Quick Review: Forte’s on the Square

On the way back from enjoying Thanksgiving with my family in Nashville, my wife asked me if I wanted to stop for dinner in Crossville. We’d never eaten dinner in Crossville, and based on having lunch there during a couple of work visits, I wasn’t hopeful, and said so. Still, I pulled out my iPhone and checked TripAdvisor to see what the top-rated restaurants in Crossville were, and had my lack of hope confirmed when Cracker Barrel was listed as #1. Still, I saw what looked like a purely local place, Forte’s on the Square, listed as #2, so we decided to give it a shot. After a false start caused by our car’s clock being on Eastern Time but Crossville being on Central which left us sitting in our car for 15 minutes, we walked inside and were seated.

Our server made a great impression right off the bat. We sometimes let our son watch a movie on his iPad when we eat out – and I know, that makes us terrible parents. She glanced at the iPad as she walked up and declared in an excited voice, “Oh! Planes Fire & Rescue! I haven’t seen that but I really want to!” That made our son smile and us along with him.

I rarely mention the bread a restaurant serves in one of my reviews, and mostly that’s because the bread is usually just there as filler and not worthy of comment. The bread at Forte’s was anything but unworthy. It was light, flavorful, and so good that I almost asked for a second loaf. The butter was outstanding as well.

fortes_bread

fortes_kids_macFor our son we ordered one of his staples, Mac & Cheese. This was the best kids mac & cheese I’ve ever seen, and some of the best mac & cheese I’ve ever had. As we ordered his meal first and it came out a few minutes before our dishes, I’m not ashamed to admit that I sat there waiting for him to look away and transferred a few bites at a time over to my bread plate. In fact, the main reason I almost ordered more bread was because the cheese was so outstanding that it made a perfect dip for the bread. I’d love to see that as an appetizer next time we stop there – two loaves of bread and a small cup of the cheese for dipping.

My wife ordered one of her staples, Chicken Parmesan. She let me have a bite of it and I thought it was fairly good, but chicken parmesan isn’t one of my favorite dishes. She really liked it, and shared a few bites of it with our son, along with some of the broccoli.

fortes_chicken

fortes_chopsI was torn as to what to order, and again our server impressed us. I told her I couldn’t decide between the Chicken Alfredo or the Pork Chops. She said that both were excellent, but in her opinion, pork chops were not that common at restaurants, so she’d go with them. But she solved my dilemma by offering to substitute pasta for my baked potato, and said she would be happy to put the Alfredo sauce on it for me. I took her up on that, and in fact my wife asked to do the same substitution for her potato. The pork chops were quite good, and the honey balsamic glaze they were served with was exceptional – both simple and full of flavor.

fortes_pastaHere’s a picture of the pasta each of us received. It is no shame to say that while we liked our pasta, we both loved our son’s mac & cheese more. I would rank this Alfredo sauce better than most in Knoxville, with only Savelli’s beating it out, and not by a wide margin. Since I’d eaten a decent portion of our son’s mac & cheese and because I’d seen homemade desserts listed on the menu, I left about half of my pasta and my wife left about three quarters of hers uneaten. That I asked for a to-go box, something I almost never do, is an indication of how good the pasta and sauce were.

fortes_oreo_cheesecakeWhen our server brought out the dessert tray, which included several kinds of cheesecake, as well as a “Death by Chocolate” cake and a Coconut Cake, my wife wasn’t sure what to get. She and my son really love chocolate, so the cake was a possibility, but there was also an Oreo cheesecake, with chocolate sauce drizzled over it. Our server again helped out, offering to be generous with the chocolate sauce. My wife said the cheesecake itself was quite good, and she was glad our server added the extra chocolate, because she felt there wasn’t enough Oreo topping. She also commented that she liked the crust itself, which is unusual for her.

My choice was simpler. I would prefer plain cheesecake every time, but that wasn’t an option and I’m not fond of chocolate desserts. So I took the each option seasonal option – Pumpkin cheesecake. I can’t say the cheesecake blew me away, but it was good, and I take every opportunity I can during this time of year to eat pumpkin-based desserts, so I was happy to have it.

fortes_pumpkin_cheesecake

All in all, we were very happy with our first stop in Crossville for dinner, and we’ll be making an effort to eat at Forte’s on the Square again the next time we’re heading back to Knoxville. On that note, do keep in mind that while Forte’s is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, its website lists it as being open for dinner only on Friday and Saturday.

