This journal is dedicated to the memory of Sherri Gardner Howell. Many of you may know that Sherri, longtime News Sentinel editor and editor, passed away unexpectedly on March 15. Without her, I wouldn’t be as privileged as I am to enjoy one of the best songwriting gigs a person could ask for. Good luck, Sherry. And thank you. – Larvae scout
I was looking forward to visiting The Brass Pearl, a new tenant in Market Square, mainly because I love raw oysters. Spouse Grub and I made a reservation for one night last week and showed up early for dinner (by the time we left the dining room was nearly full). We were seated at a half-cabin/table and were given several menus: for food, for drinks, and for the daily oyster selection, which is shipped from sources on both coasts. I have been told that the time between capture and plating can be as short as a few days.
That night, the stripped-down fare featured six selections from destinations as far-flung as Maine and British Columbia. Based on menu descriptions and information provided by our server, I ordered half a dozen oysters, three Bad Boys ($3.50 each), and three of the Florida-caught Little Honeys ($3.50 each). They have been described as having “clean salinity” and “salinity with a soft finish” respectively. And for the record, you can mix and match whatever is served as long as you order at least half a dozen. I marked my small oyster menu with our selections and asked for crackers, cocktail sauce and hot sauce on the side. I also ordered a beer.
The rest of the menu is divided into categories of small cold dishes, small hot dishes, starters, sandwiches and soups/salads. One of the highlights is the Seafood Tower, featuring oysters, chilled shrimp, lobster tail, Little Neck clams, and smoked fish dip. They also offer a starter with Hackleback eggs and Ossetra caviar. These two dishes are served at market prices.
The hot plates include fried oysters, Rockefeller oysters, Spanish octopus, mussels, and one item I chose as the main course: lobster mac and cheese ($20). I also ordered a bowl of lobster bisque ($9). Spouse ordered the fish and chips ($18) from the appetizer section. Other options were fisherman’s stew, steak frites, and the only other item I seriously considered, shrimp and grits. A few salad options, a po’ boy sandwich and the Pearl Burger complete the main menu.
Our food actually started showing up pretty quickly – not a surprise I guess when it comes to raw oysters. My frozen plate included the six oysters, a few forks and the aforementioned sides. Both varieties were surprisingly fresh and equally distinct in flavor, size and consistency. However, both types were much smaller than I expected – barely half the size of the raw oysters I’ve typically served in the past. Not sure if this is the case with all varieties of oysters from The Brass Pearl or if it was just particular to the types I ordered.
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The rest of our order came out shortly after polishing the oysters, which I tried in a variety of configurations from as-is to enhanced by various cracker and sauce combinations. The mac and cheese seemed at first glance to be a substantial portion, as did the photo-worthy bowl of lobster bisque and its decorative creme fraiche design. Both dishes were well prepared – the mac, for example, boasting a thick blend of Tillamook cheddar and smoked Gouda cheeses. The presence of the butter poached lobster, both in flavor and presence of actual meat, could have been more substantial for that price. But I can’t get around the fact that this bowl – of which I only managed to finish half – was full of cheesy goodness.
The bisque could also have embodied more lobster flavor, but its thick consistency, sourdough croutons and pure table appeal made it a pleasant accompaniment. Also, nothing but congratulations on my sampling of the fish and chips. The breading was crispy, the fish vibrant in flavor without excessive fat. The fries were strong contenders all the way.
Our server offered us a choice of key lime pie and creme brulee cheesecake for dessert at first but came back to tell us they were out of the pie. Spouse and I shared a slice of cheesecake ($7). It was pretty good but not as dreamy as our benchmark for this particular item, the one served at Lakeside Tavern.
Our tab, before tip, was $81, so some may consider The Brass Pearl a bit pricey for everyday dining. But they offer the rare raw bar experience in Knoxville, and everything we tasted was well executed. Plus, seafood is an expensive proposition almost anywhere you go, and knowing there’s another spot in town that serves raw oysters might be enough to knock even the most frugal diners out of their shells.
The brass bead
A service: 4.25
Address: 24 Market Square
Full bar service
Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday