Out to Lunch: Gourmét and Southern goodness meet at Bistro at Bijou

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By Bethel Poston

My wife, Carol, and I both worked on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville while I attended the University of Tennessee in the late 1950s. We always enjoy “stepping back to the past” in this historic area and reviving pleasant memories.

We visited the historic Bijou Theater last year with our longtime Knoxville furniture friends, Mickey and Jerry Pease.  Still laughing after the performance of “Menopause the Musical,” we decided to go back another day to eat at Bistro at the Bijou.

I had promised Carol we were going to just enjoy this Saturday brunch with our friends, without taking notes and visiting with others for an “Out To Lunch” article.

The four of us thoroughly enjoyed our food. I did not think about an article until I was paying our bill. This experience was just too good not to write about it.

I asked our server April Heer, who kept our coffee cups full, if she had a take-out menu. She led me to owner Martha Boggs, who pulled one out of a drawer.

Martha started cooking at Bistro in 1993 and became the owner in 2009. She hails from Ducktown and has been in Knoxville since 1978.

“I go out of my way to make dishes that others don’t — and it’s always stuff I like to eat,” she said.

The Bijou Theater was built in 1909 as an addition to the Lamar House Hotel. The fourth-oldest building in Knoxville was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

The theater opened on March 8, 1909, and over the next four decades would host performers such as the Marx Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, John Philip Sousa, the Ballets Russes, Ethel Barrymore, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane, and John Cullum.

After a period of decline in the 1960s and early 1970s, preservationists purchased the building and renovated the theater.

Brunch at The Bistro is served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and all day Sundays. We arrived at 10:30 with breakfast food on our minds.
Jerry and I both went for country ham with red-eye gravy. Our platters featured a center cut slice of country ham. We asked for an extra side dish of red-eye gravy for our ample supply of biscuits.

Jerry said he was tempted by the red-flannel hash topped with poached eggs and potatoes sautéed with beets, onions, sour cream and cheese.
I ordered my three eggs well scrambled and  Shelton Farm yellow cheese grits. Jerry wanted his eggs over easy with brunch potatoes.

It had been a long time since I had a country ham breakfast. It brought back memories of grandmother’s country ham breakfasts. My grandfather  kept pigs at a remote farm and cured the ham in the smokehouse out back.

Carol had a spinach, mushroom and cheese omelet that looked “super sized” when it was served. Her side option choice was brunch potatoes. She passed on cheese grits, biscuits and toast. I had to keep passing the ketchup to her and Jerry for their potatoes.

I’m sure she missed the Cool Hand Luke item on the menu. It’s a 10-egg omelet – “just tell us what you want in it.”

Although I never thought of it as a breakfast item, Mickey decided on the country-fried steak with cream gravy. Her three eggs were lightly scrambled.

Mickey considered Bennie and the Eggs — poached eggs with bearnaise sauce served over an English muffin with a side choice of cheese grits or brunch potatoes. This is a real treat for many folks, but not for me.

All our brunch presentations came with a cup of diced pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew melon and grapes. I guess that’s a breakfast dessert.

Handwritten on a blackboard was a brunch special of shrimp and grits in tasso gravy.

Several other brunch menu items sounded interesting, such as a sweet potato waffle with Muddy Pond sorghum syrup from the Mennonite settlement near Monterey. Fresh strawberries can be added.

Another menu item is scrambled eggs with Noble Springs fresh chevre (French for goat) cheese, tomatoes and scallions served over biscuits or toast.

I’m not sure about a “brunch burger topped with fried egg” with cheddar cheese and served open-faced on an English muffin. It comes with Applewood smoked bacon and a choice of cheese grits or brunch potatoes.

I think I’d rather go to the sandwich-and-burger menu selections and try the Bistro Burger, described as lightly seasoned 8-ounce patty, cooked to order and served on a kaiser roll. You can add cheese, bacon, mushrooms, avocado or blue cheese crumbles.

Does a big-fat bologna burger with a fried egg and cheese, served with jalapeños, qualify as a lunch item? Or is it a breakfast item?

Martha says as owner, she still is also the chief cook. She is focusing on a “farm-to-table” approach. This means a seasonal menu that revolves around produce from her own garden in Holston Hills. The week of our visit, she had picked some fresh lettuce and Swiss chard.

There’s also a focus on other locally produced food products, like meats from nearby Laurel Creek Farms, plus fingerling Yukon gold potatoes from Martha’s personal plot. These are roasted with chicken fat, oregano and lemon juice.

There are loads of options to pamper health-conscious or vegetarian palates, such as the “criminally delicious” rosemary roast chicken; edamame (green soy beans) hummus; yam fries; a fresh fish “protein for two” lunch; and red beans and rice.

Every day, the Bistro offers different lunch specials which can be found at www.thebistroatthebijou.com, or call 544-0537.

A recent daily lunch special was a grilled pork chop topped with spiced apples and served with scalloped sweet potatoes.

Readers know I am a fan of the Reuben sandwich. I’ve never seen one advertised as open-face until I saw The Bristo’s menu. It’s served on pumpernickel bread with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut.

All sandwiches come with gourmét kettle chips and kosher pickles.

I look forward to using my knife and fork to eat one on my next visit.

I believe even if Carol and I split the grilled tuna salad, due to the size, we couldn’t eat all of it. It’s made with baby lettuce, potatoes, asparagus, Kalamata olives, boiled eggs and tomatoes.

Maybe you’d like the turkey avocado cobb, strawberry or quinoa (what is that?) salads.

All dressings, side dishes, sauerkraut and special seasonings are made on site.

While searching the Internet I discovered many folks recommend pimento cheese fritters  with tomato jam from the starters menu. These are served with housemade bread-and-butter pickles.

Several others spoke highly of sweet potato fries, covered in goat cheese and fried in a balsamic reduction.

In the light lunch section of the menu, the homemade soup and sandwiches sounds interesting. Sandwich choices include tempeh (soy) bacon, turkey, pimento cheese, tuna salad, chicken salad and BLT on whole wheat, pumpernickel or kaiser roll.

The Bistro opens at 11 a.m. weekdays and at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. It’s open until 10 p.m. or later every day. Live music is performed on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings and from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Standard beverages and a full-service bar, including mimosas for brunch, are available. Eating at the bar gives you an eye-catching view of a 19th-century painting of Miss Lil.

The dining area is a little unusual with its uneven floors and an odd floor plan, but it’s a very old building. I like the cozy atmosphere and eccentricity of the place.

The Bistro provides a classy atmosphere with a diverse menu, featuring both good old Southern cooking and gourmét dishes.
Readers will understand when told that I didn’t find a hot dog on the menu.
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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.