This article from Travel & Leisure recently came out touting Knoxville as one of the top ten places to visit in the US. If you’d shown me this article even a year ago I would have probably laughed and said NO WAY is Knoxville worth it. Spend your dollars and time in nearby cities like Nashville and Asheville. Yet, the last year or so has brought significant changes to Knoxville, and I can see why its starting to get some national attention. I appreciate this article, though I think it is very one sided (MEAT! and BEER!).
Though, to be fair, meat and beer seems to be a real focus of the Knoxville area. Which frequently leaves my husband and I feeling a bit left out. We both came from larger cities where being a pescetarian was NO BIG THING. Most every restaurant not only had options on their menu, they put as much thought into those veggie and alternative options as they do their carnivorous ones. That just isn’t the case in Knoxville. While Knox Mason is a superb restaurant, its not one I can really go to. There is like A dish we could order, but we’d still have to get it tweaked. Of course, Chef Matt Gallaher just opened Emilia, which I have not yet had the chance to try, but with a true Italian focus it already looks to be more promising for alternative diets. You had me at mussels ya know?
Which brings me, with much preamble, to what I am writing about (and obsessed with) today, which is Olibea. I’ve long wanted to write about Olibea, operated by Chef Jeffrey DeAlejandro. Well, since 2014, when it opened in the Old City section of downtown Knoxville. It is my husband’s favorite breakfast in Knoxville. It is my favorite breakfast in Knoxville. It is even my MOM’S favorite breakfast in Knoxville, and that’s saying something. My point, here, is that this restaurant offers creative, quality, delicious food to a variety of diners. Chef Jeff says on the Olibea website that:
“I always felt that breakfast was a fresh start to my day. That no matter what happened yesterday today was going to be good cause I had breakfast. My idea for OliBea is simple: to bring you the best local/fresh ingredients as I can without killing your pocket. A place for you to come every day and have a chef-driven breakfast. Let Olibea be your fresh start, from my great grandma’s homemade cinnamon rolls to my house cured bacon.”
And it IS that place for my husband and I. This may seem ironic when their Chef is frequently posting photos and offering classes on whole hog butchery. I have no issue with this. I think pork is delicious. I just choose not to eat it. But I DO choose to eat at Olibea as often as possible, because they care about the quality of ingredients, the presentation of food, and serving a well rounded clientele.
Their house pickled Mossy Creek mushrooms are divine. They have meat alternatives on the menu, and even offer a veggie version of their sausage gravy, which is delightful. They have amazing daily specials, such savory carnivorous delights as brisket tacos, and pulled pork enchiladas. The staff are friendly, and while the place itself is small, the atmosphere is always convivial, and people frequently share larger tables.
And let’s take a minute to talk about their biscuits. Crumbly, large, and with a hint of saltiness they are delicious by themselves, slathered with locally made Cruze Farm butter, or dipped in syrup. Their omelets are always vegetarian adaptable, and they’ve even spiced mine up for me by adding more chilies. I suspect that they don’t get may requests for that here – I once heard someone complaining about the “spicy mushrooms” and was baffled they thought the same mushrooms I was eating were spicy. But for this New Orleans transplant they were simply FLAVORFUL. Oh my God flavorful. I can’t resist this omelet now, and I order it almost every time we go. That plus a biscuit and I’m set til dinner!
I should also take a minute to mention their pancakes. How boring, you’re thinking, and I get it. Pancakes are pancakes are pancakes. Except they are not. These lemon pancakes are made with Cruze Farm buttermilk, and are light, airy, and exactly the right size. Drizzled with butter and syrup, or topped with some of their house made jam, they are irresistible. I kept telling my mother, no, these pancakes are special, and she didn’t believe me until she tasted mine. Now, that’s her order at Olibea, with a side of eggs, because sweet and savory together RULE.
And they have at least one dedicated vegetarian entree on the menu. Their Grits & Escabeche is the plate du jour at the moment, and it is rich, hearty, and delicious featuring oh-so-creamy Riverplains grits, Mossy Creek mushrooms, bright, charred dandelion greens, and topped with a runny, yolky, sunny duck egg. I adore this dish and just lament that I can’t order it more, but because I’m pregnant right now, I am not supposed to have the runny duck egg. And this is one dish that just isn’t the same without it!
They also have delicious Stumptown coffee and daily fresh squeezed juices. And the place inside is beautiful! They don’t serve alcohol at the moment, which is probably good. If they did, I might never leave.
There are a couple of places in Knoxville I think stand out from the pack, and I’ll write more about them. But for me, Olibea is above and beyond, and I wanted to give it a whole post of its own. I appreciate it that much. And I hope other Knoxville area restaurants will follow suit, with creative non-meat focused dishes as well as above board carnivorous options, quality ingredients, and deliciousness for more than just the barbecue crowd.