Posted by: wrmcnutt | November 6, 2009

Restaurant Review – The Orangery – Knoxville Tennessee

The Orangery, 5412 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN, has been a fabled Knoxville dining experience since 1971.  When I first came to town, the Orangery was described to me as the most elite restaurant in town.  Reputed to have the best food, most plush ambiance, and most outstanding service, the Orangery was as close as Knoxville came to continental style dining.  Eventually, my ship came in, and wasn’t a canoe, so I took my lovely spousal-unit to the Orangery for her birthday a few years back.  It immediately become Mrs. Champagne Taste’s favorite restaurant, having lived up to its reputation in spades.  After a few years rolled by, the owner of the Orangery decided to retire, and they closed their doors, leaving Knoxville with no venue for formal dining.  (sob) Not too many months later, the Orangery re-opened under new management.  (yay)

So with the re-opening under new management, I thought it would be a good time to introduce you to what had become, and hopefully will again be, one of our favorite restaurants.

The Orangery is self-described as a “classic French and inspired international cuisine” restaurant.  The atmosphere is formal, with seasonal Wedgewood china, white tablecloths, and chairs backed with carved laurel wreaths.  That last bit is always a good sign.  When enter the building, the first thing you see it the bar.  If you’re a teetotaler, it’ll offend you, but if you like hospitality, the dark, warm north American red oak of the woodwork is welcoming.  The whole building is not large, and the bartender’s work area is correspondingly small, but smartly set up.  We were greeted at the door by the bartender, who quickly fetched the maitre’d.  In seasons past, the maitre’d would also take our hats and coats and check them for us, but as it was warm out, we were neither hatted nor coated, so I don’t know if they still offer that service.  I hope so, though. Weather permitting, I like to wear a hat and overcoat, and juggling that gear at your table is not a fine-dining experience.  The bar and lounge are small, with seating for about eight or ten people at the most, but since I’ve never been kept waiting on a table, it’s not been an issue.  The lounge area is dominated by the sweeping staircase that leads up to the upstairs dining room and the baby grand piano that, on weekends, is occupied by a mood musician.

The decor of the main dining room is opulent, with large white columns, green potted plants, and gilded mirrors everywhere.  There’s also plenty of marble on the floors, oriental rugs, and twinkling candles on the tables.  The staff is not formally dressed.  Black trousers, white shirts and black vests hint at formality, but there’s not a tie to be seen among them as they work.  And work they do.  We were swiftly seated, water was immediately provided (still? tap?  sparkling?), and our drink order taken.  The liquor selection was large enough to accommodate us, and the drinks were quickly delivered, and exactly what we ordered.  When your martini arrives in a chilled glass, you know you are in good hands.

Before we could order, the kitchen provided a light appetizer of fried shrimp over an Asian  vegetable salad.  It was a portent of things to come.  The shrimp was firm without being over-cooked, the breading was light and crisp without distracting from the taste of the shrimp.  The salad was made of mixed vegetables in a sweet soy marinade that made me hope to spot it on the menu in it’s own right, one day soon.

DinAppHaloumiCheeseI started with the Haloumi Cheese Tasting.  This is pan-seared haloumi cheese, D’ anjou pear, baby arugula, balsamic glaze, and flatbread.  Haloumi is a white cheese, and one I find to be somewhat dull in flavor.  The preparation, however, made up for the rather bland initial flavor of the cheese.  I’ve tried to fry cheese in my day, and the results, while flavorful, tend to leave the kitchen looking like a bomb has hit it.  My haloumi was firm, flavorful, and had a lovely aroma.  The flat bread was crisp and tasty.  The pears were crisp, sweet, and a wonderful counterpoint to the balsamic glaze that accompanied this dish.  My companion had the Beef Carpaccio, served with arugula, fleur de sel, kalamata olives, caper, truffle oil, and Parmesan reggiano.  Now, I don’t even like rare beef, so the idea of raw meat that’s been marinaded as the only cooking technique that’s been applied to it doesn’t appeal to me.  But conversation came to a screeching halt as my companion went through her first course like Rome went through Carthage.  The appetizer was a roaring success.  For my own part, a tiny splash more of glaze would have made the appetizer perfect.

