Tennessee Travelogue #5: The Best of the Noog
Best way to spend your time in Chattanooga if you only have a single afternoon in the city: The Chattanooga Aquarium is a must visit. It combines elements of an aquarium, zoo, riverboat tour, botanical gardens and art exhibit. It's worth it just to see the adorable pig-nosed turtle.
Guilty pleasure: I didn't expect to care about Rock City. It's a series of outside gardens and caverns -- pretty, but nothing special. But the original owners of Rock City augmented their gardens with touches that you will either love or loathe.
Some may think it's ridiculous to design a "fairy tale cavern" with dioramas depicting stories from the brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, or to have someone dressed as a gnome frolicking in the gardens.
But, honestly, I loved it. If you have a kid who is younger than 12 (or are someone with the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old, like myself), I suspect you will love it.
Biggest surprise: The art scene in Chattanooga is incredible. The creativity literally spills into the street with sidewalk sculptures. Glasswork, paintings, blacksmithing -- the talent runs the gamut; and, if you care about the visual arts, you will find something you love in Chattanooga.
Best entree: I could say almost anything from Sugar's Ribs. (They had some of the best barbecue I've had in my life, and I come from a family in which barbecue is a spiritual experience.)
But they were slightly topped by the crabmeat-stuffed filet mignon at Back Inn Cafe. Often, restaurants use luxery items like truffles, caviar and, to a lesser extent crabmeat, to disguise average offerings. But the crabmeat complimented, instead of competed with, the filet.
Best appetizer: Avgolemono from Niko's. I initially ordered the soup because I was intrigued by the words "lemon egg emulsion." But I loved it after a single spoonful. It's a complicated soup with a hint of sweetness, the bite of lemon and the substance of the egg.
I had never had Avgolemono before seeing it on Niko's menu. Now, I will order it whenever I see it in the menu, if only so I can say, "This isn't as good as the one they serve at Niko's in Chattanooga."
(Niko's broiled feta also deserves an honorable mention.)
Best dessert: Let me tell you how good the banana pudding at Sugar's Ribs is. I ate it for the first time Saturday evening. I had already eaten portions of barbecue lamb, chicken, sausage, pork rib, brisket and a side of cole slaw. But the pudding was so good that I not only made room for dessert, I requested another cup, afterward.
On Sunday, I had an hour to kill before I needed to check-in at the airport. I went to Sugar's and only ordered one thing.
Prettiest view: There are a lot of peaks on Lookout Mountain from which you can see the city and also a fleet of boats that can take you down the picturesque Tennessee River. But the best view in Chattanooga is actually 1,100 feet underground.
Ruby's Falls is an 140-foot waterfall ensconced in Lookout Mountain. You'll like it... or you're dead inside.
For the adventurous: I have sunburns on my forearms and knees from rafting the whitewater of the Ocoee River. It hurts whenever anybody touches them, and I suspect my skin will be peeling like a snake's in the next few days.
Doesn't matter. Rafting the Ocoee was a blast and I regret nothing. Class-four rapids, fun tour guides from Cherokee rafting -- I can see why the Olympics chose the Ocoee for their whitewater rafting competition in 1996.
-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com