Soft-opening dinner an excellent yet approachable fine-dining experience
In spite of its recent remarkable growth spurt, Knoxville’s food scene still has a way to go to catch up to the likes of Nashville or Charleston. The catch is that an adventurous restaurant needs an adventurous clientele, but an adventurous clientele must be created under the tutelage of a certain number of adventurous chefs. It’s a classic dilemma that is cured only by steady growth.
With the advent of the utterly remarkable Rebel Kitchen, Knoxville has taken a big step forward in this regard. Focusing on using cutting-edge techniques to create simple, affordable food (the most expensive entree upon our first visit was $27), the restaurant provides the kind of destination dining that is sure to attract national attention.
Located at 108 W. Jackson Ave. in the Old City and backed by Thomas Boyd, Rebel Kitchen is the brainchild of Chef Paul Sellas and his wife Franchesca. The enterprise is intensely local and chef-driven. Everything from the tables and plates to the glassware and the art on the walls was created locally. Of course, as much of the food as possible is sourced locally, as well, with everything created in a tiny kitchen behind the bar where the staff can interact with customers as they work. The interior of the space is bright and airy, lit by storefront windows that look out on the street, and it comfortably seats around 40 inside and another half-dozen at the bar. The adjacent Old City Wine Bar serves as the primary bar for the restaurant.
On our night out, we sampled six dishes and three desserts, as well as a cheese plate and coffee. Everything we had was nothing short of outstanding, and Rebel Kitchen already is on my short list for the city’s best restaurant. Emphasis is placed upon serving beautifully plated dishes that are much more complex – in terms of both flavor and preparation – than they might appear initially.
Appetizers included a wonderfully creamy and multifaceted mushroom Bolognese that featured handmade pasta and a peaches-and-cream dish. The peaches were prepared and then dehydrated until they became almost savory. The star of the bunch, though, was an Alabama crab soup prepared from picked whole crabs and topped with a cucumber foam.
As for the entrees, all three were showstoppers. The red snapper (a different fish is featured each day) was perfectly seared and accompanied by potatoes that were mixed with lavender and put through a ricer, resulting in a dish that resembled purple rice. The hanger steak was cooked in a sous-vide for 24 hours, chilled in liquid nitrogen and then seared, resulting in a perfect medium-rare steak. The potatoes served with the steak were among the best I have ever eaten, but I must confess that the preparation details elude me, as by that point we all were experiencing a bit of sensory overload.
The best entree to me was the veal sweetbreads, perfectly fried and tasting like the richest, fattiest piece of meat ever and served with spinach that was so green one would suspect trickery in a place with less integrity; spinach that was creamy and a bit crispy underneath; spinach that redefined what the vegetable could be.
Already sated, we were then presented with a small cheese plate, French-press coffee supplied by Epiphany Coffee and a dessert menu. All three deserts were delicious, but the standout item was the chocolate mousse, which featured banana bread soaked in coffee and a caramel made by liquefying bananas.
I barely touched on the intricate details that accelerated the presentation and quality of this surprising, exquisite food: microgreens featuring tasty baby turnips, foie-gras powder on the veal, tiny little huckleberry tomatoes that look like blueberries in a dessert. Rebel Kitchen is a place to listen carefully to your server and to savor each individual bite, but it’s not a place for the inattentive. It’s an experience as much as it is a restaurant providing sustenance – something Knoxville has needed for a very long time.
Hungry for more? Here’s Brandon Gibson’s take.