Too Trendy Tapas at Cha Cha's

To be frank, one of the reasons I left my former city of habitation was that it had completely been overtaken by trendoids. They crept in slowly, at first. One or two black-clad, cell-phone chatters turned up at a favorite 24-hour cheap-ass but good diner. A brand-spankin' new martini and cigar bar opened up, followed by three more in the span of six months. Bleu cheese was replaced by goat cheese on area menus. And, suddenly, a local hole-in-the-wall (called, appropriately, The Hole in the Wall) was full of freshly-scrubbed, expertly-coiffed, Nylon-clothed trend-followers, slumming it for the night because they heard that this was where you could have an "authentic" experience. The end—mine, at least—was near.

And so, a move to Knoxville, a place that is, for the most part, refreshingly free of folks who want to pretend that they live in a much larger city, of those who are hip simply for hipness' sake in order to feel part of an advertising-driven world view. While this arrangement has its share of frustrations—it'd be nice to be able to buy hormone-free meats in the same place that I also purchase Frosted Flakes—it has been, for the most part, positive.

But change lurks. Change, admittedly, is one of the things that makes cities so interesting, regardless of their size. This change, though, has become pervasive and scary and slightly bewildering. Knoxville has jumped onto the trend bandwagon, feet first and with lusty abandon, as if promoting style over substance has simply been waiting for the right opportunity to break free.

Maybe it's just me. Perhaps I'm just too old, too scarred from past experiences and too exhausted to keep up with what's hot in L.A. And, frankly, I don't give a rat's rear what hot cosmetic procedure or spa treatment my favorite celebrity is currently receiving. I really just want something good for dinner.

Here's the rub—Bearden's Cha Cha has incredible food that is full of substance yet is, quite possibly, served in the most trendy restaurant in town. The interior design is calculatedly funky; the exterior features neon and flaming torches. The waitstaff could have strolled fresh from the pages of Abercrombe and Fitch. And the main focus of the offerings—tapas—is a de mode food trend that has finally made it to East Tennessee.

Tapas, essentially, are smallish dishes of full-flavored creations that Spanish bars offer to patrons in the mid-afternoon and are meant to be consumed with wine or dry sherry and conversation. The reasons for this mini-meal, which can be more elaborate should you choose, are based both on the Spanish custom of having dinner rather late by American standards, say eight or nine at night, and by the Spanish climate.

It is rumored that tapas were invented by a frustrated wine drinker who topped his glass with a small plate in order to keep flies out of his wine. An entrepreneurial bar owner then took the concept to the next level, as it were, added another profit center (i.e., food) and a new way of eating was born.

Kenny Siao, proprietor of the ever-popular Stir Fry Cafe, Mango, and Bleu Hound Grill, can be credited with bringing tapas to Knoxville. Cha Cha is his baby, and his upscale-with-a-wild-twist ethos shows. Cha Cha's wine list is impressive and inspired. More inspiring, however, are the tapas he and chefs Cardiff Creasey and David Breeden have concocted.

Traditional Spanish offerings like marinated olives ($4) and a flavorful tortilla de patata ($4.50), a potato and egg strata that is expertly browned on both sides and cut into sizable wedges, nestle next to tapas that show Siao's flare. Like the duck confit with cellophane noodles ($7), which pairs creamy, sweet shreds of duck with light, fresh, green-tasting noodles. Or the apple and manchego salad ($5), with its chunks of tart granny smith and rich cheese topped with a fruity, peppery dressing. Or the grilled lemon basil chicken ($5), which tastes like the beautiful offspring of a mad Asian chef set loose in a classic French kitchen. More American fare, such as crabcakes with a spicy remoulade ($6.50) or tender grilled steak with oyster mushrooms ($5.50) leave tasty wiggle room for eaters who may not be quite so adventurous.

Three tapas make for a fine meal for the average eater and leave some space for dessert, like the light and rich vanilla flan or the devilish chocolate concoction with ice cream (both $5). Cha Cha also offers both full lunch and dinner menus, which look simply mouth-watering even after stuffing oneself full of little dishes. I'm going to have to make a trip back to try the paella for two, that classic Spanish rice and seafood creation that Cha Cha offers both in veggie ($24) and meat-lovers ($29) versions.

I won't, however, be going back for these good eats on a weekend night. We spent more time finding parking in Homberg Center than we ever have looking for a space downtown, which makes one ponder how long it will be before valet comes to West Knoxville. Our wait for a table on a Saturday topped an hour (would a reservations system be that difficult to implement?), most of which was spent standing in the jammed bar observing our fellow diners and realizing that our aspirations aren't trendy enough to fit Cha Cha's self-consciously image-conscious atmosphere. And while I fully enjoyed the tapas and intended to make repeat visits for this food with a flare, I can't help but wonder if Cha Cha is simply a harbinger of the trendoids to come.

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