Repeat Visit Sets a Record
Too much to digest in one sitting
by Gay Lyons
As a rule, I don’t join the lemming-like rush to the newest restaurant in town. I prefer to wait until the crowd shrinks and the staff works out the kinks. In visiting the newly-opened Peerless twice last week, I broke that rule. At a dinner meeting where 75 of us were served salad, grilled chicken, steamed vegetables, rice pilaf, rolls and coconut cake, the quality of the food was so far beyond standard banquet fare that I scheduled a quick return visit to Peerless.
The restaurant, formerly a Grady’s, has been completely remodeled. The booths and the small private glass-fronted dining rooms create an intimate feel in a space that can accommodate around 450 guests. With their high backs and sides, the numerous booths allow for private conversations. Each booth has its own mounted light fixture. I appreciate romantic lighting, but it is great to find a restaurant that understands that reading a menu requires some light. The ceiling in the full bar twinkles with embedded fiber-optic lighting, and the main dining room glows with soft discs of light.
We began by ordering two appetizers: stuffed celery with bleu cheese and flaming cheese. Having been constrained during my first visit, I decided this dinner was going to be the full monty. I wanted it all—or as much as two people could realistically taste in one visit without being total gluttons.
There are numerous appetizers, all in the $4-9 range, but the flaming cheese was an easy first choice. Peerless does it right: the large rectangle of rich, creamy Kasseri is flamed tableside in a small iron skillet, squirted with fresh lemon juice and served with toasted bread. It was hard to pass up escargot, crab cakes, rainbow trout dip and other delectable items, but I’d been tipped off about the mundane-sounding stuffed celery.
As an adjective, “stuffed” does not accurately describe these long stalks of celery drenched in creamy chunk-filled bleu cheese sauce. Even with generous sopping, we ran out of celery before we ran out of sauce.
From the wide-ranging menu of salads, soups, sandwiches, seafood, beef, chicken and pork chops, mostly in the $12-20 range, we chose two simple entrees—easy, but also easily ruined by overcooking—prime rib and sautéed scallops and also several sides, along with a Grecian salad. Our servers—unasked—thoughtfully provided an extra plate so we could share the salad.
The Grecian salad was a crisp blend of mixed greens, pitted kalamata olives, tomatoes, peas, anchovies, celery and pepperoncini lightly tossed in vinaigrette made with the restaurant’s homemade vinegar. If you’ve ever had authentic feta, you know the difference between the real thing and pallid supermarket versions. This feta was the real thing.
I wasn’t impressed with the cracker basket that was brought to the table with the appetizers, but the round flat yeast rolls that came later were warm, delicious and lightly dusted with poppy seeds. I liked the flat bread crackers that were served at the first dinner but not at our meal. One of our servers suggested the saltines were palate cleansers, but—call me a heathen—in the absence of sorbet, I’ll probably leave my palate uncleansed.
Both the prime rib and the scallops were cooked to perfection. The medium rare beef was the perfect shade of pink, tender and flavorful. While the it and tangy horseradish sauce were excellent, this meat was enjoyable by itself. The sautéed sherry mushrooms were plump and soft, just the right consistency. The large and juicy scallops, softly sautéed with garlic in wine and butter, were melt-in-the-mouth. The steamed mixed vegetables were also good, but the steakhouse vegetables were even better. The well-seasoned onions were perfectly sautéed with mushrooms and a sprinkling of red pepper strips.
Having previously enjoyed the moist, delicious coconut cake, I concentrated on other choices among the freshly made desserts. We were relatively restrained, choosing the key lime pie with sugar cookie crust instead of the amazing-looking three layer carrot cake, one of the 12 varieties of cheesecake offered that night, or the large, thick triangles of baklava. It was the right choice for that night, tangy and light—after I moved aside the two large dollops of whipped cream. Next time, I’ll cut back to one appetizer and try the carrot cake. And maybe take home some baklava.
There’s a reason the operation and service at Peerless seem smoother than usual for a new restaurant. This “new” restaurant has a heritage that extends almost 70 years. While Peerless is new to Knoxville, it’s an expansion of the Peerless Restaurant that has been owned and operated by the Kalogeros family in Johnson City since 1938.