Is this you? You like eating out for the variety, but your enjoyment of certain restaurants is centered around a single dish. You have your favorite meal, and you order it every time you dine there.
I thought this would happen to me when I bit into the BLT & E at STIR, one of Chattanooga’s new restaurants. The kitchen staff had toasted the buttery bread to crunchy perfection, and the savory layers of bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo packed a wallop. As if the sandwich needed something more, the burst of creamy yoke that drenched my first bite when I bit into the fried egg (the “E” in “BLT & E”) sent my taste buds soaring. I had found my favorite food.
Then my lunch companion said, “You’ve got to try this Mac & Cheese.” She was referring to her plate of Scallop & Shrimp White Cheddar Mac & Cheese, which was disappearing a little more quickly than her food normally does. I cleansed my palate, grabbed my fork, and speared two spirals of cheese-covered cavatappi pasta. (I didn’t want to be greedy, so I didn’t go for the seafood.)
And wow. “Maybe I’m wrong about my sandwich,” I thought. “Perhaps this seafood dish is the definitive entrée at STIR.” Then I looked around the dining area – at the lady relishing forkfuls of roasted vegetables and farro, at the guy at the bar biting into a thick Tillamook Cheese Burger, and at the server placing the Caesar Wedge Salad in front of another patron – and I realized STIR is one of those restaurants that will challenge the one-dish mindset.
Since I work downtown, I’m OK with that. I can easily return. Maybe even today.
There’s a lot to try at STIR. Each of its three menus (one each for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch) is packed with inventive dishes made from ingredients predominantly acquired from farms and vendors located within 100 miles of Chattanooga. Scanning one of the menus is an exercise in culinary uncertainty. Do you try the Baked Cheddar Bacon Oysters off the raw bar, or the Baja Tacos from the list of appetizers? Will you have room for a pre-entrée salad? And how are you supposed to choose between the Grilled Salmon and Steak Frites?
The ingredients listed after each dish complicate the decision-making process. The Center Cut Filet, which comes smothered in roasted vegetables, blue cheese, and Bordelaise sauce, is especially hard to pass up. But STIR does more than use the right ingredients; it uses the right ingredients well. My lunch companion spoke about how chefs today often use too much truffle oil, but how just the right amount of white truffle oil was used in her Mac & Cheese.
Although the lengthy bar was visible from where we sat, we did not partake. But STIR offers what sounds like a unique cocktail experience. The bar staff begins with a selection of over 350 spirits and cocktail recipes crafted by 20-year veteran and world-famous bartender Gary Crunkleton. They then pour the finished drinks over a variety of artisanal ices made using purified water. For the uninitiated (a staff member had to explain this to me), STIR’s ice melts slowly, allowing drinks to stay colder and stronger longer than the average cocktail. “Say goodbye to diluted and lukewarm drinks, and hello to cocktails done right,” STIR’s website boasts.
STIR is one component of the multi-million dollar renovation taking place at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. Located within the confines of the former railroad station, the restaurant conveys a comforting ambiance – a warmth faithful to the style and manner of the early 20th century. The tall, arched windows, the high ceiling, and the unfinished front wall, all built in 1908, impart a sense of history, and of the past of which Chattanooga is proud. Weaved elegantly among these remnants of the past is a modern, urban aesthetic.
At 5,300 square feet, the restaurant is spacious enough to comfortably seat 200 guests in its main dining room. We arrived at the height of the lunch rush, and were given the option of sitting at the bar or waiting a few minutes for a table. We were seated at a table rather than a booth, but could not have been more pleased with the amount of elbow room. Have you ever been reluctant to back up your chair at a restaurant for fear of bumping into the person seated behind you? This will never be a problem at STIR. Conversation was comfortable as well. Also, our service was fast and friendly.
For large groups, STIR has placed a sizable community table in the center of its dining area. It was nearly full, possibly with co-workers, during our lunchtime visit. A separate space in the back, called the Kabooze Room, can accommodate up to 40 guests.
STIR is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday from 10:30 to midnight. The kitchen stops taking orders about one hour before closing time. Getting in is easy, as the restaurant has its own entrance at the front of the hotel. Parking is available behind the building, at the end of the gravel road that runs by The Comedy Catch.
A shift appears to be taking place in the Chattanooga restaurant scene, with some long-term establishments bowing out and making room for new dining options. STIR is an enticing choice – one I hope will be around for years to come. How else will I get my fill of my favorite dish?
To read more, visit www.stirchattanooga.com.
To see more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.