Traditional Southern fare is often associated with fried, greasy, artery-clogging foods, but Wine Down Bistro, in Ooltewah's Cambridge Square retail development, offers a different take.
Chef Wilbur Cox's menu shows the flavor of a foodway that goes back generations, to a time when foods were prepared with a more-thoughtful approach and foods came fresh from the garden or local purveyors. Cox understands the flavors and the cooking techniques used by our grandparents and those who came before.
"A lot of times, certain foods become fashionable," he says. "But we forget what's really good."
His menu changes with the seasons and is a picture of that traditional mindset - house-smoked meats; sauces and condiments made from scratch; ice cream churned in-house.
Wine Down Bistro in Ooltewah's Cambridge Square
Much of the menu is a comforting throwback to grandma's house - or, for baby boomers, maybe your childhood home when stewed tomatoes and pickled beets were on the Sunday dinner table or homemade pickles and pimento cheese were served for an afternoon coffee.
Fare warning: Servings are quite generous, so plan on sharing. Also, before making final decisions from the menu, look up. There's a chalkboard that stretches above the bar with specials, from what's on the week's TV dinners, which are served in clever compartmentalized metal trays, to what meats and seafood Cox has found during the week, plus what artisan meats and cheeses one might find as an appetizer on the chef's and bistro boards.
Ordering a charcuterie board puts you in the hands of the chef, and if you're there at the right time, Cox may have his chicken-bacon terrine with house-pickled pears and mustard or house-smoked ham hock that takes three days to make.
Dining solo, I felt the Southern Relish Board and a glass of zinfandel would make a good start. I wish I'd had someone to share it with. A tremendous platter arrived within minutes overloaded with fresh-made pimento cheese, pickled vegetables, house-made pickles, pickled beets, jams, crisp breads, sweet jams and savory relishes - a cornucopia or flavors and textures.
Next up? Cauliflower from a local garden with a light, chili-flaked tempura batter fried and served in a bowl with a soy-based gochujang sauce, sesame and crispy shallots drizzled with kewpie mayo. Japanese Cauliflower is standard on the menu, and if you haven't been a fan of cauliflower in the past, this may find you in its cheering section.
Cox takes a different approach to so many of the dishes on the menu, such as shrimp and grits made with his own sausage, local grits and mushrooms and pickled okra from the Wine Down garden preserved for the winter and spring menus.
But it's the veal osso buco that's a standout. A large shank of fork-tender veal - its bone speared with a small fork to enjoy the marrow inside - is presented on a bed of local mushrooms. We eat with our eyes first, and this makes for a mouthwatering view.
For dessert? Desperation Pie is a throwback to earlier times when fresh lemons and other citrus were not readily available to the working class, so cooks found vinegar - just as tart as a lemon - to be a good substitute. Wine Down uses quality vinegar to make its version of Desperation Pie, serving it with blueberries and a nice scoop of creamy homemade vanilla ice cream. It's a not-too-sweet finish to a meal that will take you back in time and send you home with a lesson in the culinary history of the South, if you'll take a moment to study the menu and taste its offerings.
If you go
- Where: Wine Down Bistro, 9447 Bradmore Lane (in Cambridge Square), Ooltewah- Hours: 2-5 p.m. happy hour with a snack menu Tuesday-Saturday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday- Entree price range: $13-$38- Alcohol: Full bar- Phone: 423-531-9463- Online: winedownbistro.com
The dining room is not large, but it's well-planned to take advantage of every space available without crowding diners. Tables seating from two to four and a larger 10-top on the main floor, plus a raised area with seating for a dozen or so more, make up seating inside. There are also seats at the bar. The ceiling is open, exposing rafters and ductwork. Large windows across the front bring natural lighting in.
The interior seats about 75, but availability doubles in the spring, summer and warm fall days when the patio is open, offering views of Cambridge Square and the surrounding area.
No complaints. The servers work seamlessly as a team. Like when I asked my server to surprise me with a second glass of wine, narrowing it down to a French burgundy or Italian chianti. She returned with the burgundy, having made a consensus with the bartender and other servers that it was the best to pair with my veal. They were correct.
I was there on a Wednesday evening, not the restaurant's busiest day of the week, and there was no wait time to get a seat. You might not be so lucky if you visit on the weekends, though, as the place gets crowded during happy hour and later.
There are several restaurants in Cambridge Square, and Wine Down now has a sister restaurant, Neighbor, right next door. It opened March 7, serving breakfast, lunch and brunch. Wine Down will now be open for dinner only.
Neighbor's menu mirrors Wine Down's concept, with fresh, made-from-scratch foods - house-made pastries, sausages, breakfast sandwiches and tacos, egg dishes, made-from-scratch biscuits and waffles, salads and a host of vegan offerings. Now Chattanooga can experience this duo of restaurants morning through night and transition from orange juice in the a.m. at Neighbor, then wind down at Wine Down for happy hour and beyond. What a delicious way to spend a day.