Apr 11 2011
08:08 am
Fast facts:The Grill At Highlands Row
Cuisine:Contemporary American
Price range:Entrees are $10 to $30, with most priced in the $20s. Grass-fed steaks are a few dollars more
Summary:Gorgeous chops and steaks, featuring local breads, cheeses, and grass-fed meats.
Address:4705 Old Kingston Pike, Knoxville TN 37919 Map

For a city of its size, Knoxville is home to a surprisingly large number of talented and creative chefs. I would readily include the remarkable culinary team at The Grill At Highlands Row among that number.

The menu features grass-fed, pasture-raised meats from Laurel Creek Farm in Roane County, locally made artisan breads and cheeses, and farm-raised elk from Morgan County. That focus on local producers would be commendable under any circumstances, but The Grill At Highlands Row takes those local products and makes them sing.

On a recent Saturday night, my dinner companion and I arrived hungry and left thrilled.

We shared the smoked sausage plate as a starter. The dish is slightly misnamed, since it included pork and beef tenderloin samples along with a couple of varieties of sausages. The four meats were served with a dark and spicy whole-grain mustard, a raspberry puree, a somewhat peppery salsa with pineapple and jicama, and a sliced, freshly baked baguette. The combinations of sweet and spicy elements complemented the chosen meats very well, making this dish a surprisingly vibrant starter to the meal.

The house salad is a well-constructed balance of greens with purple cabbage and sweet onion, with a wonderful smoked cream cheese crostini on the side. We agreed that we would have been quite happy with a meal composed of just a plate of those crostini and a bottle of wine.

For the main course, my dinner companion ordered a Laurel Creek pork chop which was served with a poached pear, caramelized Cipollini onions, and a reduction of jalapeno and raspberries. This was a beautifully conceived dish. The slight sweetness of those Italian onions merged flawlessly with the flavor of the pear; the combination of those elements and the spiced fruit of the reduction dressed the pork chop perfectly. The dish succeeded on every level, except for one tiny flaw: because the pork chop was so thick, it came out slightly overcooked. In order to ensure the center is thoroughly cooked, the outer layer of a chop that thick can easily be overdone, so a somewhat thinner chop might be more appropriate. Still, this dish was a hit with both of us. In less skilled hands, the jalapeno/raspberry sauce could have distracted from the rest of the dish, but in this case, it added just the right accent for the pear, onions, and grilled pork.

When I was a kid, growing up in the wilds of Northeast Knox County, we raised black Angus cattle for our own consumption. They grazed on whatever grew in the pasture, mostly fescue, timothy, clover, and honeysuckle. We never fed them any commercial feed, so I was a teenager before I'd ever eaten corn-fed beef. What a letdown that was. Compared to grass-fed beef, the corn-fed variety strikes me as dull and flavorless (in addition to being too fatty). I guess that grass-fed beef spoiled me, because I've seldom been satisfied with steaks served in restaurants.

In addition to their regular beef offerings, The Grill At Highlands Row offers a daily selection of Laurel Creek grass-fed steaks. The 8-ounce filet mignon I ordered that night at The Grill was like a blast from my childhood. Folks, this is what real beef is supposed to taste like. Nostalgia aside, the earthier and slightly darker character of grass-fed beef made this the best restaurant steak I've had in many years. I can't imagine going back to corn-fed beef after that. I'm spoiled again.

Perhaps ironically, I chose the fire-roasted corn as a side item. The smoky charcoal flavor of the corn was an ideal complement to the steak. We were both impressed by the liveliness of that corn, simple as it sounds. The roasting really brought the corn to life, and it certainly stood up to the intense flavor of the steak.

For dessert, we split a piece of flourless chocolate cake with whipped cream and raspberries. Surprisingly light and airy for a torte, the rich dark chocolate was only marred by the torte's dryness. That dish is obviously a work in progress, but on the night we tried it, there was definitely a moisture problem with the cake. We loved the light texture, and the chocolate worked very well with the wine we chose, but the moisture content needed some reworking.

The wine list at The Grill is fairly short and a little odd. Although the list features some notable selections (including three unoaked chardonnays), several of the other entries struck me as rather pedestrian (Greg Norman's vanity label, Clos du Bois, Bogle, etc.). Their list needs some work, but there are several good selections in the $20-$40 range, with several offerings by the glass.

If you're in the mood to throw down some cash, the list also includes 1988 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and 1988 Chateau Haut Brion for $600 each. Those were the only high-end Bordeaux on the list; 1988 was not a particularly great year for Bordeaux, so it struck me as amateurish to feature two stellar vineyards from decidedly non-stellar years. It's sort of like trying to demonstrate the genius of Picasso by mounting an exhibit of his doodles on the backs of envelopes. They should either feature memorable years (1982, 1989, or 1990), or ditch the Bordeaux altogether. Of course, those years would cost five or six times as much, but they should either do it right or not at all.

Furthermore, it seems a little silly to see even inferior years of those immortal vineyards on the same short list as Beaujolais Villages and Greg Freaking Norman.

I mean.

Anyway, to complement this memorable feast, we chose a 2008 Gemtree Uncut shiraz. Although still a bit young, this wine is already exhibiting the hallmarks of a great shiraz, and it suggests the high potential of the Australian style: oaky, strong but not overpowering tannins, with notes of dark cherry, vanilla, some cocoa, and just a hint of anise. Somewhat spicy on the finish, this gorgeously constructed wine harmonized with the pork chop's jalapeno raspberry sauce, the fire-roasted corn, and above all, that remarkable steak. This Gemtree will take another five to eight years of proper aging before its real potential starts to materialize, and it could conceivably age for much longer. If you can find it in a local liquor store, it should retail for around $20 a bottle. This is a great table wine right now, and it will get better over the coming years. Kudos to The Grill for serving that one. Those are the kinds of wines deserving more prominence on their list; my suggestion would be to ditch the banal stuff and the flawed Bordeaux, and instead focus on those that really match the food.

Dinner entrees range from $10 to $30, with most priced in the $20s. The Laurel Creek steaks are a few dollars more. Reservations are recommended.

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I like NoshViews...what a great idea!

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