published Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Scents and tastes at Milk & Honey lift customer into promised land

Milk & Honey’s pork belly ramen is mixed with a selection of vegetables and homemade sauce.
Milk & Honey’s pork belly ramen is mixed with a selection of vegetables and homemade sauce.
Photo by Ellis Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

Where: Milk & Honey, 135 N. Market St.

Phone: 423-521-3123

Website: www.milkandhoneygelato.com

Hours: 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Price range: $1 (mini cupcake)-$8 (weekly Noon'er special)

Like the biblical promised land, new Chattanooga cafe Milk & Honey beckons passers-by with a rich wafting scent that hints at the pleasures and treasures contained inside.

Proprietor Taylor Monen launched the concept store a few weeks ago a few doors down from Taco Mamacita on Chattanooga's North Shore. Monen's evolving menu brings a ton of tantalizing treats to Chattanooga that will surprise you with their variety and evoke memories of a simpler time.

A rotating menu of "Noon'ers" -- special main courses that are changed every week and cost about $8 -- will keep you coming back for the next surprise, even as you work your way through an array of coffees, teas and sweets.

THE MENU

Would you go out to a restaurant for ramen? At Milk & Honey, I tried a generous helping of pork belly ramen, which was mixed with a selection of vegetables and a homemade sauce.

Having partially subsisted on ramen during my college years, I consider myself a connoisseur. To be honest, I was skeptical about paying $8 for something with the word "ramen" in the title, but when I put the spoon to my lips it blew my mind.

Not literally -- I'm going to be OK -- but I was unable to fully process what I was eating until halfway through the bowl.

This meal elevated the traditionally thin, runny noodles to the next level of fun, experimental cuisine. The tragedy is, there's no telling when it will return, as it has rotated off the menu.

Another winner was the Banh Mi Sandwich ($8), a sizable Cuban/Vietnamese fusion delicacy that seemed to evaporate from my plate. A mixture of a selection of fresh greens and exotic vegetables with some homemade bologna and roasted pork, it struck a great balance between the familiar and the foreign.

The Elvis ($4) was tasty, and the peanut butter and honey is a delicious combination that must be tried to be believed. However, the bananas were a little too mushy, according to my dining companion.

The gelato -- a type of ultra-dense Italian ice cream -- is the real star of the show.

Your mouth will begin to water the moment you spot the tubs of creamy ice cream, which give off the deceptive appearance of being about to melt and in need of immediate slurping.

You'll receive a scoop ($4) in a yogurt-sized container, which won't be enough once you get the taste in your mouth.

It's worth noting that with the popularity of all things European among the American middle class, it's easy to find ice creams that claim to be gelato but aren't. This, however, is real gelato, made using real gelato machines imported from Italy.

In the mood for something to drink? Try some hot tea ($2.50), some fresh-squeezed fruit juice ($5) or a Milk & Honey latte ($3.75). Just about every type of fresh coffee ($2-$6) can be had here as well, including weekly and daily specials.

An early riser? Try building your own breakfast ($6) or grabbing something to go with the restaurant's carhop service between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m.

THE SERVICE

The service is friendly and prompt. Special requests are met with a smile and a can-do attitude. Questions are answered.

Like watching a dolphin jumping for a fish at Sea World from the trainer's outstretched hand, you'll cheer the efficient friendly service at Milk & Honey.

Sure, the servers haven't tried all the food -- a must do for any restaurant worker who interacts with customers -- but at least they're honest.

The actual ordering takes place at the front counter, where staff members will ask for your name. At many restaurants, this can be a trick where the punch line includes them mispronouncing your name over a distorted public address system or loudspeaker.

Here, a nice person will bring the food to your seat, using your name to ensure he or she isn't giving away someone else's meal.

THE SPACE

Decorated like a 1950s soda shop, the bright, airy restaurant features indoor and outdoor seating, bar seating and booths for as many as 30 people if there's a crowd.

Retro styling cues call back to simpler times when one would grab a drink at the local soda fountain rather than at the nearest bullet-sponge of a gas station.

It's the kind of place Elvis or Frank Sinatra might have frequented during their misspent youth, buying a fresh ice cream float ($4-$6) for the pretty girl across the tracks after calling in sick to school.

THE VERDICT

Sure, you'll spend a little bit more than you're accustomed to. I know, $8 is a lot for a lunch with no side dish.

Some of the dishes are experimental -- you'll appreciate what they're trying to do or you won't.

But as an occasional treat, a place to chat, a break from the monotony of the office, it's perfect. The variety of items will keep you coming back for more.

On a recent weekday, the different types of frozen treats alone tempted a constant stream of customers into walking through the door to see what the fuss was about.

If you're blessed with a clear, breezy afternoon, and you grab a seat at the outdoor bar so the sun warms your back, you'll take a deep breath and wonder for a brief second what would happen if you didn't return to work, if you played hooky and stayed downtown for the rest of the day.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.

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