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Out to Lunch: Connie’s Naturally Gourmet almost like covered-dish meal

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By Bethel Poston

Some time ago one of my Oak Ridge High School classmates mentioned eating at Connie’s Naturally Gourmet Café in Oak Ridge.

Without doing any research, my wife, Carol, and I decided to eat there on a Monday.

Connie’s is closed on Mondays. That’s the day owner Connie Valedon does startup food preparation for the week. Menu items are prepared fresh daily.

I suggested that we invite longtime Kingston friends, Sue and Cliff Nunley, to go with us for our next “Out to Lunch” adventure — on a Wednesday.

Although Sue and Carol regularly play bridge together with a couple of ladies groups, Cliff and I are only asked to join the ladies for their annual Christmas bridge dinner. This requires our “bridge-playing re-education” once a year.

When we picked up the Nunleys, Sue asked if I remembered the time I drove the four of us to see “Valley of the Dolls” and it started snowing on the way home.

I had forgotten, but I later went on the Internet and found that the movie, starring Susan Hayward and Patty Duke, came out in 1967. Forty-three years qualifies us as long-time friends.

Doing some computer research at conniesgourmet.com, I found out that Connie’s features daily specials. Reviewing the menu, I knew immediately that Carol would order the Wednesday special, chicken and dumplings.

It’s described as the ultimate comfort food, homemade with care using market-fresh carrots, celery, onions, savory fresh herbs, chicken broth, cream, plenty of tender chicken breast meat, flour, flat dumplings, sage shortening and buttermilk.

I passed on having a taste, but I did sample the crispy bread served for dunking. It was a spicy cornbread flavored with whole-kernel corn and green peppers.

Amy Nikitas directed us to a table and explained that we serve ourselves from a semi-cafeteria arrangement. Sandwiches, salads, cole slaw, fruit and other items were displayed in large glass-front coolers; soups were in heated self-serve containers; there were tempting displays of desserts; and tea, coffee and beverages.

Cliff and I checked out the sandwiches and both selected roast beef and Cheddar cheese on ciabatta bread with sun-dried tomato spread and lettuce.

I also had a bowl of “Caldo Gallego” (Spanish stew), described as the favorite soup of Connie’s husband from his hometown in Puerto Rico.

Her husband, Dr. José Valedon, is a neurologist with Cumberland Neurology Group in Oak Ridge.

The tasty broth-based soup is made with white beans, potatoes, shredded turnip greens, ham and smoky chorizo. Connie said it one of the most-requested items.

Sue yielded to Amy’s description of tomato basil soup and a grilled-cheese sandwich. The online menu describes it as “the very best San Marzano tomatoes, rich cream, lots of fresh basil, a splash of red wine and a good dose of Parmesan cheese [and] served with an ooey gooey grilled-cheese sandwich.”

Sue chose smoked Gouda cheese for her sandwich. Other choices available are Muenster and Havarti.

The four of us cleaned our plates and ordered a slice of apricot and almond cake with four forks. We devoured it.

Cliff is well known in Kingston as a master bread baker. He occasionally teaches this talent in classes at Kingston United Methodist Church.

Connie’s is at 1143 Oak Ridge Turnpike, behind Home Federal Bank, at the east end of a strip mall anchored by Food City on the west end.

Originally opening on Dec. 1, 2008, as a gourmet food store, Connie’s later began serving food. There is seating available for 30 customers inside, with additional seating available out front at umbrella tables, weather permitting.

The café is open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Connie does most of her extensive catering business when the café is closed.

“My wife, Pam, and I eat here every week, usually on Thursday because the daily special is Artisan Quiche,” said Barry Stanner.

The menu describes the quiche as an “indulgent, buttery brunch fare with caramelized onions, Irish white Dubliner cheese, fresh herbs and maple bacon or artichoke [and] served with fresh seasonal fruits.”

Barry is manager of FLIR/ICX Radiation, a provider of nuclear detection and measurement systems. Pam is a dental hygienist at the office of Dr. Jeff Phillips.

They had the chicken-and-dumpling special the day of our visit.

Friday is Chef’s Choice. Soups are prepared fresh, and the selection varies. You may be offered king crab bisque, creamy white Cheddar broccoli, white chicken grill, vegetarian lentil and cheesy corn chowder.

Other meals may be available. They may include an open-faced roast beef sandwich with potatoes, chicken pot pie and homemade goulash with an exotic twist.

Connie said another crowd favorite is her curried chicken salad, which the menu describes as “chunks of cooked-to-perfection chicken breast meat, celery seed, grapes, carrots, pecans, shallots and secret spices.”

The strawberry poppy-seed salad also sounds interesting. Strawberries, pineapple, pecans and poppy-seed dressing cover a bed of lettuce that’s topped with a dollop of chicken salad.

Other salads available are tuna, egg, cucumber, pasta, and smashed potato salad (which also looks interesting).

Susan Dravecky and Connie Roehl are dental hygienists in the office of Dr. William McAllister.

“We eat here once or twice a week because of the natural ingredients used to prepare the very tasty food,” Susan said.

I didn’t notice if they had the gluten-free crackers with their chicken and dumplings.

Many gluten-free dishes are available.

Baked-on-site cakes will make you wish you had not eaten so much. Selections available vary, with cake choices of lemon with blueberries and Italian butter cream; triple chocolate with Italian butter cream; extreme coconut; vanilla with strawberry and Italian butter cream; and carrot.

Pie choices are cherry, chess, berry, apple, fudge, cheese, pumpkin and pecan. I also spied a tiramisu dessert in the display cooler.

Francis Silver, a retired teacher and caterer, is another regular customer.

She was having lunch with Kas Gomathinayagam on her first visit to Connie’s.

They both had the tomato basil soup with a grilled cheese sandwich.

“I also like the artichoke quiche and the carrot cake for dessert,” Francis said.

Going “Out to Lunch” at Connie’s is similar to a covered-dish meal at church. You serve yourself from a selection of delicious food. When you are ready for dessert or more tea, you get it yourself.

Most of my “Out to Lunch” adventures are as much about people we meet as the food we eat.

Connie told us she met her husband while they were students at Vanderbilt University.

Cliff is a Vanderbilt graduate, and I spent my freshman year there before transferring to UT.

Connie and José’s son will soon be going to Vanderbilt on a football scholarship.

I should warn him the food at the Commodore Cafeteria won’t be as good as his mama’s cooking.

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Bethel Poston is a Roane County businessman and entrepreneur who writes about places of interest in our area. E-mail suggestions and comments to postonplace@bellsouth.net.