Restaurant Report: Sapphire: A Modern Bar and Restaurant

428 S. Gay St, 637-8181

The question that leaps to mind may very well be, why? Why eat at a place that, heretofore, was so indelibly named a "modern bar." Anything aside from gin-soaked olives and whiskey-ridden cherries may, on first glance, seem superfluous to this stylish cocktail mecca. And yet, since its birth nearly nine years ago, Sapphire has almost always offered substantial nibbles and hearty fare—at first in the form of sushi and, over time, several kinds of offerings, including comfort cuisine of the smoked and sauced variety. But now, after a long food absence during a kitchen remodel, food service is back, and owner Aaron Thompson and head chef Caleb Hawkins are determined that the Modern Bar will also be a modern dining room.

In a way, Thompson is the human incarnation of Sapphire—he's been there all along like an affable Jack Torrance, first as a bartender and finally as proprietor—so his ambitions are deeply rooted in the history of the place. With that in mind, he's careful to assert, "We're not trying not to be the lounge that we are," and he's not relaxing in his quest to remain the source of "the best cocktails in Knoxville." But as an almost inevitable result of his history with Sapphire, seasoned by a lot of travel and good food, his ambition is to serve food that's both stylish and delicious.

Thompson, Hawkins, and company are off to a promising start. The menu is creative, seasonal, and fairly priced, and Sapphire is decidedly on the side of sustainable food service. Breads and desserts are made in-house daily by Nichole Meserve, who executes her charge with skill and creativity (her brioche alone is worth a visit). Desserts change up weekly, but it's worth hoping that your visit coincides with the appearance of Banana Pudding Cheesecake or Sweet Potato Beignet with Peach Butter.

There's no hiding the spatial challenges that Sapphire faces—it's a large and open place that's great for the cocktail crowd, but diners may miss a feel of intimacy at table. However, the best way to compensate for that feeling (if you experience it at all) is to choose engaging dining companions and focus on what's really important—your plate and the good stuff on it.

Kitchen opens Monday-Friday at 5 p.m., Sunday noon-midnight. Bar opens at 4 p.m. daily.

Must Haves

Appalachian Carpaccio: The menu's description of the dish hardly does justice to its appeal to both eye and palate. It's not a true carpaccio, but these days few things labeled "carpaccio" are actually raw beef. Here, Thompson sought out a version of country ham's delicate cousin, prosciutto, that's remarkable for its mild salinity; the nearly melt-in-your mouth and razor-thin slices of cured pork rest under an attractively sculptured round of cheese grits. Despite the near epidemic of fancy grits on menus around town, Sapphire's version is nice. It's richly flavored with rosemary, shallot, and white cheddar and marries deliciously with the cured pork as well as the artfully drizzled balsamic vinaigrette and smoked paprika oil.

Sapphire Cheeseburger: The all-American favorite is subject to more tinkering than almost any recipe in the canon, but Sapphire strikes a beautiful note with its addition of a goat-cheese spread that blends really well with grass-fed beef. Crisp house-made sweet-and-sour pickles join the ensemble along with a real winner of a bun: a homemade brioche that, by rights, ought to rest in a cloth-lined basket next to a lot of soft European butter. It's a firm and nicely chewy frame intended especially to handle a burger that's well put together and juicy.

Grilled Barramundi: Barramundi is a relatively new fish to American diners; it's a generally eco-friendly member of the sea bass family that's wild-caught in Australia. The white-fleshed fish is substantial, but not fishy or oily. In fact, it's substantial enough that in Sapphire's presentation it's paired with Yukon mashed potatoes. The plate also showcases Sapphire's skill with aesthetics and complex flavors: An orange fennel slaw and blood-orange vinaigrette are not only easy on the eye but also bring a refreshingly crisp texture and brightness to the dish.