It's been just about nine months since Knox Mason came into being amid a flurry of gourmet hopes and haute cuisine expectations. There was some rejoicing for the food, a fair bit of grousing about the reservations policy (they only take them for parties of six or more), and any number of natal pangs. Now that the birth storm has abated and the skies have cleared, it's nice to know that chef Matt Gallaher and sous chef Sean Richards knew what they were doing all along and that they've stuck to their flight plan.
"When we opened, a lot of people wanted us to be a fine dining, bread service kind of place. We're not fine dining: We don't really have a label, and some people didn't understand it," Gallaher says. "People who come here now understand what we do. They get it, when perhaps they didn't in January."
The chef talks about his work with a simple, straightforward passion and disavows any grandiloquent discussion of culinary mission or taste-making. "We want the experience to be gratifying, and we want to serve creative food, good food. But mostly we're just being good stewards of what we get."
The food remains an elegant take on low-brow cuisine. Pork Rinds and Pimento Cheese are popular signature snacks that speak to the Southern roots and intentions of Gallaher and crew—the food is basic, essential, and fresh. Gallaher is a local boy who grew up planting gardens and helping his mother cook and preserve their harvest. You can see (and eat) that experience on almost every plate in terms of the food's freshness and the chef's edible recollections of home-cooked, country suppers.
Gallaher and Richards get up early twice a week to drag a cart to the farmer's market, but Gallaher says that they shop with as little prejudice as possible so "we can respond to what's available. Sean and I speak the same language so our creative process is mostly us talking to each other. We see what we've got and then create a dish."
Both food and atmosphere at Knox Mason are convivial reminders of the best elements of Knoxville. Sometimes it's hard to tell where one table ends and another begins as the restaurant's guests mingle and chat. Gallaher is proud of the fact that "our guests get to know each other." In some ways, that neighborly ease is the best testament to the success of Gallaher's vision.
Pork Belly: There may come a time when this uncured sister of bacon is no longer a culinary darling—that will be a sad day. Until then, it's worth trying whatever crispy preparation that Knox Mason has on offer. Right now it's available in a salad with autumn greens, butternut squash, and a variation on moustarda made with white peaches. It's a feast of texture and flavor—the first crispy bite of pork yields to a wanton and unctuous interior of fat and flesh that's a natural with the silky bites of squash. The greens and dressing of fruit and mustard bring a bite with flashes of welcome sharpness. As you savor each mouthful, you may start to realize that this is almost every great pork dish of the Old South on a single plate.
Seared Sunburst Trout: Gallaher opines that this is a perfect representation of what Knox Mason is about—and it seems like an accurate and delicious manifesto. It's a delicate and unfussy dish that shines with the pride of Mother Earth. Farro risotto adds a hearty, earthy element to the plate while butternut squash brings a subtle sweetness and richness that plays nicely against the lightness of the fish. But the fascinating player here is the smoked Cruze Farm Crème Fraiche, which, when mingled with the trout, takes the dish out of the country and squarely into 131 S. Gay St. as it summons memories of lox, cream cheese, and the space's kosher past.