This story was updated on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021 at 6:46 p.m. to reflect that Flying Squirrel has decided against temporarily rebranding as "Flying Squid" as previously reported.
Flying Squirrel is a culinary chameleon, changing its menu with the season. In this case, the Southside eatery will be adding more Japanese favorites in addition to its regular menu.
While restaurant officials considered temporarily changing the name to the Flying Squid, they later said they decided not to over worries it would cause confusion and lead to limitations.
Japanese food is an adventure. For starters, the names of dishes are unfamiliar to most of us in the area and largely difficult to pronounce unless you're fluent in the Japanese language. But once you get beyond that, you're in for food that excites the palate. The ingredients complement each other for explosions of flavor.
I was especially impressed by the ramen, the best I've ever had. Executive chef Sanders Parker says he took the "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" approach when coming up with the recipe. He tried a dozen times before it came out right, with the exact blend of seasonings and heat to bring it to perfection.
The shiitake-seaweed base is seasoned with tare, a blend of soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar. The ramen itself is made in-house. When combined with the delicious broth and topped with local mushrooms from 2 Angels Farms, a little kale and pickled bean sprouts, along with a marinated 6-minute egg — or not, if you're vegan — it's a thing of wonder.
At Flying Squirrel, the dishes are meant for sharing. Too bad I was on my own, because half the fun is seeing the expression on your mate's face when he or she tries different foods for the first time, such as the Japanese pancake — okonomiyaki. It translates simply into "grilled how you like it." Sounds like comfort food to me.
At Flying Squirrel, it's assembled like a pizza, with a "crust" of cabbage and onions battered and grilled then topped with oko sauce and lots of fun things, like toasted sesame seeds, glazed shiitake mushrooms, orange peel, pickled ginger and more.
While on the subject of comfort food, what about fried chicken? In Japan, they call it karaage. I just call it amazing. For a local touch, Springer Mountain chicken is marinated and dredged in a batter of egg and potato starch, then fried twice to get it really crispy. It comes on a plate with Japanese mayo and a drizzle of black garlic molasses.
I'm telling you, this is my new favorite food.
If you go
Where: Flying Squirrel, 55 Johnson St.
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Alcohol: Full bar
Contact: 423-602-5980, flyingsquirrelbar.com
Interestingly, the original architecture at Flying Squirrel brings nature into play, much like buildings in Japan do. So the space complements the temporary change in menu.
Booth dividers have glass embedded with a natural design, and the expansive floor-to-ceiling windows bring the outside in.
The long bar at the front of the restaurant, large booths along the wall and plenty of outdoor seating with heaters allow for good social distancing.
No complaints. To meet pandemic guidelines, the restaurant is at limited capacity for seating, and servers wore masks at all times. To fully respect social-distancing guidelines, my server placed my water glass on the table next to me to allow me to reach for it after she walked off. She made sure there was plenty of space between us. I respect that.
There's a reason why Flying Squirrel has become a go-to place for people on the Southside and others looking for a good bar scene and great food. It's all about consistency — food, service and atmosphere. And now that Flying Squirrel has new fare — at least until the first local strawberries and other produce begin ripening across the Tennessee Valley and the restaurant goes back to its original offerings — patrons have a new menu to get excited about.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.