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Good Morning Tastebuds

Chef Jock's Tastebuds Café
1198 Wears Valley Road, Pigeon Forge

by Ally Carte

In Knoxville proper, originality in restaurants is tricky to come by. Miles upon miles of Ruby Tuesday's, of Applebee's, of O'Charley's dot the landscape, staking out their edges of the blacktop with surprisingly similar neon signs and frighteningly equivalent menus.

The problem gets exponentially worse as you drive southeasterly through the Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg corridor de kitsch. Mile upon mile of pancake houses and themed restaurants, to say nothing of the carbon-copied t-shirt huts, outlet malls and "down-home" antiqueries, become so much roadside noise. And if the mountains weren't in the distance, ever increasingly swathed in haze, you'd never have the slightest idea where in tourist hell you were.

These are all complaints well covered in other sections of this here paper. I bring them up simply to provide background for why Chef Jock's Tastebuds Café is such a rare, boldly individual treat in this increasingly homogenous area. While we make it a stern policy not to revisit the sites of reviews past (my lovely and talented predecessor Ms. Bonnie Appetit visited Chef Jock's modest doublewide in '95), enough has changed in the intervening six years to make it worthwhile to stop in again. Also, as stellar as her review was, some Knoxvillians may have moved here after it ran—which would be the only legitimate excuse for not having read it the first time around—and might like to check out this new-to-them French/Italian/American place that will be unlike any they have visited before.

First, though, before you even begin to contemplate a trip down Wears Valley, make a reservation. Tastebuds Café is tiny and folks who drop in will probably find themselves schlepping back out into the night, forced to "dine" at the NASCAR Café. Budget about two hours for the full Tastebuds experience.

And an experience it is. We primed our tastebuds with the shitake and spinach fromage ($5.95), a creamy slice of puff pastry that has been filled with mushrooms, spinach and zingy montrachet cheese, which was just enough to increase our hunger, as an appetizer should, rather than satiate it.

Next up was the salad course, fresh (and, unfortunately, still water-drenched) field greens and leaf lettuces cut through the cheesy starter. The parmesan peppercorn dressing was full of both of its titular ingredients; the cracked peppercorns and sharp parmesan worked in concert and tasted miles more flavorful than anything you could glop out of a bottle. Freshly baked bread, coated in herbs and garlic butter perfectly sopped up any drops of dressing left behind.

In fact, it's this bold use of flavor that makes Chef Jock's food so unique. The filet mignon fromage ($19.95) pairs more of the sharp montrachet with smooth-textured beef, a cut that can be bland on its own but shines when paired with strong flavors. Blanketing the filet is a shallot, butter, and wine reduction that is simple, yet adds another layer of body to this dish.

The veal Chef Jock ($15.95)—two cutlets of this karmically dubious yet irresistibly yummy protein are lightly breaded and pan-fried in butter, shallot, garlic, mushrooms, and parsley and covered in a complexly-flavored and just rich-enough chardonnay cream sauce—is one of Jock's more delicate offerings, yet it still has depth. But the real standout was the stuffed pork chop ($18.95), a cut of pig as deep as the palm of my hand, stuffed with mushrooms, bacon, sharp cheddar and seasoned bread crumbs. Peppery notes and smoky overtones make this the night's winner.

While the entrees were stellar, the portions weren't so enormous that you'd have to waddle out to your car afterwards—unlike at the chains (and some local indies, truth be told) who pride themselves on impressing you with the sheer quantity of food, rather than its quality. Sure, sometimes you want a steak as big as your head, but it's also nice to have one that has been carefully paired with just the right seasonings to make it satisfying rather than simply filling.

That aside, the portion size leaves plenty of room for dessert. Always on the menu is the sumptuous napoleon, light sheets of puff pastry filled with a vanilla-infused custard resting on dark chocolate drizzles. The mixed berry crepes, while a more health-conscious option, don't quite come together; even though the sweet and tart berry sauce captures the essence of the fruit, the dish lacks the moxie so present in the rest of the meal. The chocolate truffle actually isn't a traditional truffle, more a dark chocolate dome filled with homemade vanilla ice cream, which pairs better with the berry sauce than the crepes could.

But a meal at Chef Jock's is really about more than the tastebud-awakening food. The room itself is a feast for the senses, with wafts of knee-weakening cooking smells coming from the galley kitchen, with faux-wisteria and colorful Christmas lights festooning the rafters, with the maitre d' launching into his rather credible Elvis impersonation (one of the best shows in the area, hands down), complete with gold-rimmed shades and a lip-twitch. As you walk in, the whole room literally shouts hello, which can be unnerving to the uninitiated but part of the place's close-knit eclectic charm.

Nowhere else can you find anyplace like Tastebuds Café. And that's the way it should be.

June 14, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 24
© 2001 Metro Pulse