Tennessee: Wine, festivals and lots to eat

For many, a visit to Tennessee brings to mind country music, Dollywood, Elvis’ beloved Graceland and that mysterious underground Ruby Falls. However, those who choose to veer away from the obvious and cozy up to the Volunteer State’s culinary side will be amply rewarded.

Foothill cuisine in the Smoky Mountains

Enter the bewitching realm of Blackberry Farm (1471 West Millers Cove Road, Walland, Tenn., 865-380-2260, www.blackberryfarm.com, @Blackberryfrm) and you’ll quickly find yourself deep in the amenities of Southern charm fused with a generous dose of carefully placed opulence. Settled on nearly 10 acres of rippling Smoky Mountain foothills, the family-owned farm, scattered with elegant cottages and sundry outbuildings, offers its guests a nearly self-sustaining culinary haven.

Sure, some come for outdoor activities — canoeing, rock climbing, fly fishing and horseback riding. Others seek comfort in the serenity of the Wellhouse spa.

But, if you prefer spending time indulging in food and wine, you’ve landed on the ideal spot.

The farm grows or produces nearly all of the ingredients that go into the meals — from freshly unearthed truffles and honey to vegetables sprouted from heirloom seeds. The vast wine list netted the Relais & Chateaux and Relais Gourmand property the 2015 Wine Spectator Grand Award for having “one of the greatest wine lists in the world.” Not a new accolade for the farm — it’s snapped up the award each year since 2006.

Blackberry Farm’s highly touted foothill cuisine comes together thanks to a finely tuned collaboration of talent that includes executive chef Cassidee Dabney, plus a master gardener, baker, cheese maker, forager, butcher, jam lady and sommelier — surprisingly, there isn’t a candlestick maker, yet. The Barn restaurant claims bragging rights as a two-time James Beard Award winner.

Dinners in the baronial Barn, with its massive stone fireplace and multi-tiered chandeliers anchored amid rough-hewn beams, are a decidedly formal affair. You might dine on Cheshire pork loin served with farro and Carolina rice, or seared gulf snapper, smoked fingerling potatoes and fava beans. Naturally, your sommelier will help you select the perfect wine to accompany your meal. Desserts run the gamut but, if possible, the toasted marshmallow comprised of smoked ice cream, ganache and bacon graham shouldn’t be ignored.

The farm recently added the Dogwood, which serves up Southern specialties, cocktails and glorious Smoky Mountain vistas with a casual, come-as-you-are attitude. The Dogwood bar boasts an extensive list of exclusive whiskies.

For those seeking a more hands-on approach, there’s the daily Blackberry Farmstead field school, which takes guests around the farm to learn about the gardens, animals and foraging. There’s also a daily cooking class from one of Blackberry Farm’s artisans.

Special epicurean events are popular draws at Blackberry Farm throughout the year. They include Taste of the South, Wine Geek Weekend and MAD at Blackberry Farm with David Chang of Momofuku and chef Rich Torrisi.

In December, country artist and cookbook author Martina McBride will headline Women in Food, Wine and Music. The roster also includes James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein and Annie Favia-Erickson of Favia Wines.

About an hour’s drive from Blackberry Farm, wine enthusiasts will find the Rocky Top Wine Trail (2174 Parkway, Pigeon Forge, Tenn. 1-888-745-8119, rockytopwineries.com). The 12-mile trail meanders through the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, featuring five wineries with more than 60 varieties. Free tastings and tours are available at each winery, and all of them are open daily. Limo tours are available, and many of the wineries host special events, ranging from live music to pig roasts.

An Iron Chef in Nashville

Named as one of the best small hotels in the world by Time magazine, the 404 (404 12th Ave. S., Nashville. 615-251-1404, www.the404nashville.com, @The404Kitchen) might be small in stature — only five fabulous rooms — but it’s massive in other ways.

Located in the Gulch, Nashville’s uber trendy mixed-use neighborhood, the hotel is housed in a former garage. Gone is any semblance of the mechanics’ work space; think of the 404 as a shipping container-chic boutique hotel — make that an eye-popping orange shipping container, which is part of the design.

Each room comes furnished with a king bed, vintage and custom furniture and original art. The decor is slick and sleek, with concrete flooring and soaring ceilings. The largest room features a loft accessed via a swirly metal staircase.

