It’s been a long time coming. It was just over a year ago I profiled chef Joseph Lenn, at that time the only James Beard Award winning chef in the state of Tennessee. After his stint as head chef at Blackberry Farm, he’d decided to open his own restaurant and the location would be on Union Avenue in downtown Knoxville. The primary concern in August 2015 was that his anticipated January 2016 opening date for the restaurant we would later learn was to be named J.C. Holdway after Joseph’s great uncle, would fall during the winter, making his intention of presenting fresh, locally produced food a very difficult task, indeed. If only that had been the major issue.
As is the case with virtually every project, there were personal, professional, regulatory and construction delays. The projected opening date moved. Then it moved again. The most interesting development during the lapse relates to the infamous grease interceptors required of restaurants. After a lengthy search for alternatives and equally as lengthy negotiations with KUB, he obtained approval for a much less expensive alternate system which also promises to be more environmentally friendly. KUB agreed to allow him to try the system with close monitoring. If it proves successful, it could be a game changer locally, allowing restaurants to comply with the law while not facing a potentially devastating up-front expense.
With these and other issues settled, he targeted a late summer opening. Doors opened last night to invited guests – the same day his liquor license was granted. He’ll have another invitation-only event tonight and officially open for guests Saturday night. As is obvious from the photographs, the first official guests will be treated to a dining experience in a beautiful space.
Simple in design, with clean lines, Joseph wanted guests to feel as much at home as possible. All food preparation is exposed so customers may watch their food being prepared – just like at home, but without the effort. The wood burning oven holds a continual open flame visible from the seating. Wood for the stove is stacked between sections of tables, giving a rustic separation and making for a more intimate feel. The windows in the restaurant are among the most attractive in the city and light is generous. A seating area to the rear has a more private feeling, just a little further away from the action up front.
Adding to the “at home” feel, the festive dishes, specifically designed for the restaurant, as well as other service-ware, is displayed to customers. The original wood floors have been augmented by attractive wooden tables – which Joseph put together himself. One line of seating is provided along the window. A standing bar lines the front of the restaurant looking out onto Union Avenue. One touch of home you won’t find: televisions. He will have a music system, soon, to help mitigate the noise.
Chef Joseph told me his goals with the food are very simple. “I want to prepare tasty food that people will enjoy and want to come back. I will use familiar ingredients with different and usual flavor profiles.” He mentioned specifically the roasted chicken and okra which he called a “homage to my mom.” He noted that while you might have chicken at home, it’s unlikely to involve the three day process he uses and it’s unlikely to be soaked in brine for twenty-four hours or to be prepared in a wood-burning oven.
In an interesting variation on the them one might expect for a chef-driven restaurant, he says the menu will change as he learns his customer’s preferences. Simply put, the menu will reflect what people enjoy the most. He stated explicitly, “It isn’t about me or about what I want to cook.” He was also quick to point out that many different people have made the restaurant happen and he’s, “very thankful for the excitement. It means a lot to me.”
I’ll spare you the superlatives – I’ve never claimed to be a food critic – but everything was very, very good. We shared a couple of hush puppies (not currently on the menu) and “Ember roasted lunch box peppers, lime juice, sea salt ($7).” The peppers may have been our favorite flavor of the night. We followed that with a salad each: Urban Woman had a “Cucumber and melon salad ($11),” while I enjoyed a delicious “Wood grilled trout salad ($12).” The crumbled cornbread on the trout salad made all the difference.
For our entrees, we had the “Grilled NC catfish, Carolina gold rice, tomatoes, squash, basil pistou, tomato vinaigrette ($22),” and the “Wood oven roasted 1/2 chicken, creamed corn, fried okra, roasted onions ($24).” The fish was perfect, virtually melting in our mouth and the chicken was excellent, as well. I brought most of the chicken home. We agreed we could easily split it next time, the portion is so large. The fish was more a portion for a single person. We also enjoyed a bottle of Champteloup Sauvignon Blanc ($8/$23). Joseph mentioned how hard he worked to provide excellent, but affordable bottles.
We didn’t make it to the coffee and dessert we would usually enjoy, but the desserts all sounded delicious and the couple at the next table had the Lemon-buttermilk tart with blueberry jam and vanilla crème fraiche ($8) which was beautiful. All coffee, we were told, is French-pressed. Our final bill was just over $100 before tip, but we could certainly return and carefully eat for significantly less. The price certainly felt like a fair amount for the kind of food we enjoyed and we brought home most of one entrè and half-a-bottle of wine.
Reservations, while not explicitly required, are strongly encouraged. Even a portion of bar seating – which provides the best view of the kitchen – is dedicated to those with reservations. You may reserve your table via the J.C. Holdway website, which is to become active on Friday, or by calling the restaurant at 312-9050. Seating will be limited and reservations via the website are preferred. Initial service will be for dinner only, though brunch or lunch hours may be added later. The restaurant will take seating from 5:00 PM – 9:30 PM Tuesday through Thursday and 5:00 PM – 10:00 PM Friday and Saturday nights.
You will likely see us there on a regular basis.
UPDATE 8:30 AM: An early morning fire in the wall behind the wood-burning oven will likely delay this opening. Damage was limited to the wall outside the restaurant and to smoke damage. The restaurant itself appears unharmed.