Now – the salad course was an exercise in friendly competition.  The best Caesar Salad to be had in the city of Knoxville can actually be found next door, at Naples Italian Restaurant, a family-style establishment I’ve dined at many a time.  And I told the waiter so.  The Orangery Caesar is made wtih hearts of romaine, grape tomatoes, Parmesan tuile, and Spanish white anchovy crostini.  It was quite good.  The romaine lettuce was fresh, crisp, and flavorful. The grape tomatoes were firm without being hard, and a brilliant red which pleased the eye.  Last, let us speak of the Parmesan tuile.  This is a sort of fried cheese cookie served with the salad.  It was crisp, not greasy, and for flavor had a salty-sharp perfection.  Not to put too find a point on it, but the boys in the back, they can fry them some cheese.  Sadly, when they said “Spanish white anchovy,” they actually meant it.  And I just don’t see that fish has any place on my salad.  I think that anchovies make their best contribution in the Caesar dressing in the form of anchovy paste.  Actually running into whole fish on top of my salad makes it too oily, too salty, and too fishy.  So the salad was good, but Naples remains king of the Caesar Salad in Knoxville.  My companion opted not to participate in the Salad phase of the meal.

For my entree I selected the Mesquite Grilled All Natural Springer Mountain Chicken Breast, served with Roasted Corn, Chanterelle Mushroom and Sweet Potato Hash, Maple Roasted Bacon Jus Lie.  I wasn’t particularly in the mood for chicken per se, but the phrase “maple roasted bacon” sold me.  Mmmmm.  Bacon.   The chicken was moist, tender, and yielded to the knife and fork gracefully, but not with enthusiasm.  The flavor was complex and succulent.  The mushroom and sweet potato hash was well done.  I could have done with more mushrooms and fewer sweet potatoes, but that’s my personal bias.  I’ll always swap mushrooms for sweet potatoes.  The Jus Lie was exactly what I hoped for, although I could have done with more of it.  Again, to be fair, that’s my bias. I could have done with more of it if they’d served it in a bucket. The roasted corn was quite good, but apparently not so amazing that I can remember enough about it to write about it four days later. Alas, I am unwilling to take notes while dining.  My companion ordered the Sautéed Veal Medallions.  Of her dish I can report little, because conversation mostly stopped when her entree arrived.  I suspect she was distracted.  Her only comment was that while the veal was very tender, the sauce was a bit over-abundant, and contaminated her potatoes.

For dessert I selected the Madagascar Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée.  Ok, I’ve had Crème Brûlée from New Orleans to London, and from Boston to San Francisco, and this was, bar none, the best custard I’ve ever had.  It was smooth and creamy, without a lump or a grain to be found in it.  It was just thick enough to hold its shape, but soft enough to spread like sour cream. There was nothing to clutter the flavor. No chocolate.  No coffee.  No raspberry. It was the fighter-pilot of custards.  Just the egg, and it’s vanilla bean.  If I wanted to pick a nit, the surface glaze could have been a hair thinner, but it remains the best Crème Brûlée in the United States to date.

The wine list was not quite as large as it had been under the previous management, but what remains is still enormous compared to other Knoxville cellars.  All night our server was prompt, courteous, and responsive.  He gave us no reason whatsoever to believe that we were anything other than his only customers for the evening.

Overall, my return to the Orangery under the new management was a very positive experience, and the restaurant compares favorably both with it’s previous incarnation and with other fine dining establishments in Knoxville.

I give the Orangery

Four of Five Pints for Atmosphere
Four and a Half of Five Pints for Service
Four Pints for Cuisine

This gives the Orangery 4.17 pints, and one of the highest scores here at Will’s Miscellaneous Musings.

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  1. Okay. Now I am really going to have to visit up there. I have never been to this mecca of restaurants and I simply MUST go.

  2. “But conversation came to a screeching halt as my companion went through her first course like Rome went through Carthage. ”

    Three tries, 118 years, and a herd of frozen elephants with altitude sickness?

    Catching up on all the writing. Enjoying, and alternately, crying with you.

    • Good to hear from you. Thanks – it makes it easier. It really does.

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