Opening a restaurant wasn't the result of a burning passion that kept Holly Hambright awake at night. Like her successful catering career, it was a mix of circumstance and practicality. "I never intended to have my own restaurant. But then I never intended to be a caterer, either," she says. "I had a secret desire to be a lounge singer." But after taking a summertime cooking job, Hambright realized that not only was she comfortable in the kitchen, but "I really liked it."
And it shows. Although the restaurant was happenstance—"Just me taking advantage of quality opportunities as they presented themselves," she says—Hambright brings passion and creativity to the effort as if were a lifelong goal. In fact, there's a weekly dose of creativity because the menu changes with the seasons and the quality of ingredients that are available—no two menus are exactly the same. "We respond to what's fresh, what's current, so it's a weekly game of trying to trap lightening in a bottle," Hambright says.
Still, the menu and concept are hardly chaotic: "After 30 years you learn to trust yourself. You go to what's good." One Monday morning, even as service was about to begin, Hambright changed a sandwich: "We're not using Gruyère on the Good Turkey, change it to Manchego." Why? "We got really good Manchego today."
The insistence on using the best possible ingredients is essential to the deceptively simple menu. The Good Turkey Melt is an open-faced combo of herbed turkey breast, baby bella mushrooms, and Manchego served on sprouted wheat bread. While it looks simple, the combination of flavors and textures produces a delicious and complex array of sensations that give the mouth a wow moment.
Of course, the next time there's a turkey melt on the menu, it might be made with Gruyère. "We sometimes have a problem with recreation, because so much of the menu is of the moment." Still, while that favorite sandwich may never be quite the same, the alternative will always be freshly imagined with the best of whatever good food is fresh. That's a pretty nice trade-off.
This summer offers a fine example of Holly's response to the seasonal, as the restaurant will feature tomato Tuesdays when all the specials will celebrate that fabulous fruit of the summer. It's another expression of the resourcefulness that Holly and her merry band of collaborators bring to the table every day. It's nice to taste that kind of creativity.
Holly's Eventful Dining
5032 Whittaker, Suite 3
(Behind Nama Sushi Bar), 865-300-8071
Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Hazel's Chicken Salad: One of only two constants on the menu, this chicken salad (named after Hambright's mother) is a testament to the glory of simplicity. Because it's made with only three ingredients (chicken, Duke's mayo, and celery) it might seem humdrum on first sight—but it's hardly that. Hambright allows the quality of the ingredients to speak for themselves in a moist and toothsome expression that commands many a fan's return.
Ricky Ricardo: This riff on the Cuban sandwich was just given a permanent spot on the menu, and it's easy to see why. All the elements of a classic Cuban are present: pork, ham, cheese and pickles- but they're tweaked to perfection. Traditional roast pork is here replaced with pork confit—a slow-cooked, melt-in-your-mouth concoction that gives the sandwich a decadent richness. Add to that a swath of chipotle butter, jack cheese, and smoked ham on a well-toasted Milano roll and you will, as Hambright promises, "Babaloo all the way home."
Soup: The soup choices rotate weekly, sometimes daily, based on demand, but the staff excels at translating great produce into ever fresh, unique and not-to-be-missed options. Favorites include Tomato Dill, Creamy Golden Tomato, Pot Likkor, and Artichoke Lemon.