This is post 30 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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Quick Review: Gondola House Pizzeria

We spent Thanksgiving with my family in Hermitage this year, and on Black Friday we decided to take everybody out to dinner. We tried Gondola House Pizzeria, mainly because it is the number 2 rated restaurant on TripAdvisor for the area. The place got rave reviews on both TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon, and after eating there, I know why.

We started off with an appetizer – Deep Fried Ravioli. The ravioli was very good – filled with plenty of cheese and only lightly fried. Everyone liked it, especially our son, who ate three quarters of one of the large ravioli himself.

gondola_ravioli

I ordered the Spaghetti and Meatballs with Meat Sauce. It was one of the specific dishes called out in multiple reviews, and I’m glad I tried it. I haven’t had really good spaghetti in a long time, and this was extremely good. The meatballs were awesome – huge, dense but still moist. I ate every bite of this – something I’m pretty sure contributed to some heartburn I had later on, but that’s my fault for eating so much tomato-based sauce in addition to the pizza I shared with my wife.

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My wife and I also ordered a pizza – the Old School Gondola Special with onions, green peppers, and sausage. This was very good pizza. Maybe not the best pizza I’ve had in a while, but I’d order it again and be satisfied. The crust was thin and light, with a generous amount of mozzarella. The sausage was really good as well, and our son ate quite a bit of it from each of his mom’s slices.

gondola_pizza

Speaking of our son, we ordered him a child’s pizza with ham on it, since that’s his favorite topping. He ate three slices of it, as well as most of one of the meatball’s from my mom’s spaghetti.

gondola_kids_pizza

We ordered desserts to go – three of them. The Tiramisu was mentioned in a couple reviews, and both Butterscotch Bread Pudding and Chocolate Bread Pudding were on the special list for the night. We divided them up at my parents’ house according to individual taste. My wife liked the tiramisu and I found it to be good as far as it goes, but it’s really not my thing. Bread pudding, however, is one of my favorite desserts, so I was really looking forward to trying each of them, even though butterscotch sounded like it might not be that good. As it turns out, the butterscotch was definitely the better of the two, with the chocolate being, according to my wife, “not chocolatey enough.”

gondola_desserts

I was really happy with our meal at Gondola House. The food was great. The service was outstanding, with our server being both quick with a joke and a refill of our drinks. The other staff were friendly, thanking us as we left. I sincerely wish that Gondola House were located in Knoxville, because I can’t think of another Italian restaurant in town in that price range nearly as good on so many fronts. We’ll definitely be returning the next time we’re in the Nashville area, and I’m certain my family will try it again as well.

This is post 28 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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Quick Review: Blaze Pizza

Blaze-Press_StuffI heard about a new pizza place opening in Knoxville in an unusual way recently. I was contacted by someone at a PR firm saying she liked my blog and was contacting bloggers and other types of media to announce the grand opening of Blaze Pizza. She invited me to a “sneak peak” lunch event for members of the media a couple days before the grand opening, and said they would like it if I wrote a review of the restaurant. Since the location on North Peters Road is just a few minutes from my house, I would have eaten there soon enough and reviewed it anyway, so I let her know I’d be happy to do so. As it turned out, I was out of town on business the day of the sneak peak, so I wasn’t able to attend. We tried to swing by on opening day, but since that was “free pizza day” there was a line wrapped around the side of the building, and while I’m always up for a new dining experience, standing in a huge line with a toddler waiting for dinner isn’t my idea of fun, so we decided to come back the next night.

Blaze-StorefrontWhen I saw the location of Blaze, on the corner of North Peters and Kingston Pike, I felt a tiny twinge of worry for them. If you’re familiar with the area, you’ll know several restaurants have tried and failed in that location, including OCI West, some crappy Chinese buffet, and a place called Tradewinds. Given how that particular area has been built up recently, with the giant new Kroger Marketplace, as well as several other businesses between North Peters and Cedar Bluff on Kingston Pike, I’m thinking Blaze may have better luck than the previous occupants of this location. Given the ample parking and high visibility from Kingston Pike, it should be a good spot.

Blaze’s model is “Build Your Own Pizza” taken to an extreme. It’s like Subway or Moe’s does Pizza. Each pizza is of the 11 inch personal variety, and whether you select one of the signature pizzas or build your own, a few different Blaze employees along the pizza assembly line ask you if you’d like to customize it at each station. Once we supervised the construction of our pizzas, we were asked if each looked good, and when we gave our approval, it was whisked away to be quick fired in just 180 seconds in an oven that was over 500 degrees.

Blaze-Ham_SausageFor our son we ordered a basic pizza with ham and sausage. He ate plenty of it and I had a slice as well, and it was quite good. The crust was thin and crisp, and light enough to not be too filling.

Blaze-Meat_EaterMy wife ordered the Meat Eater. It has pepperoni, meatballs, red onions mozzarella, and red sauce. This was the undisputed favorite of the three we ordered, and I’d be happy to eat it again for lunch or dinner.

Blaze-BBQ_CHKNI ordered the BBQ CHKN (that’s the actual spelling on the menu), and it’s normally made up of grilled chicken, mozzarella, red onion, banana peppers, gorgonzola, with a bbq sauce dribble.  I actually like gorgonzola, but for some reason, when the Blaze employee confirmed that I wanted it, since it was a “blue cheese” – I hesitated, and asked him to substitute goat cheese. Even so, the pizza was good. It isn’t the type of pizza I normally order, but I knew I was going to get to sample the meat eater and the ham & sausage pizza, so I went outside more comfort zone. I’m glad I did, and I could see myself ordering this again if I’m in the mood for a less meat-heavy pizza.

Aside from the “artisanal” pizza as Blaze calls it, the rest of the dining experience is pretty close to what you’d expect at a quick service but still sit down restaurant like a Panera Bread. Self-service fountain drinks, and a shelf with shakers of parmesan cheese, crushed pepper flakes, and oregano. This location has plenty of tables, and a mixture of half-booths, tables and chairs, and high-topped tables with tall stools. We were asked by three different Blaze employees, with one of them clearly being the manager on duty or perhaps the franchise owner, how we liked the pizza. It was a nice level of customer service and solicitation for comments, and I hope it continues.

Blaze makes a good pizza for a good price. Each of our pizzas was $7.65, and our total, with soft drinks, milk,  and tax, came to just over $30. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good quick meal in West Knoxville.

I’d like to close this review with a disclosure and a teeny tiny contest which, unfortunately, since I’m doing this on the spur of the moment and I’m not experienced in such things, will be limited to folks who live in Knoxville and who are willing to either email me at mike [at] geekfoodcritic.com or leave a comment on the link to this review on Facebook. Blaze sent me two free pizza passes so I could try their pizza at no cost, but they didn’t arrive until after we’d stopped by for dinner. I’m sure nobody believes I’d sell a positive review on my blog for $7.65 x 2, but just in case I’m going to give these passes away to someone else in Knoxville who reads my blog and would like to give Blaze a try. So all you have to do to enter is email me or leave a comment on Facebook saying you’d like a chance to win the passes. You can earn an extra chance by suggesting  a restaurant that I haven’t tried and reviewed yet. I’ll review the comments and emails at noon on Friday, December 5, and assign a number each, then generate a random number within the range of the entries received to select the winner. I’ll contact the winner to get a mailing address and drop the free pizza passes in the mail the next day. Good luck!

Blaze-Free_Passes

This is post 27 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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Quick Review: Chick-fil-A Breakfast

I have other restaurants in the queue to review, but after posting a very brief write-up of breakfast at Bojangles last night, I woke up this morning thinking, “I mentioned that I would normally pick Chick-fil-A over Bojangles, so why not grab some chicken biscuits on the way to work?” So I did, and now I’m going to write about them.

I really like Chick-fil-A’s food, and I continue to be impressed by their employees’ friendly attitude. I have no first-hand knowledge of their customer service training program, but it works. Something simple like having every employee respond to “thank you” with “my pleasure” makes an impression on me as a customer. I’ve been impressed on many occasions by the helpfulness of the Chick-fil-A employees, especially when we came in when our son was still using a high chair. A teenager rushing to pick up and carry a high chair to your table is something you just don’t see anywhere else – especially at a fast food restaurant.

So I skipped the interstate and drove down Kingston Pike today to hit the Chick-fil-A in Bearden. Paying and picking up my food was a little odd since I chose the left-hand drive-thru lane, which meant I had to lean over the passenger seat to interact with the employee, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might be. I ordered a Spicy Chicken Biscuit and the regular Chicken Biscuit, along with a large Diet Coke with light ice.

cfa-spicyI ate the Spicy Chicken Biscuit first, because I recalled how surprisingly hot it was the last time I had one. Unfortunately, the one I received today was only moderately spicy. Not sure what went wrong, as, thinking back to my days as a teenager making biscuits at KFC, I’m assuming the breading on these is a mix that’s mass-produced in a central location. I wonder if this particular spicy chicken biscuit had sat under a heat lamp for a while, as both the biscuit and the chicken were a little dry, and more than a little disappointing. That’s part of the trouble with fast food – they have to prepare in bulk in advance, and the less popular stuff doesn’t cycle through as often.

cfa-chickenThe regular Chicken Biscuit was much better. Both the biscuit and chicken were much more moist, and the biscuit was more flaky and satisfying. I would imagine Chick-fil-A sells a multiple of regular to spicy, so chances are my regular biscuit was much more recently prepared than the spicy. Where the spicy biscuit was disappointing, the regular one was a solid example of why I almost never refuse to eat at Chick-fil-A if someone else suggests it. If I had it to do over again, I’d definitely go with two of regular chicken biscuits. Actually, having entered both of these into MyFitnessPal on my iPhone today,  wouldn’t order two, as they’re 440 calories each, and one was plenty.

The fact that Chick-fil-A posts the calorie count for each item on the menu, not in some card you have to ask for, but right there in bold bright colors on the menu, is something I really like. I can’t speak to the healthiness of Chick-Fil-A’s food in general, but they make it impossible to order an outrageously huge meal without knowing what you’re getting calorie-wise.

I don’t eat at fast food places very often, certainly not on a weekly basis although probably more often than monthly, but when I do, I’m happy to do so at Chick-Fil-A – especially for lunch or dinner, when I get their awesome chicken nuggets (400 calories) that are so good, I don’t even need the honey mustard sauce (40 calories).

This is post 26 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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Quick Review: Bojangles

We got moving early enough Sunday morning that we had time to stop for breakfast on the way to church instead of grabbing a granola bar on the way out of our house. We gave our son a choice – waffles at Waffle House, or chicken & biscuits at Bojangles. He picked Bojangles. I’m not a huge fan of fast food, and frankly I’d choose Chick-Fil-A over Bojangles any day of the week … except I don’t have that choice on Sunday.

For our son, we ordered an Egg & Cheese Biscuit combo with “Bo Rounds” and milk to drink. He ate almost all of the biscuit and most of the potato cakes.

BJ-eggcheese

My wife ordered the Cajun Filet Biscuit combo with Bo Rounds. Bojangles biscuits are decent. Not great, but not bad either. The cajun-seasoned chicken filet is tasty. The Bo Rounds are good, although they’re a bit too thick in my opinion.

BJ-chicken

I ordered a Cajun Filet Biscuit and a Gravy Biscuit. I had high hopes for the biscuits and gravy, but those hopes were mostly dashed. The biscuit was decent, but the gravy was bland.

BJ-gravy

So the food was bland to decent, but some of it was tasty. I don’t make a habit of eating fast food, but it worked out mostly OK that morning. Our son enjoyed getting to pick the place and we got an extra breakfast out during the weekend. I can’t say we’ll be returning to Bojangles anytime soon, but if we’re in the mood for chicken and biscuits again, we’ll give Bojangles another try.

This is post 25 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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Quick Review: It’s All So Yummy Cafe

It’s All So Yummy Cafe is a soup, sandwich, and ice cream shop in West Knoxville on S. Peters Rd. We had dinner there Friday night and it was really good. This place has changed owners at least once or twice over the last several years, but the formula and quality has remained the same. Sandwiches, soups, Hilton Head ice cream, and free iced tea with each meal.

IASY_Fried_Bologna

My wife and son split first one, then a second Fried Bologna sandwich, along with the accompanying potato chips. They’d typically share just a single sandwich, but when he finds something he really likes, he just keeps eating, so she had to order a second one. I had a couple bites of the first sandwich and I can confirm it was very good – certainly worth ordering a second. The bologna was thick cut, and the bread was buttered, thick, and toasted – almost as thick as you’d expect from Texas Toast.

IASY-Big_Cheese
I knew what I wanted to order as soon as I scanned the menu. The Big Cheese is made with two grilled cheese sandwiches with meat of your choice in between. I had a choice between ham, turkey, or bacon. I went with bacon, of course. While this sandwich was simple, it was delightfully simply and tasty- yummy, in fact. My only suggestion for improving it would be to double the amount of bacon to more closely match the double grilled cheese on either side. I’ll order this again, and next time I hope they have some chili to go with it.

IASY_Ice_CreamAfter we finished our sandwiches, we ordered ice cream. Our son had a kiddie scoop of Oreo ice cream. To say he loved it would be an understatement. My wife had a two scoop sundae with Oreo and Chocolate Brownie with Hot Fudge. She commented that the oreo ice cream was much better than the chocolate brownie, but was otherwise pleased with the combination.

I should have ordered a two school sundae myself, but as I was scanning the ice cream menu, I noticed something else that I hadn’t had in many years – a banana split.

IASY-Banana_SplitI selected three different ice creams for my banana split – Butter Pecan, my favorite flavor, Butterfinger Crunch, and Krispy Kreme. I’m glad I decided to observe the young man making it, because I was able to catch him before he put anything on it I wouldn’t like – namely hot fudge sauce or really anything other than a banana and whipped cream. My wife informed me that the entire purpose of getting a banana split is to get three toppings in addition to three flavors of ice cream, but I didn’t care – I ordered what I wanted. The ice cream was great, and the combination of the three flavors with the banana and whipped cream was, you guessed it, yummy. I will say it was far too much ice cream, so I won’t be ordering it again unless my wife wants to split one.

IASY-BoyDinner and dessert at It’s All So Yummy was fun. We’ll be returning soon, if for no other reason, than to see this look on my boy’s face again.

This is post 23 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

It's All So Yummy Cafe'/ Hilton Head Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

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Quick Review: Universal Joint

I made a day trip to Chattanooga with some coworkers to meet with some colleagues from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. We wrapped up our meeting and headed to lunch with our colleagues at a place of their choosing – Universal Joint Bar & Restaurant. The short version of this review is that I’m glad we at there, and the next time I’m in Chattanooga with my family, we’ll give it another shot.

UJ-NachosI knew with this being just lunch, everybody would be ordering his or her own meal, and I would only have the opportunity to speak to what I personally ate. So I did something that wasn’t really necessary – I ordered an appetizer to share with the group. I asked our server which appetizer she would recommend, and she said the BBQ Brisket Nachos were very good, so I ordered them. While several of my colleagues passed on trying them, those of us who did really enjoyed them. The brisket was tender and the sauce on them was tasty. If I had it to do over again, given the context of eating a shared appetizer with a bunch of folks who don’t usually eat together, I might go for something easier like the egg rolls or wings, but I’m glad I ordered these all the same.

UJ-SteinbeckI asked my UTC colleagues what they would recommend for my meal, and they said both the Chicken Sandwich and Steinbeck burger were great. I couldn’t pass up a burger with pimento cheese on it, so I ordered the Steinbeck. Simply put, this was one of the most interesting and tasteful burgers I’ve had in a long time. My only issue with the burger is that I asked for it to be cooked medium, and it was closer to well done. Still, it was the best overcooked burger I’ve had because of the pimento cheese and bacon. The tater tots were amazing. Usually when a restaurant serves tater tots, you can tell they’re some variant of a grocery store brand – not too good, not too bad. I couldn’t claim these were house-made, but they were the best tater tots I’ve ever had – crisp and a little crunchy.

I’m looking forward to my next visit to Chattanooga, and if you’re there, you should give Universal Joint a shot.

This is post 22 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

Universal Joint on Urbanspoon

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