My Breakfast Obsession: Olibea – The Best Breakfast in Knoxville

Gorgeous Mis en place at Olibea in Old City
Gorgeous Mis en Place at Olibea in Old City

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!).

This grilled cheese! Made with Cruze Farm local cheese and topped with a duck egg.
This grilled cheese! Made with Cruze Farm local cheese and topped with a duck egg.
Knoxville's own Olibea early on a Saturday morning.
Knoxville’s own Olibea early on a Saturday morning.

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?

Breakfast goodness at Olibea
Breakfast goodness at Olibea

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.

Biscuits, potatoes, and vegetarian herb gravy with fresh Cruze Farm butter.
Biscuits, potatoes, and vegetarian herb gravy with fresh Cruze Farm butter.
Olibea omelet with spicy pickled mushrooms and potatoes on the side. YUM.
Olibea omelet special with spicy pickled mushrooms and cheddar cheese and potatoes on the side. YUM.

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!

Lemon pancakes made with Cruze Far buttermilk. They look so deceptively simple. But THESE. ARE. GOOD.
Lemon pancakes made with Cruze Farm buttermilk. They look so deceptively simple. But THESE. ARE. GOOD.

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.

The veggie dish from the fall featuring a duck egg, beets, and other goodness on a baked acorn squash. Pretty, pretty good for you, and delicious!
The veggie dish from the fall featuring a duck egg, beets, and other goodness on a baked acorn squash. Pretty, pretty good for you, and delicious!

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!

Long counters and bright colors make this a cheery, convivial spot for breakfast or lunch.
Long counters and bright colors make this a cheery, convivial spot for breakfast or lunch.

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.

Olibea in knoxville, Tennessee
Olibea in Knoxville, Tennessee

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.

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Two Reasons You Should Visit Knoxville, Tennessee in May: International Biscuit Festival and Market Square Farmer’s Market

Egg and Cheese Biscuits from Cruze Farm Milk Bar
Egg and Cheese Biscuits from Cruze Farm Milk Bar

Yesterday was a lovely, unseasonably cool day in Knoxville.  It was also the annual biscuit festival that takes place here each May, the International Biscuit Festival, which is done in conjunction with a southern food writing conference.  A biscuit festival you may be asking?  That’s right, a festival in honor of BISCUITS.  It seems pretty much tailored for me.  And probably you.  Because who doesn’t love biscuits?

This was the first time I have ever been able to attend the biscuit fest though, as for the whole time I’ve been living in Knoxville I’ve been traveling during the biscuit festival.  Last year I was actually in Shanghai during the festival.  I know, I know, woe is me.  This year, though, pregnancy is keeping us stateside, and I was eager to check out the festival.  However, at 8:30 the line for tickets opened it was already blocks long. Then we discovered that of the five biscuits the ticket gets you (out of maybe 8-10 options), only two of them were veg friendly.  Whomp whomp.

Still, my husband and I were excited to walk around and see all of the vendors, biscuit sellers, and in general, the biscuit fueled hullabaloo.  After you eat your biscuits from the various tents, you vote for your favorite by placing your ticket in one of their jars supplied for that purpose.  My husband and I wandered by all of the tents, peeking at the biscuit prep, sad that we weren’t going to be able to participate.  While I think ten dollars for five biscuits is a pretty good deal, and perhaps even for just two, a two hour line for only sweet biscuit options was just not something we were going to do this weekend. I think, in the end, we discovered that three were actually veg friendly, but two were sweet biscuits – bourbon, blueberries, and cream (which we later found out won the People’s Choice Award) and apple butter and gouda, I believe.  The third option I couldn’t tell for sure if it was truly veg or not – it appeared to be a caprese salad biscuit (ho hum).  The Blue Coast Bar & Grill sponsored this one, and their booth won for best booth display.  Though personally, I was with Marble City for that one too – check out their display below.  They won the People’s Choice for Best Biscuit, and as you can see in my photo from below, they definitely had a good style game going.

Bourbon, Blueberries, and Cream biscuits. Gorgeous! And winner of the People's Choice Award for 2016. By Marble City Kitchen.
Blueberries and cream biscuits with a bourbon maple syrup. Gorgeous! And winner of the People’s Choice Award for 2016. By Marble City Kitchen.
Blue Coast Bar & Grill won for best booth!
Blue Coast Bar & Grill won for best booth!

