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elemental beetWhole Roasted Beet
What is Southern food? For some it can only be called Southern if it includes fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits and pecan pie made by a Paula Deen-esque character dropping spoonfuls of butter or lard into everything her greasy fingers can reach. While this may reflect the comfort foods many of us grew up with, there has been a backlash against this caricature of Southern food that is resulting in a re-examination of what makes food “Southern” and what it means to cook the food of the South.
Chef Steven Satterfield of Atlanta’s Miller Union recently said, “We are experiencing a renaissance right now with the sweep of awareness of where food comes from—to cook with heritage ingredients and think about our ancestors.”
This renaissance is on full display in Chattanooga with the opening of Elemental, executive chef Charlie Loomis’ spacious showcase for Southern ingredients prepared with a fresh perspective and a serious commitment to regional flavors. While Elemental could certainly hang its hat on its devotion to locally sourced foods and farm-to-table philosophy, Loomis said, “We’re not doing this to be trendy. We just want to go about this the right way by getting the best products we can get.”
When you taste the food at Elemental, you immediately know that Loomis has taken the farm-to-table philosophy as a given and distilled the spectacular flavors of the air, soil and water of the South onto your plate.
The menu reads like a “greatest hits” of the South’s best farmer’s markets. On the “Small Plates” section, items such as Boiled Peanut Hummus and Shroom & Grits with Benton’s Bacon display Elemental’s twist on Southern classics, but I was drawn to the Rustic Pork Mousse with Onion Marmalade and Mustard Caviar. The caviar is made by repeatedly boiling, then pressure cooking mustard seeds until they expand and take on the consistency of caviar with the explosive flavor of a finely crafted mustard.
Elemental also offers flatbreads made in a beautiful 1200° wood-fired “Woodstone” oven. All coming in at under $10 and topped with such tongue-teasing toppings as Bacon Marmalade, Sorghum Glazed Beef and House Made Buttermilk Ricotta, these pizza-like munchies would go great with a salad or a cocktail, but on this visit I decided to move straight to the main event.
The “Mains” portion of the menu has an impressive array of choices, but once again I spotted a roasted pork dish and my mind was made up. My date was tempted by the Seared airline-cut Chicken with Alabama White Sauce, Roasted Turnips and Country Ham Crisps, and almost went with the Grilled Pickett’s Trout with Charred Brussell Sprouts, Carrots and Cornbread Panzanella, but finally decided on a Whole Roasted Beet with Farro Risotto, Charred Greens and a Green Onion Gremolata. The beet dish was simply beautiful. I truly never expected to love beets so much. Every part of my tongue was engaged by the sweetness of the beet, the nuttiness of the farro, the char from the greens and the mild bite from the citrus in the gremolata.
The roasted pork I ordered had a simple description that belied the complexity of the dish itself. Cloudcrest Farms pork shoulder is removed from the bone and then rolled porchetta style with garlic and fennel. This juicy and explosively flavorful roll of porky goodness is then served on a layer of fresh sweet corn that’s been mixed with just a touch of house-made ricotta and cream, then topped with apple relish and a side of mixed seasonal greens. Once again, my tongue was taken on a joy ride of tastes and contrasting flavors as I gleefully—yes, gleefully—devoured every bite.
No Southern meal would be complete without something sweet at the end, and Loomis’ 8-year-old son Oliver is the creative inspiration behind their “Ollie Pop” dessert. Milk and Honey’s vanilla gelato, with just a hint of coconut, is molded and put on a stick before being dipped in rich Oliver and Sinclair chocolate. This is a delicious and playful alternative if the Coffee Crème Brûlée or Flourless Chocolate Brownies doesn’t strike your fancy.
The food that Elemental is bringing to Chattanooga’s dining scene is evidence that the renaissance of Southern food is upon us and farm to table is much more than a trend, it is becoming an integral and ubiquitous part of what it means to eat like a Southerner. I couldn’t be happier.
313 Manufacturers Road • (423) 648-9160 • elementalrestaurant.com
Tuesday-Sunday • Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. • Dinner: 5-10 p.m., • Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 5-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday