Last week, I found myself roamin’ to Cleveland. I had heard that the Bald Headed Bistro was an extravagantly unique dining experience with some game meats on the menu, so I decided to see if this bistro was on top of its game.
Bald Headed Bistro
201 Keith St. SW
Cleveland, TN 37311
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
Atmosphere and service
As I walked up to the restaurant, the first thing that hit me was the smell of freshly chopped wood, which was stacked in the outdoor dining area to fuel the fireplaces inside. This was a charming area with lighted trees and a large, extensive bar. It was packed with people on this mild, slightly breezy evening.
The restaurant itself was lined with logs, both on the outside and the inside, giving the place the feel of a classy log cabin. Owner Allan Jones-who is among the wealthiest people in Tennessee-really splurged on setting up this establishment. He salvaged these logs from the Green Knoll forest fire of Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 2000 to help give his restaurant a rural Western atmosphere.
The interior décor is a mix of rustic and elegant-an intimate ambiance with the soft lighting barely above candlelight intensity. There was glass frosted with a snow elk design, animal mounts of native Western wildlife, handcrafted wood and animal hide furniture, crackling fireplaces and prehistoric fossils-yes, you read that correctly, there were several stones containing fossils from the Eocene period inlaid along the floors and walls, piquing my nerdy interest.
A team of servers presented all dishes in choreographed manner, holding each plate high above the table before placing them in front of each diner simultaneously. Multiple servers also made rounds to check on tables, clear empty dishes and refill beverages. My main server was able to answer all of my questions and was friendly and professional.
The menu has a wide range of meat offerings indicative of a high-end steakhouse, including their signature elk, which also has a strong presence in the décor of the restaurant and its logo. The outdoor summer bar area also has lower-priced menu selections and is an affordable hangout apart from the more expensive fine dining inside the restaurant.
Executive chef William “Bick” Johnson also presents a four-course chef’s special on weekdays ($30), which rotates a choice between two dishes for each course (except dessert) each month. So I decided to try that along with the “BHB game platter” ($35) to sample the bistro’s famed game meat selections as well.
The first course I chose for the special was seared duck breast with fig risotto. It was a topped with a sweet orange apricot relish. This was a dreamily creamy risotto with the earthy portobello mushrooms and lightly sweet and crunchy fig in an entrancing jig of flavors. The juicy duck breast and fruity relish added more savory sweetness to this cavorting flavor combo.
For the salad course, I chose the Caesar salad-which is not named after Julius Caesar (as popularly thought) and is actually named for its supposed inventor, Caesar Cardini. Although Cardini’s original Caesar salad did not contain the often-used anchovy, the Bald Headed Bistro’s version does in its flavorful dressing over fresh romaine lettuce.
This salad was topped with parmigiano reggiano cheese and Falls Mill’s polenta croutons. The croutons had a firm exterior to hold up to the dressing without becoming soggy, and the soft, cakelike interior was moist and savory. The cheese added a razor-sharp umami flavor to complement the other components of the salad. My server also freshly ground peppercorns onto the salad at the table.
The table bread was a fresh, soft sourdough, which was served with butter. It was also perfect for mopping up all of the scrumptious sauces used in the dishes I sampled.
The main course I chose with the special was the grouper Françoise. This was a pan-seared grouper filet atop a spinach and artichoke ragout. The grouper was flaky and delicate with a light breading, while the ragout had powerful flavor of garlic and herbs in the spinach, artichoke, onion, sweet pepper and mushroom mixture. It was topped with melted chive butter, which added a creamy element to this fine dish.
And then there was the aforementioned BHB game platter, which was my main target for this visit. This spread of elk tenderloin, jalapeño bacon wrapped Kentucky bison and fried quail breast was a fanciful carnivorous journey that had my cuspids tingling with primal gratification.
Because of the lean nature of elk meat, my server correctly recommended having the tenderloin prepared medium rare, and it was perfectly cooked to that specification. The elk was nicely peppered and covered with a juniper berry cabernet sauce. It was highly tender and bursting with juices, with a gratifying, gamey flavor bucking my palate.
The bison was also highly tender and had a flavor more similar to traditional beef. However, this was not traditional beef by any means and much leaner (about one third the fat content) and was also perfectly cooked medium rare. It had a slight tinge of gamey taste infused with the jalapeño bacon wrapping, providing a spicy pork kick to the beefy bison flavor.
The quail breast was coated in a savory batter and fried to a crispy, golden hue-If you like fried chicken, this fried quail was on a whole other level. The meat was moist, and the batter was crispy and strongly seasoned with herbs and spices. It was topped with a chipotle remoulade, adding a silky, smoky component with a hint of heat.
The mashed potatoes served with the game platter capped off this meat-and-potatoes fantasy with a dreamy blend of creamy and chunky potatoes mashed to just the right thickness. It was also seasoned to perfection with garlic, butter and pork, making it a powerful, palate-punching potato side.
The dessert course for the special was the strawberry shortcake. The shortcake had blueberries baked into its interior and was served with fresh strawberries, vanilla bean ice cream, whipped cream and a garnishment of mint. This shortcake absorbed the bean-speckled ice cream and strawberry into its spongy body for a decadent flavor and consistency in this velvety sweet masterpiece.
I am giving Bald Headed Bistro 4 stars. Everything about the experience-from the organized, friendly service, to the opulent yet comfortable atmosphere, to the delectable dishes masterfully constructed by a top-tier chef-makes this restaurant well-worth the drive from Chattanooga. And if you live in Cleveland, well, all the better for you. This restaurant is truly a gem gleaming in the heart of Cleveland’s budding future.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.