While the hotel is Rat Pack cool, the adjacent 404 Kitchen delivers a culinary wallop, and the booze is not to be ignored. In fact, it landed on Travel and Leisure’s list of the best whiskey bars in America. Japanese single malt, anyone?

The interior combines an industrial feel tempered by sections of warm wood on the ceiling and a scattering of bentwood bistro chairs throughout.

Executive chef Matt Bolus, once among the sous chefs featured on “Iron Chef America,” received his classic training at Le Cordon Bleu, London, and honed his considerable skills at a handful of Southern eateries before working his magic at the 404, earning the restaurant a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in 2014.

The menu of seasonal favorites features a fleeting array of daily specials that range from Atlantic barracuda and rabbit stew to peach-and-pork ragu perfumed with fresh basil, and the house favorite burrata. The Italian staple comes as a pouch filled with cream and mozzarella. When Bolus gets through with it, the dish might be teamed with zucchini, yellow squash, aromatic onion and turmeric, or you might find the cheese resting beneath shards of freshly shaved black truffles, buttery leeks and ham specks.

Save room for dessert, because you might be lucky enough to encounter the whimsical chocolate chip cookie baked in a skillet and littered with crispy ham and mint, then gilded with dulce de leche ice cream.

If you come for a weekend, there’s a good chance you won’t have to venture more than a few yards for food, lodging and entertainment. Next door to the 404, you’ll find the Station Inn (402 12th Ave. S., Nashville. 615-255-3307, www.stationinn.com, @stationInn), offering the best in live bluegrass and roots music for the past 40 years.

And take a few steps across the street to Two Old Hippies (401 12th Ave. S., Nashville. 615-254-7999, www.twooldhippies.com, @TwoOldHippies) for your shopping and musical needs. The eclectic boutique sells musical instruments, gifts, jewelry and clothing. That’s just the start. It holds a plethora of after-hours events, from live music to book signings. Sundays are reserved for open mic sessions for kids.

While in Nashville, check out Centennial Park (2500 West End Ave., Nashville. 615-862-8400, www.nashville.gov), situated across the street from Vanderbilt University. You’ll find yourself in good company if you choose to picnic by the lake while taking in the historic splendor that is the full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Built for the 1897 Centennial Exposition in the Athens of the South, this magnificent structure, now an art museum, acts as the crown jewel in Nashville’s family-friendly urban park.

Flying high in Chattanooga

Launched in 2013 as a natural offshoot of their Crash Pad hostel next door, Max Poppel and Dan Rose’s Flying Squirrel Bar (55 Johnson St., Chattanooga. 423-602-5980, www.flyingsquirrelbar.com, @squirrelbar) has received local and national accolades. First, it won the Tennessee Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award for excellence. More recently, the restaurant’s stunning glass, cedar and steel design garnered the 2015 Restaurant Design Awards People’s Choice Award in the cafe/bar category.

While the restaurant and bar with the quirky moniker is getting a lot of attention for its design, the food and drink are just as highly touted.

Taking advantage of the abundant bounty from local farms is the linchpin in the Flying Squirrel’s philosophy, which strives to take fine dining and present it in an approachable, unpretentious way. Not surprisingly, the menu for this Southside eatery often changes based on what’s available.

But, this is Tennessee, so expect some Southern staples served with a twist. Pimento cheese, for instance, comes with Benton’s bacon jam and toasted sourdough.

As serious as the owners are about the food, they might be a bit over the top when it comes to the bar’s seasonal cocktails. Fresh herbs, vegetables and real fruit are used to infuse high-quality spirits. You’ll find a beer program with 20 rotating taps, and bottled beers at the ready to fill in any gaps. The restaurant also puts together beer dinners; each dish complimenting a specific beer.

Sports fans should note that the Squirrel is located down the street from AT&T Field (201 Power Alley, Chattanooga. 423-267-2208, www.milb.com), home of the Chattanooga Lookouts, the town’s minor league baseball team.

Festivals in Gatlinburg

Downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn. (www.gatlinburg.com, @TravelGburg) offers visitors a year-round slew of festivals dedicated to food and drink.

