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Out to Lunch by Bethel Poston: Plaid Apron off beaten path with offbeat entrées

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Readers know my wife, Carol, and I sometimes like to find “off-the-main-road” places to visit for our lunch adventures.

The Plaid Apron Café, in the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood of Knoxville, certainly qualifies. Locals will remember the location as the former Blackbird Café.

We lived in Knoxville when I attended University of Tennessee and recently worked in Knoxville for 10 years. I never knew there were commercial businesses in Sequoyah Hills.

From Roane County, we headed east on Interstate 40, took the Alcoa Hwy. exit then got off at the first exit onto Kingston Pike. Going west one mile on Kingston Pike, we took a left on Cherokee Boulevard, traveled a half mile, turned right on Kenesaw Avenue and drove another half mile. The Plaid Apron is on the left across from Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church.

Sequoyah Hills is an affluent neighborhood initially developed in the 1920s. As you curve down Cherokee Boulevard, the first thing you notice is massive, mansion-like homes.

Cherokee Boulevard was home to Knoxville’s first Dogwood Arts Trail, which was established in 1955.

The Plaid Apron is a trendy café offering breakfast and lunch, using fresh and local ingredients. Available items are written on large blackboards on the wall behind the counter and on a limited menu.

Orders are placed at the main counter; you pick them up when they have been prepared. A friendly server in a plaid apron comes by to refill drinks and make sure you have everything you need.

On this outing, we had taken our friend, Mary Lee Page, for a doctor’s visit near Parkwest Medical Center.

I met Paul Page, her late husband, the day he came to Kingston as publisher and editor of the Roane County News in 1959. The Pages and Postons have enjoyed many social and civic events together since then.

Mary Lee selected a grilled cheese sandwich, described on the menu as being made with “goat cheese, buttermilk cheddar cheese, arugula, roasted pears and pickled onions served on sourdough bread.”

She passed on the onions and chose sliced bananas as her side dish. The roasted pear slices were served as part of the sandwich.

Carol chose the pasta of the day, “made-on-site whole wheat pasta noodles, with mustard greens, roasted leeks in a Meyer lemon crème,” according to the menu.

I went for the steak sandwich, which the menu says is “black pepper apples (in the sandwich), arugula, bleu cheese and horseradish mayo served on a ciabatta bun.”

I chose red cabbage slaw as my side dish, which had a German spicy flavor.

Gundermann Acres’ website, at gundermannacres.com, says arugula is “a spicy little leaf, which some describe as bitter and others characterize as having a ‘peppery-mustardy’ flavor.”

It looked like chopped lettuce to me, but it did give my sandwich a spicy flavor.

Deanne Lucas, a pathology/speech therapist with an office on Mabry Hood Road in Knoxville was seated at a window table.

“I love it,” said the regular café customer. “It’s my favorite place.”

On the day of our visit, she had the winter stew, described on the menu as “roasted butternut squash, collards, heirloom beans, and Parmesan cheese, served with homemade bread.”

“Their Anson Mills Grits are also amazing,” Deanne added.

Bethany Hallam lives in South Knoxville on a small farm on Martin Mill Pike. A self-described “children’s chauffeur,” she sat with Deanne for her first visit.

“I’ve heard The Plaid Apron is known for their grilled cheese sandwich,” Bethany said, “so that’s what I ordered, along with a side of purple slaw.”

Todd Richesin owns Todd Richesin Interiors on Old Kingston Pike in view of Western Plaza.

He had the steak sandwich with a side of slaw. I decided I wanted to order the same after seeing his sandwich. I was also impressed with the Mason jar for iced tea on his table.

He recommended the burger, which the menu says is “fresh ground beef, roasted squash, apple mustard, house pickled vegetable and local lettuce, all served together on a wheat bun” with a choice of a side.

“The bacon and apple pizza is also great,” he said.

That entrée, according to the menu, is “bacon, apples, red onions, mozzarella cheese, and cider gastrique on whole wheat dough crust.”

“Gastrique is a caramelized sugar, deglazed with vinegar, used as a flavoring for sauces,” compliments of Wikipedia.

The menu also mentions a chicken, apple, and sausage pizza with mustard sauce, fennel and Brussel sprouts.

From www.theplaidaproncafe.com comes the history of caféL “After getting married in 2008, Drew and Bonni McDonald knew they wanted to do something together.

“In 2009, they spent time in New Zealand traveling around and working. During this time, Drew had the opportunity to work with some of New Zealand’ best chefs.

“After New Zealand, they moved to Nashville, where Drew was sous chef at the Capitol Grill in the Hermitage Hotel. They enjoyed Nashville, but knew if ever given the opportunity to do something in Knoxville, they would take it.”

They opened The Plaid Apron Café on May 23, 2011.

The website adds that Drew earned a bachelor’s degree in food management and business from Nashville’s Lipscomb University. He later graduated from culinary school at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., and worked at Blackberry Farm in Walland.

Lauren Heile is a UT student majoring in interior design. She lives within walking distance of the café.

“I eat here at least two or three times a week, mostly for breakfast,” she said.

For lunch during our visit, she had the popular cheese sandwich with a serving of tomato bisque soup.

On the printed menu, you’ll find “chicken n’ dumplings — chicken thighs, buttermilk dumplings, winter vegetables with allepo and thyme gastrique.”

There’s also a market salad that changes with the season. The menu says it’s “mixed local greens, market veggies and a choice of house vinaigrette.”

“We prepare different dishes daily and feature them on the blackboard,” Drew said.

The Plaid Apron Café is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays. Saturday brunch hours are from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Griddle cakes, French toast and omelets are popular brunch fare.

Drew said he had 40 reservations for the café’s recent special Valentine’s dinner.

“It’s the best place in the whole world for lunch,” said Anna Xiques, a UT law student from Oak Ridge who lives nearby. “I come here several times a week for coffee and to study.” She had been deeply concentrating on her laptop when I approached her table.

I ordered a scone for dessert, because I don’t remember ever having one. Wikipedia describes a scone as “a small Scottish quick bread” sometimes baked “with raisins, currants, cheese or dates.”

I shared the scone with Mary Lee, but couldn’t tell you what was in it. It was tasty, though.

Carol chose a snickerdoodle, a sugar and cinnamon cookie. None were left by the time she ordered, but Drew made a fresh batch.

We passed on cinnamon buns. As with other items, desserts vary daily.

This “Out to Lunch” was a unique adventure, definitely off the main road. The slower pace and the absence of major traffic around us was enjoyable. The food choices, although limited, are not what you would find in most restaurants.

“I’ve never had pears on a sandwich before,” Mary Lee said. I didn’t know about the apples on my sandwich until I studied the menu while writing this article. We enjoyed our food.
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Bethel Poston is a Roane County businessman and entrepreneur who writes about places of interest in our area. Email suggestions and comments to postonplace@bellsouth.net.