to the front porch. You can dine al fresco on the porch, but it was full of diners both nights I went there on my most recent trip.
A very successful man I am privileged to know says that to make it in business you have to "live over the store." Meet Ben Zandi, proprietor of The Troutdale:
Mr. Zandi is a most amiable host. And an ubiquitous one. I have been back to The Troutdale several times since my first visit and he has been there every single night. To visit the table. Give the personal greeting. Remember who you are. The gentleman is a one-man masters degree in Hospitality Management. A recent example makes my point. It was (of course) NASCAR race week. The town flooded with people. The Troutdale overrun with diners. I arrived (typically) alone. When you go to a fine restaurant, full of patrons, and the owner takes the time to make it to your table in an unhurried way and greet you, THAT is "living over the store". A sure bet that the food will be wonderful as well. As it is.
Mr. Zandi behind the bar.
But first. A word about cocktails. So my dedicated readers will know I have not deserted them. Or been kidnapped by aliens and someone else is writing this piece. I love a martini. A real one. No colors. No additives. Gin or vodka. Vermouth. Olive or lemon twist. Served up. Period. In fact, I have a long-public stand against "martinis" that are nothing of the sort. Against this backdrop, may I present The Troutdale Martini. Proof that some places are so good, you can try anything on the menu. With success. The formula is pretty simple, yet devastating. The put ice in the shaker. Pour SCOTCH over the ice and get it all nice and cozy. Pour out the scotch into a liquor glass. Mix a martini as usual. Serve it up. With the glass of scotch as a chaser. Folks, this is an imbiber's drink. Not for the beginner. Or for the once-a-year-on-New-Year's-Eve crowd. A drink like this requires PRACTICE. But trust me, do not have two of these. In fact, if you feel inclined to order one of The Troutdale's excellent wine flights with dinner, book a room in advance. Within crawling distance. Here is a picture of my lovely nemesis:
The quality of the photo should not surprise anyone who has read The Epic before. Suffice to say your vision will be like this soon enough with this concoction. Take my advice, it is best to drink the martini and save the "chaser" for later. Much later. Alternating sips is NOT the way to go. Trust me.
But at The Troutdale, the food is the thing. And it is superb. The specialty of the house is of course trout. One of my very favorite dishes. Which has always been fabulous here. Simply broiled, sauteed or as a roulade. Mr. Zandi is dedicated to locally grown fruit and vegetables so the accompaniments are always perfectly fresh and not overly wrought which would risk obscuring the fine natural flavors. Bread is baked on site and accompanied by a trio dish of specialty butter, olive oil with balsamic and (my favorite) home made apple butter.
This report is based on two consecutive nights' dining. I am nothing if not a loyal customer. You may accurately assume that I had The Troutdale Martini both nights. I also had chilled cucumber soup with fresh dill both nights that was made of the aforementioned local goods and was so fresh and crisp that the flavors popped in your mouth like that sparkly candy we used to eat as children. This followed on night one by a whimsical amuse bouche of "shrimp cocktail" consisting of minute dabs of horseradish sauce and chopped shrimp with lemon zest and on night two by a perfect little piece of seared ahi tuna scattered with scallions and a dot of peanut sauce. The appetizer on night one was pesto stuffed scallops and on night two smoked duck over mushrooms and roasted spaghetti squash. For an entree, I had Chilean Sea Bass on night one. This is another testament to my regard for Mr. Zandi and his chef. I have not liked Sea Bass on prior occasions. Not at all. But this dish was fantastic. On night two I had trout.
Desserts are not really my typical domain, but I did invade the personal space of a fellow singular diner on night two. She was having TWO desserts. One was a grape tarte tatin with peanut ice cream and peanut brittle. The other was a dessert sampler:
She CLAIMED she was writing an article for a newspaper. I didn't believe her. She was not only gracious enough to allow me to photograph her sampler, but she reported that all of her choices were "divine". Which was good enough for me.
The final word on The Troutdale comes from no less a personage than Mr. King, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and the man who wrote "Sweet Home Alabama" for Lynyrd Skynyrd:
Despite my unfounded prejudice, I remembered my Dad's advice. Put it into practice in an unlikely context. And found a culinary golf ball in the rough. To great ends. Keep looking for the ball even when you are in the weeds. And get to The Troutdale if you can. You won't be sorry.