Each April, the charming village dedicates a weekend to celebrate Tennessee wines, food and local art with its Wine Fest Weekend (gatlinburg.com/winefest), which combines the Wine, Dine and Art Crawl with the Smoky Mountain Wine Festival.

For the Art Crawl, attendees are escorted by motor coach through the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community, an enclave nestled in the back hills of Gatlinburg. This historic 8-mile loop features the largest collection of independent artisans in the country. Visitors sample wines and nosh on appetizers from local restaurants while watching artists at work.

The Smoky Mountain Wine Fest portion of the weekend takes place at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Along with extensive wine tasting, there’s live music and the chance to view Appalachian art and culture passed down through generations.

Break out your lederhosen for Gatlinburg’s Oktoberfest (gatlinburg.com/events/details.aspx?id=80). The annual celebration takes place at Ober ski area and amusement park, about 5 miles from downtown Gatlinburg. The festivities run from the end of September through the beginning of November. It’s 38 days of raucous merrymaking that involves copious amounts of Bavarian-style foods, music, beer and a whole lot of yodeling, oompahing and, naturally, schuhplattlering.

November brings the Winter Magic Kickoff and Chili Cook-off (gatlinburg.com/events/details.aspx?id=11) to Gatlinburg, signifying the start of the Christmas season and the lighting of animated displays. More than 3 million lights mark the holiday route from Sevierville through Pigeon Forge and ending in Gatlinburg. Visitors not only get the chance to vote on the best chili, as well as best apron and presentation, but they also can enter the hot-chili eating contest, with increasing heat levels as the competition progresses.

A rising star chef in Memphis

Comfortably situated on a shady residential street lined with bungalows and cottages in midtown Memphis, you’ll find a charming shingle-and-brick Victorian, complete with a turret. Home to Memphis’ acclaimed Restaurant Iris (2146 Monroe Ave., Memphis. 901-590-2828, www.restaurantiris.com, @RestaurantIris), this is the place where chef Kelly English creates his version of French-Creole cuisine for an appreciative crowd.

Visitors to the intimate restaurant dine at white linen-covered tables, with delicately aged wood flooring at their feet. The menu changes often, taking advantage of seasonal ingredients; it’s in good hands with English, who was voted 2009 Food & Wine magazine’s best new chef. That same year, he was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef while earning Memphis Restaurant Association’s restaurateur of the year. In 2014, the eatery was voted one of the Open Table Diners’ Choice most romantic restaurants in America.

Starters at Restaurant Iris might include slippery Angus bone marrow accompanied by shallots, pickled fennel and a brioche. Or, you could opt for the lobster knuckle sandwich gently spiked with tarragon. The seared Tennessee foie gras, pepper gellee and shallot confit trio is sure to please, too.

English’s take on surf and turf pairs a New York strip with fried oysters and blue cheese, while Alaskan halibut shares the plate with spaghetti squash and a grapefruit beurre blanc.

The Louisiana-born English also offers a fixed price, five-course tasting menu for those who prefer to put their palates in the hands of the chef.

Less elaborate in stature but just as authentic in cuisine, the casual Second Line (2144 Monroe Ave., Memphis. 901-590-2829, secondlinememphis.com, @secondlinemem) is English’s homage to the food of New Orleans.

Inside this small space, with its well-stocked brick-walled bar and vibrantly painted walls and woodwork, you won’t find the high-brow or touristy food of the Big Easy; rather, this is a restaurant that English calls casual, honest, delicious and true. But, with New Orleans in mind, you will find excellent hand-crafted cocktails like the fresh-squeezed Hurricane.

Consider a platter of perfectly fried seafood, including oysters and gulf shrimp, or Mississippi catfish with a pile of fried onions. If po’boys are more to your liking, then you won’t be disappointed with roast White Oaks pasture beef with gravy and Swiss cheese, or the Johnny snack that comes bursting with ham, cheese and gravy. Cheese grits and red beans and rice aren’t to be missed, either.

A bonus for visiting either of these restaurants is that they sit just across from the Hattiloo Theatre (37 Cooper St., Memphis. 901-525-0009, www.hattiloo.org, @hattiloo), a repertory that focuses on works written by or about African-Americans while celebrating the cultural diversity and history of Memphis. The theater claims bragging rights as one of the few free-standing, independent black theaters in America.

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