I really hope that next year will bring a few more veg and pescetarian friendly options that include the savory.  There are so many possibilities.  It’s not that I even want a fake meat substitute.  Fake meats are pretty generally boring.  But that is hardly where protein begins and ends for alternative diets.  Can I get a fried green tomato and pimento cheese biscuit? A sea salt ricotta and strawberry chipotle jam? An over the top egg and cheese?

Still, we thoroughly enjoyed walking around, seeing the different vendors, and, in general, soaking up the scene.  Check out the vendor below, Y’allsome, whose t-shirts and onesies sales help to support southern foster kids.  I want the hush puppy onesie for our coming wee one!

15% of proceeds to go help children in need!
15% of proceeds to go help children in need!

And here is the famous Blackberry Farm, who not only had a biscuit offering, also had set up as a vendor.  They were offering a sampling of their jams and pickled products, as well as premade mixes for pancakes and waffles, etc.  Their pimento cheese?  Oh my goodness.  Delicious!

 

Blackberry Farms goodness.
Blackberry Farms goodness.

There is also a pageant, an art exhibition, live music, and a biscuit baking contest.  We missed the biscuit baking contest this year because I think we didn’t wander far enough and were there too early (hint – a festival map as well as a bit more info on what you need tickets for and what you don’t would be SUPER helpful fest organizers).  I am definitely checking it out next year though.  If you’re not in the area, but like to bake, they publish the winning recipes online for each category of biscuit.  I think I’m going to try one or two myself.  How about you?

 

Cruze Farm Milk Bar! Can't wait til it's warmer because they have lavender honey ice cream, which is - mmmmmm.
Cruze Farm Milk Bar! Can’t wait til it’s warmer because they have lavender honey ice cream, which is – mmmmmm.

And never fear, we did NOT go hungry.  Because one of the best things about biscuit fest is that it takes place adjacent to the Market Square Farmer’s Market.  MSFM is one of my FAVORITE things about Knoxville.  It gets a bit bigger each year, and is chock full of vendors selling locally harvested fruits, veggies, meats, cheeses, eggs, plants, jewelry, pottery and more.  There are local bakers tempting you with everything from focaccia to cannoli to pasties.  The east Tennessee region boasts a long growing season, and because there’s such a mix of climates in the area, there’s a wide range of product available.  Yesterday was a wealth of fresh strawberries and greens of every kind imaginable.

I CAN NOT get enough strawberries this year!
I CAN NOT get enough strawberries this year!
Gorgeous heirloom lettuce.
Gorgeous heirloom lettuce.

 

Look at all the pretty!
Look at all the pretty!

I have been known to overdo it at MSFM before.  I am sooooo tempted by all the delicious veg.  Sometimes when I see a new or different variety of eggplant or pepper I can’t resist and MUST try it.  So now I invest what I want to spend in MSFM cash.  These little tokens can be purchased with a card via the market’s Square reader at their information table, and exchanged with most of the vendors for their wares.  This helps me stay on budget (kind of, sort of, not really, but it helps? 😉

Tokens you can purchase end exchange for goods at the Farmer's Market. They never expire!
Tokens you can purchase end exchange for goods at the Farmer’s Market. They never expire!
Delicious locally roasted coffee from Three Bears.
Delicious locally roasted coffee from Three Bears.
Get your hands off my hand pie.
Get your hands off my hand pie.

MSFM also boasts a number of food trucks, and many of the vendors sell prepared foods.  My husband and I indulged in an iced coffee from Three Bears, a local roaster, and a blueberry hand pie from  a vendor to kick off our morning, and then later a delicious egg and cheese biscuit (in honor of the day!) from the Cruze Farm Milk Bar food truck (pictured at the top).  ALL were delicious, and the many baby kicks seemed to indicate the wee one approved as well!

Crooked Road Farms CSA
Crooked Road Farms CSA
Fruit and veg from our two CSAs
Fruit and veg from our two CSAs

We also were able to pick up our goods from our two CSAs.  It was, for us, a near perfect morning.  I am excited that the MSFM is back, and look forward to all the upcoming Saturdays spent wandering the aisles.  If you make it to Knoxville, you should definitely make sure you stop by the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays!

Wild Love Bakehouse, or Where to Eat in Knoxville, TN

Gracie might be watching her girlish figure, but I. Need. Pastry.
Gracie might be watching her girlish figure, but I. Need. Pastry.

