Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 31, 2019

River City: ‘James County’ offers a mixed first impression

James County Cattle Company’s Hickory Smoked Ribs and “gourmet” fries - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

I had never seen such a disparity between what I’d read on a restaurant’s menu and what I was seeing on my plate.

My wife and I were on an exploratory dining excursion at James County Cattle Company, a new bar and grill located near Hamilton Place. I had ordered the Sloppy Joe Sliders after spotting them on the small-plates menu, eager to try one of my favorite comfort foods and a pile of what the menu claimed were “gourmet fries.”

When our server placed what looked like plain, unseasoned crinkle fries in front of me, my anticipation took a plunge.

As I picked one up, my vision of the dinner I was expecting popped like a cartoon bubble. Not only were the fries unseasoned and unadorned, they were soggy and lukewarm. Gourmet fries? I don’t think so.

I looked at my wife, who was staring with equal incredulity at the fries on her plate, and said, “You’ve made better fries at home out of a bag of Ore-Ida.”

It was harsh but true.

Maybe you’re thinking, “So, they messed up the fries. Perhaps the rest of your meal was better.” If so, you’re both right and wrong.

Let me take you 45 minutes back in time to when my wife and I stepped through the door of James County Cattle Company and were ushered to our table.

Located in the former home of The Melting Pot on Lifestyle Way, James County Cattle Company serves American cuisine with Southern roots. The restaurant is named after Tennessee’s so-called lost county, which was formed in 1871 and pulled land from Hamilton County, Chattanooga and Bradley County.

The history of James County is long and complex (“James County: A Lost County of Tennessee,” a 1983 book, is available on Amazon if you’re interested in learning more), but its creation boiled down to political differences with Hamilton County. This would seem to suggest the restaurant it inspired intends to do things differently and make a name for itself in Chattanooga.

Things felt off from the beginning of our visit. As we were seated, I wondered aloud why the induction plate with the circular stain in the middle of our table was there. Our host explained that James County Cattle Company is keeping The Melting Pot’s induction plates because they plan to use them in the future.

He then handed us menus and told us what had changed. “We’re no longer serving the steaks on this menu, we’re serving the steaks on this menu,” he said as he handed us a second menu. “And instead of green beans, we now serve asparagus. And we no longer serve potato salad.”

It wasn’t much to remember, and it’s certainly understandable for a new restaurant to respond to customer feedback, discard what isn’t working and continue to evolve its menu, but I wondered why a food establishment that advertises itself as “upscale” would open with old tables and fondue pot stains.

Thankfully, the rest of the furnishings were a step up from there. Tasteful, Western-themed decorations dot the walls, with posters of actors Sam Elliott and Clint Eastwood in cowboy attire hung next to iron bulls and cow skulls. It’s subtle but pleasant, like the decorator dialed down the interior of LongHorn Steakhouse from 10 to two and gave it a touch of class.

My mild misgivings dissipated like morning fog the moment I set eyes on the menu. I walked in with an appetite and the intention to order the Damn Good Meatloaf, which is featured in a mouthwatering video on the restaurant’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/JamesCountyCattle), but the Sloppy Joe Sliders stopped me in my tracks.

My wife took longer to decide. After considering the smoked lasagna and chargrilled Cajun barbecue jumbo Gulf shrimp (which also look scrumptious on the restaurant’s Facebook page), she landed on the hickory smoked ribs. A rack of slow-smoked baby back ribs glazed with James County barbecue sauce and a serving of shoestring fries sounded good, but I stuck with my original order.

We then settled in for what would be a long wait. Even though we were one of only three tables with customers, we found ourselves becoming restless as the minutes ticked by.

I eventually took a stroll through the restaurant to take stock of the rest of its interior. There are two dining areas at James County Cattle Company, each with a bar. The area opposite to where we were seated also contains a small stage and dance floor, both of which were empty during my rounds.

The restaurant’s website (jamescountycattle.com) states there’s dancing every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night after dark, and contains a photo of several people pumping their fists in the air, but I could have lain down and stretched from one end of the floor to the other. “We’re going to expand it in the future,” the bartender told me.

If you enjoy listening to live music, you’ll want to schedule your exploratory dining excursion for a Thursday night, although a scroll down James County Cattle Company’s Facebook page reveals bands have played Saturday night, as well.

Our food finally arrived after 30 long minutes. My disappointment with the fries extended to the Sloppy Joe Sliders, which consisted of mediocre filling and generic buns. The entire plate had a warmed-over quality that made me think the food had been sitting under a heat lamp while they prepared my wife’s ribs, but I’m just speculating.

When you can make a better meal at home – and I’ve made better sloppy Joes by opening a can of Manwich – there’s no reason to go out. Again, I know this is harsh, and I don’t like writing it, but it’s true.

The one bright spot during our dining experience were my wife’s Hickory Smoked Ribs, which fell off the bone and were flavorful without burning her mouth. “They have the perfect amount of sauce and the right amount of smoky,” she said. “I would come back just for them.”

She would not come back for the fries, which were not shoestring fries, as stated on the menu, but the same basic crinkle fries I was served.

When our server asked us if we wanted dessert, we shook our heads and requested the check.

Part of me feels like James County Cattle Company deserves a second chance. Maybe my wife and I could wait a month or two while the restaurant irons out the crinkles – I mean wrinkles – and then go back and choose different dishes and sides.

Then again, restaurants are especially vulnerable to disappointing first impressions, and by my experience, James County Cattle Company has yet to distinguish itself in a city heaving with great dining options.