Want to sample the cuisine of the world, but never leave town? Interested in sitting down with a chef to learn his secrets for authentic food preparation and presentation?
These are two of the reasons why theme dinners are drawing diners into local restaurants.
"They're a lot of fun," says Sally Moses, owner of 212 Market. "Everyone wants a chef to come out to their table and talk about the food, describe where it came from, how it was grown, what he did to it."
The Tennessee Aquarium hosts theme dinners four times a year at 212 Market. The most recent, inspired by the book and movie "Eat, Pray, Love," offered guests dishes from Italy, India and Indonesia.
"I try to pick a theme that relates to the aquarium galleries in some way or an animal at the aquarium," said Betty Miles, the Tennessee Aquarium's special events coordinator.
"'Eat, Pray, Love' was based on a small exhibit of fish from Indonesia we have. We have done dinners about sustainable fish and which are safe to eat, and we did 'Julie & Julia' when that movie came out."
Miles said the dinners are open to the public. With seating for just 35, reservations are required and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
The aquarium's next theme dinner, April 21, will focus on a farm-to-table theme, she said.
1 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
4 8-ounce chicken breasts
4 large sage leaves, plus 20 smaller leaves
4 large slices prosciutto
2 cups and 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 shallots, thinly sliced
1/2 pound oyster mushrooms, sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
1 cup Marsala wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons butter
1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped to yield 1/4 cup
Season the flour with salt and pepper.
With a small meat mallet, pound the chicken breasts to 1/4-inch thickness. Season each breast with salt and pepper, and lay 1 sage leaf on each breast. Lay 1 slice prosciutto over each piece and fold in half like a book. Secure the two sides with a toothpick and dredge each breast in the seasoned flour.
In a heavy-bottomed pot with high sides, heat 2 cups olive oil to 375 degrees. Make sure a slotted spoon or spider is nearby.
Working in a few batches, fry the 20 sage leaves in the oil, removing with a slotted spoon after 30 seconds. Season with salt, set on a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Set aside.
In a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan, heat the remaining olive oil until smoking. Add the chicken and sauté until golden brown on both sides. Add the shallots and mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms have sweated, 5 or 6 minutes.
Add the Marsala and chicken stock and cook over high heat until reduced by half. Swirl the butter into the pan, add the parsley and serve on four warmed dinner plates, topped with the fried sage leaves.
* Note: Sally Moses said 212 Market used Georgia free-range chicken breasts, locally prepared prosciutto and mushrooms from Walden Peak Farm on Signal Mountain when making this entree.
The appetizer will be grape leaves filled with local herbed goat cheese and grilled trout. Following an arugula salad, guests will be served moussaka, a dish layered with Williams Island lamb, vegetables and a light béchamel sauce. A strawberry-rhubarb blintz a la mode will finish the meal.
"During dinner, the chef will come out and demonstrate two or three of the courses. He talks as people receive the entree," said Miles.
The dinner's setting allows one-to-one conversation between the chef and diners. Moses added that sometimes the chef will even walk people through the kitchen so they get a sense of how their dishes were prepared.
It's that intimate interaction with the chef that Bruce Weiss, owner of River Street Deli, believes contributes to the success of a theme dinner. That, and authenticity, he said.
Weiss' deli was a forerunner in theme dinners, hosting one each Friday night for nearly 12 years. At one point, the dinners were so popular that he began holding two seatings each Friday.
After a yearlong hiatus, Weiss said he's bringing his theme nights back by popular demand this spring.
"As people sat, I would walk over to their tables and describe the three courses covered, and they would love it. They could bring their own wine, and we'd open it with no corking fee," he said.
Weiss' worldwide themes included re-creations of Greek, Italian, French, Russian, German and Argentinian cuisine. His theme dinners also took diners across the United States, with meals themed to locations from Napa Valley to New York City.
"You could have that sense of authenticity and not leave Chattanooga. I think people liked them, because they would say 'I would have never ordered that, and man I'm so happy I tried it,'" said Weiss. "They were put in a position to get some food that they might never have ordered."
The Melting Pot in East Brainerd offers Big Night Out, a four-course themed dinner, said owner Michelle Rice. With the slogan "guests tour the world one fondue pot at a time," Big Night Out changes its theme every six months.
Currently the restaurant is featuring Big Night Out in France. The menu includes Fondue a la France; Salade Nicoise; a choice of Fondue Feast, Fondue Fusion or Lobster Indulgence and White Chocolate Creme Brulee for dessert.
* Feb. 22 is Fat Tuesday theme night at The Melting Pot, 53 Lifestyle Way off Shallowford Road. Owner Michelle Rice said the three-course meal includes cheese fondue, salad and chocolate fondue. Call 893-5237.
* The Tennessee Aquarium will host an Earth Day-themed dinner on April 21 at 212 Market. Representatives from Slow Food Chattanooga and owners of local farms that follow sustainable growing practices will participate in the food discussion. Tickets are $45, with a $10 discount for aquarium members. Make reservations at www.tnaqua.org (click the Events link).