It’s nearly 7 am and my husband and I are scrambling around getting ready.  I am putting the finishing touches on my makeup, he is trying to coax Gracie, our husky, to eat her food quickly, so that she can be walked before we leave.  Gracie is stubborn, and has never been too interested in food (I swear she is the reincarnation of some sort of early Hollywood Grand Dame), so this can be a daily ordeal.  This morning, though, we are in a hurry.  Because we want to get to the bakery in time to have first pick of the goodies.  Which is becoming a regular thing for us, and I MIGHT have a bit of an addiction problem.

Prior to the recent opening of Wild Love Bakehouse, though, my husband and I felt a bit starved for coffee shops.  When we first moved to Knoxville we lived in what I call the Wasteland of the West, aka, west Knoxville.  We were surrounded by chain restaurants and box stores, and couldn’t safely walk anywhere.  The closest “coffee shop” was Starbucks. Cue whining. Last year we moved to North Knoxville, though, and were at least close enough to a bus route that my husband could commute to and from campus on his own.  He doesn’t drive – but thats another story for another day.  And suddenly, in the last year, a number of new places have opened that have been helping assuage our we-don’t-live-in-New-Orleans-or-London-anymore sadness.

I'll take one of everything please.
I’ll take one of everything please.

There are coffee shops in the downtown area, however, they were typically packed and required a trip downtown.  I like going downtown, but it IS a trip from our house, and the whole point of your neighborhood coffee shop is that it is close.  So when Wild Love opened last November, we were thrilled, before we even saw the place.  It is, in fact, run by the proprietors of one of the downtown coffee shops, Old City Java.

So. Much. Pretty.
A rainy Sunday morning view of what is usually a sunny and bright patio.
A rainy Sunday morning view of what is usually a sunny and bright patio.

We went early on its first morning, and let me tell you, it was love at first sight, and heaven at first bite.  Inside it is full of light, with light wood tables, elegant picture windows, and a glass wall into the bakery portion of the shop where you can watch all of the tasty things being made.  It has a large selection of outdoor tables, and people frequently bring dogs with them to enjoy the outside area.  It has a distinctly northern European feel.  Its design is functional though – while there are several new coffee shops open in Knoxville now, Wild Love is far and away our favorite space to WORK.  Two long counter provide multiple outlets, and several long tables provide many work stations.

Window to the baking world.
Window to the baking world.

Its not just a place for students, writers, and their ilk though.  Strollers and toddlers can frequently be seen throughout the day.  Do I mention this just because I find it reassuring? As we have a baby on the way and I’m the kind of writer who tends to only be productive in a coffee shop? Maybe, she says, blushing, but I also think it is a testament to how much Knoxville NEEDED this kind of space for people of all ages. It is one of the major things I have been missing in Knoxville, and it is now practically in my backyard.

Strawberry Almond Frangipane Croissant. AH-MAZING. #noiwillnotshare #selfishpregnantlady
Strawberry Almond Frangipane Croissant. AH-MAZING. #noiwillnotshare #selfishpregnantlady

It is also simply delicious.  I swear, this Strawberry Almond Frangipane Croissant is one of the best I’ve ever had, including in my travels through France.  Check out the layers of dough in your croissant.  It’s looks properly laminated enough to even impress the judges of the Great British Bake Off right?  That’s right, fan girl here, and I AM NOT ASHAMED.

The quiche is velvety soft, and their savory scone du jour, the Green Onion, Feta, and Creme Fraiche is nearly irresistible.  They also serve a small selection of sandwiches, salads, and soup at lunch.  Ingredients are seasonal, locally and ethically sourced (check out this Instagram photo of the bakers picking their own strawberries), and they always seem to have a great vegetarian option.  Everything is made from scratch, and in small batches, which is why my husky needs to eat her food quickly!  Because I want to get there before they run out of insert-delicious-dish here.

Hot black loose leaf tea with a wee delectable shortbread cookie on Valentine's Day.
Hot black loose leaf tea with a wee delectable shortbread cookie on Valentine’s Day.
This is a sea salt ricotta and strawberry jam biscuit. YUM.
This is a sea salt ricotta and strawberry jam biscuit. YUM.

