What makes a memorable meal? Certainly, the people around the table and the ambiance of the restaurant play roles, but ultimately the quality of the food may be the deciding factor. After all, the best steak you ever ate could have been the one that sated your appetite while you were home alone in front of the TV.
Last month, we asked readers to tell us the best meal they’d been served in a Chattanooga restaurant in 2021. We received more than two dozen responses in the online poll. The responses ran the gamut from Southern Star’s fried chicken and vegetables to Han-Mi’s pork cutlet to Conga’s tacos and pupusas.
Of all the responses, three restaurants were mentioned more than once. Here’s a look at the standouts served at Easy Bistro, Hello Monty and Neutral Ground.
— About the menu: “Rooted in the French classics and prepared with Southern flair,” according to the website. Rather than traditional course meals, Easy Bistro specializes in small and large plates that are intended to be shared.
— About the place: Easy Bistro was known as Easy Seafood when it opened in May 2005 in a former bottling plant on Broad Street. It moved in 2020 to the revitalized West Village.
— Voters’ memorable meals: Oysters, beef tartare and foie gras; roasted fish of the day, braised beans and greens, sweet potato and a Bibb and radicchio salad.
— About those dishes: The beef tartare contains pecans, parmigiano, crimini, yolk, chive, fried capers and crostini, while the foie gras paté, traditionally made with duck or goose liver, is made with blood orange gelée, rosemary and seeded sourdough.
The diner didn’t specify the type of fish, but a selection is available each day. The braised beans and greens are flavored with bacon and soffritto, a base of minced carrots, celery and onions sauteed in oil or butter. The Bibb and radicchio salad includes pear, gorgonzola cheese, pine nuts, red onion, thyme and an apple cider vinaigrette.
Erik Niel, who owns the restaurant with wife Amanda Niel, says the choices don’t necessarily surprise him, because “All things on the menu I think are great.” He notes that some menu items are seasonal, so offerings may change depending on the availability of ingredients.
His best advice for diners? “I would tell them to be ordering food to share with the people they’re eating with,” he says. “Sharing is caring for sure.”
— Where to find it: 801 Chestnut St.; easybistro.com
— About the menu: “Elevated American food with a nod to the South,” according to the website. Diners can expect the vibe of a backyard cookout as each homemade dish is “touched by fire and crafted with the finest local ingredients.”
— About the place: The restaurant opened in a historic building on Chattanooga’s Southside in October 2021.
— Voters’ memorable meals: Charcoal roasted bone-in ribeye; half chicken with a side of middlins and naan bread appetizers.
— About those dishes: “Our Charcoal Roasted Bone-in Ribeye is definitely a guest favorite, and it’s because the meat just takes on the fire flavor from our coal ovens so well,” says a statement from owner Rob Gentry and chef Rebecca Barron. “We serve the 20-ounce ribeye sliced, with the bone and with our miso compound butter. We also give it a sprinkling of herbed Maldon salt. It’s a great dish to share with one or two sides and a glass of wine.
“Our Springer Mountain Farms Half Chicken is really special (and a big portion!). We debone the chicken aside from the wing and rub it with a mixture of yogurt and several spices of India. We let that marinate and then slow-roast it over charcoal and applewood. We serve it with herbs, yogurt and pickled onions.” (This is said to be to be Barron’s favorite dish and was inspired by her trips to India.)
“The dough for our naan flatbreads is made by Niedlov’s. The house naan is so nice because it puffs up in our coal ovens while it’s cooking, and then we pair it with a smoked romesco sauce and roasted garlic for dipping. It’s a perfect way to start a meal.
“Our side dish of middlins is cooked with a little Tabasco, white pepper and a mixture of smoked shallots and apples to add a hint of smokey sweetness. (Middlins are the broken pieces of Anson Mills Carolina gold long-grain rice, which is grown in the Low Country. They take on a creamy, risotto-like texture when boiled and are delicious!) We also serve the middlins as a vegetarian entrée — they’re mixed with coal roasted seasonal vegetables, a marinated soft-boiled egg, miso butter and sweet soy.”
— Where to find it: 306 W. Main St.; hellomontyonmain.com
— About the menu: Specializes in po’ boys and yakamein, dishes that are “quintessential to New Orleans’ food culture” and “emblematic to any New Orleans native.”
— About the place: Neutral Ground was among the first tenants in the Proof food and beverage incubator on M.L. King Boulevard.
— Voters’ memorable meals: NOLA Hot Sausage Po Boy; wok-fired peanut and garlic noodles.
— About those dishes: “The wok-fired peanut and garlic noodles, we sell a lot of those,” says chef Kenyatta Ashford. This vegetarian dish is cooked in peanut and coconut sauces, with greens, carrots, peanuts, herb salad, smoked oyster mushrooms, murasaki sweet potato and chili oil.
The NOLA Hot Sausage Po’ Boy also happens to be Ashford’s favorite dish. “It’s for sentimental reasons,” he says, explaining that hot sausage isn’t typically found outside of Louisiana, so it’s “not familiar outside of [New Orleans] culture. It was one dish I was bound and determined to put on the menu and get people to like. It’s really cool that someone chose that as their favorite po’boy.”
Hot sausage is not spicy, he says, “just seasoned and flavored very well. We make the sausage ourselves in house. We make the sausage from scratch on a weekly basis. I think that’s the part that makes it unique. It’s pretty close to what you’d find in New Orleans.”
Ashford says the wok-fired peanut and garlic noodles are also made from scratch. “The care and attention to detail we take in sourcing our ingredients and how we use them is part of our success and why it tastes so good.”
— Where to find it: 422 E. M.L. King Blvd.; neutralgroundchatt.com
Contact Lisa Denton at [email protected] or 423-757-6281.
Here are some of the meals of 2021 readers remembered fondly when the Times Free Press asked for favorites. Keep in mind that menus change seasonally at many restaurants, so the same combinations may not be available at all times. Some of the foods mentioned in the survey did not include the restaurant where they were served and are not included here.
— Bridgeman’s Chophouse: Tomahawk steak with scallops and truffle fries
— Champy’s: Fried chicken
— Chow Main at Market South: Rigo’s fried rice chicken (extra spicy)
— Conga Latin Food: Tacos and pupusas
— Easy Bistro: Oysters, beef tartare and foie gras
— Easy Bistro: Whole roasted fish of the day, braised beans and greens, sweet potato, Bibb and radicchio salad
— Feed Table & Tavern: Springer Mountain Farms chicken breast
— Giardino Italian Restaurant: Rigatoni al gorgonzola, bruschetta and veal marsala
— Han-Mi: Pork cutlet
— Hello Monty: Charcoal-roasted bone-in ribeye
— Hello Monty: Springer Mountain Farms half chicken with a side of middlins and naan bread appetizers
— Lo Main: Smash Burger
— Main Street Meats: Steak
— Neutral Ground: NOLA Hot Sausage Po Boy
— Neutral Ground: Wok-fired peanut and garlic noodles
— Pickle Barrel: Loaded tots and fried pickles
— Portofino’s: Chicken piccata with artichokes
— Sidetrack Restaurant: Salmon with rice pilaf and roasted Brussels sprouts
— Skunk’s Misery Bar & Grill (Cleveland, Tenn., now closed): Chicken-fried ribeye primo
— Southern Star: Fried chicken and vegetables
— State of Confusion: Brunch
— Terminal Brewhouse: Pot roast nachos
— Two Ten Jack: Crispy Brussels and crispy rice spicy tuna
— Whitebird: Beef filet with parsnips and Gowin Valley Farms mushrooms