Welcome to The Epic! I am launching this blog as a manifesto for and a guide to living well. The title and motto of the blog are taken from the Epicureans, at least some of whom believed in the notion that not one minute of the future was guaranteed to them and that as a result they had the duty to live life to its fullest every moment.

I believe in discovering fun and pleasurable things wherever I find myself each day and I am told I have a knack for unearthing them. My hope is that by sharing in my pleasures and some of my ways of finding them you will begin to collect all the riches that lie in the moments of your life. They are there. Take them! All our lives should be.....Epic.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Ball In The Weeds

My Dad was a golf professional. A caddy before that. He always used to say that when you were looking for your ball in the rough you had to expect to see it everywhere you looked. If you did that, the chances were you would discover it. A very Epic attitude now that I think about it.

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.


Ben said...

Brilliant post. Took me on a ride. Now I want to eat. Or just drink.

Unknown said...

Hello Epic, Sounds like a wonderful time! Best, Becs

M.Lane said...

Ben, thanks! Both are fine options.

Becs! Great to see you out and about, web-wise that is.


CashmereLibrarian said...

Now THAT is a cocktail.

Petunia said...

Wow--all I can say is "yum!".
And that looks like quite a Martini. I'll have to take your word on that one. Too strong for me!

M.Lane said...

CL, trust me it IS. AND, you STILL have the best name on the web!!

Petunia, the entire menu is yum. They have all sorts of great things.

Thanks for the comments!

heavy tweed jacket said...

Excellent post! Your travel writing is always wonderfully done. I have spent a lot of time in the rough and woods over the years. A friend once said to me, "The woods and I have an agreement, 'I feed it balls and it gives me shade'." Yet I've found that I often come out of the rough with a few extra golf balls in my pocket, and more often than not, a decent lie on or close to the green. That's the feeling I had after reading your post. Something magic can happen in the rough, if we but go where the game takes us. HTJ.

M.Lane said...

Oh well put, HTJ! And thanks for the encouraging words!


Easy and Elegant Life said...

An excellent adventure! I usually wind up following my nose. Next time, I'll open my eyes, too.

I'm not sure I approve of iced whisky, but I'm willing to suspend judgement until the second round.

Golf? I'm a duffer of the worst sort. Managed to hit myself in the ribs with my own ball while hitting out of the rough.

tintin said...

When I was 12 or so, my cousin worked as a golf pro at a course on Hilton Head. He did the tour as well and was sponsered by Royal. Drove a white Porsche 911 and had A Lot of girlfriends. He was so happy.

I decided to follow in his foorsteps and took up gold and private lessons at a private CC on Lake Norman in NC. Our 1st CC outside the military. I sucked. And I swore. Being an army brat I swore a lot. This did not go down well with the locals. I've hated golf ever since. Although, I do have to play at least a couple times a year and have learned to put 3 balls in each pocket lest I slow things way down.

Epic, a great piece and I must say, Scotch and a Martini? You sir...are awarded Paratrooper status.

M.Lane said...

Easy, that is a great image! But it could have hit a worse place...

Tintin, I am truly honored! What a great story about your cousin. My little brother was always the best at golf. He is a scratch player now. I have a million stories about growing up in the golf biz...my Dad always said there was no better way to make a living in sports when you were playing well...and no worse way when you were playing poorly.

Thanks as always for the visits and comments!