Their coffee is also impressive, single origin, and they have the best iced coffee/cold brew in town I think.  My husband loves their pour over, and I am fond of their lattes and cappuccino as well.  They serve Counter Culture coffee, and they care about each cup.  I once thought mine tasted off, and they quickly replaced it.  They also serve a good selection of hot teas, and their Rose Lemonade is so popular they have a hard time keeping it in stock.

In short, it seems this place was dreamed up with me in mind – and its mine!  All mine!  I’m kidding, of course, I am happy that the place is such a success, and hope their success continues.  And I will continue to get there as close to opening as possible, because that strawberry croissant!  And the Black Sesame and Sea Salt Bagel.  And the strawberry, rhubarb, and rose water hand tart.  And…  You get the picture.  And the next time you’re in Knoxville, you should get the real thing.

Wild Love Bakehouse.  Seriously.  You won’t be disappointed.

Knox Whisky Works, or, A Place Worth Visiting in Knoxville

Tennessee Valley Vodka
Tennessee Valley Vodka

The posts about our trip are coming soon, friends, I promise.  At the moment I have been inundated in all things day-job, as well as with the piles of laundry and cleaning that accompany every homecoming from a long trip.  However, I did get out last Friday night to a new place I thought might be worth a mention, in case anyone is ever traveling through Knoxville.  Last weekend was the grand opening of Knox Whisky Works, the new, and only, distillery in Knoxville.  While recent visits to Seattle and Nashville and other major metropolitan areas have involved my husband and I sampling the wares at a variety of micro-distilleries, Knoxville itself has had nothing to offer on that front. There are craft breweries here, but we’ll get to that in a future post.  I’m honestly much more of a wine and cocktail drinker than a beer drinker anyhow.  I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find Knoxville frustrating on the food front.  After so long in New Orleans the endless strips of chain restaurants are, to me, sad.  There are a few notable exceptions to this, and I’ll post about those sometime soon.  But when I heard about the opening of the distillery, I told my husband that I didn’t care how poor we were post-Paris, we were going to support a local distillery.

 

So I made a reservation online for $10 per person for a tour plus tasting, and we invited a few friends to come along.  They are currently offering four spirits: a clear whisky, a vodka, a gin, and a coffee liqueur.  There are apparently twelve partners that came together to make this happen, and the guy who took us through the distillery part of the operation told us he was a nuclear physicist during the day, and a distiller on nights and weekends.  Chief distiller Stan Webster poured our tasting after the tour, and spoke with much enthusiasm about the spirits.  They focus on using only locally and sustainable sourced ingredients, even though that often is not the most cost effective means of production.  Their emphasis is on quality, though, and loyalty to the east Tennessee region.

The main still on the distillery tour.
The main still on the distillery tour.

The distillery is an interesting operation to see, especially if you haven’t ever seen one before.  They tell you about the different steps involved in making the spirits, and infusing them with flavor, like the gin and coffee liqueurs.  The gin has a variety of botanicals that give it a very smooth, easy drinking flavor with a hint of juniper but not so much you feel like you’re sucking Christmas Tree juice.  I’m a fan of gin, as you’ll probably be able to tell if you follow me on Instagram, and this one is pretty great even on its own.  They described it as “a gin that’s good even for people who don’t like gin.”  And I agree.

And the coffee liqueur was phenomenal.  It was rich and robustly caramelized, which they mentioned in the tour was a priority, and I could just about drink it on its own, but it had me contemplating variations of an affogato (replace the espresso powder with this liqueur I think?) and tiramisu I might make with it.  Honestly, if I could have afforded it that night, I would have walked away with a bottle of gin and the coffee liqueur both.  And at around $30 each, they are not unreasonably priced.  I’ll be back soon, for both, though, because I am still contemplating a tiramisu…. and Christmas without a gin martini? Psshhh.

The distillery has a lovely tasting room and bar, with a number of craft cocktails available.  You can take a tour plus tasting for $10, and do just the tasting for $5.  Or you can sample their wares in fine cocktails and skip the tour.  With hours ranging from 12-7 Monday to Wednesday, 12-10 on Thursday and Friday, 11-10 on Saturday, and 12-7 on Sunday they are pretty accessible.  They recommend booking in advance for a tour, especially on weekends, which you can do via their website, here.  While they don’t serve food at the moment, I hope that at least a few bar snacks will come soon, because this has the potential to be a pretty nice cocktail hour spot.  This has made my list of places-I-will-take-out-of-towners.  And it’s definitely a place I myself will return too.  If you go, let me know what you think!