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Chattanooga, Tennessee at night.


Chattanooga, Tennessee is on the right track toward culinary renown

Pardon me boys, but Chattanooga, Tennessee, is more than the home of the iconic Choo-Choo and of the Moon Pie, my childhood after-school snack. 

Move over, Track 29, and make room for a renaissance in this charming Southern city. 

With more than a trifle to share, nothing could be finer than to dine at St. John's Restaurant, located in a flatiron building constructed at the turn of the 20th century. This property served as a hotel and later as a brothel before being abandoned for the next several decades. In the year 2000, however, local architect Thomas Johnson bought and restored the building, and St. John's Restaurant opened within it soon thereafter, debuting Chattanooga's first farm-to-table dining experience.

Rebecca Barron, a Milwaukee transplant whose wrist sports a tattoo of a beet, honed her chops in the kitchen there and is today the restaurant's executive chef. She embraces farm-to-table cooking and her menu is inspired both by local farms and by her culinary travels through Europe, India and southeast Asia. 

Barron's bold style was on display in an amuse bouche of pimento cheese on a cracker, topped with lump crab, a ripe strawberry and a sprinkling of caviar sustainably grown in the Aquitaine region of France. 

Her Croque Madame was a study in Southern ingenuity: sunny-side-up quail egg over pork belly on a buttermilk biscuit, enrobed in a smoked Gouda Mornay sauce with a side of country ham and a dipping sauce of blueberry jam. How could it get any better? With a quaff of Anthill Farms 2015 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ... and a magic trick. 

The trick was performed by my server, who set down a Bell jar, twisted off its cap and stepped back while white smoke slithered out like a cobra, unveiling the jar's colorful contents: roasted beets and local Crabtree Farm green beans, blackberries and strawberries, all sitting atop a base of sheep's milk cheese from Blackberry Farm. I couldn't scoop up this magical melange fast enough. 

On my final day in Chattanooga, I made a visit to Songbirds Guitar Museum, where I oooh'd and aaah'd at its vintage instrument collection, from Gibsons to Fenders. Just downstairs from the museum, live music was featured that evening in a space called South Stage, formerly known as the Revelry Room.

It was a hot and humid walk from the museum to my digs at the boutique Dwell Hotel, a new property whose motto is "a swanky take on mid-century modern where luxury meets retro." And there I gratefully succumbed to a cleansing salt bath in my oversized, in-room soaking tub. 

I emerged refreshed and headed down to the hotel's romantic lounge, Matilda Midnight, and on to its dining room, Solarium Cafe. Locally sourced ingredients and botanicals are the draw in this cozy, 35-seat restaurant, where a health-forward menu includes a Cashew Kale Dip worthy of sharing, and so I will share with you. 

cashew kale dipCashew Kale Dip
Note: The dip needs to be started 24 hours in advance. This recipe is courtesy of The Dwell Hotel's Solarium Cafe

Serves: 4 to 6

2 cups whole, unsalted raw cashews (soak overnight in 2 quarts room temperature water)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1 bunch of kale
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
Lavash crackers, veggie chips and raw veggies of choice

Soak cashews overnight or until plump and softened.

Drain the soaking liquid, reserving 3/4 cup of the water. Add the nuts, garlic powder, black pepper, reserved cashew water, lemon juice and yeast to a food processor and pulse until the mixture is smooth. This is called cashew cheese.

Take 1 bunch of kale, with leaves stripped from stems, and saute until wilted. Place kale in a colander to drain for 10 minutes, then press out any excess liquid between paper towels and finely chop.

Fold together cashew cheese and kale, place in a baking dish, top with breadcrumbs (optional) and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until top is golden and it is warmed through. Scoop up dip while still warm with lavash crackers and/or veggie chips.

Charlene Peters is a passionate explorer of indigenous dishes throughout the world. She can be reached at siptripper@gmail.com.

Photo (skyline): thig84/Flickr (license)