It wasn’t that long ago that much of the food available in downtown Knoxville fell generally into one “American” category or another. There were exceptions, but not many. In the last several years we’ve had a mix of entries into the culinary landscape that have expanded our international palette. The newest checks off two significant boxes at once.
Kopita Falafel and Hummus Bar plans to open next month at 524 South Gay Street, the former home of Coolato Gelato. The new casual restaurant will bring an all-Israeli based menu and all the items included will be vegan. “Upscale Israeli street food,” is the goal and the restaurant is backed by a partnership that should be able to deliver an excellent product.
The wheels were set in motion when chef Paul Sellas left Rebel Kitchen earlier this spring. He and Franchesca, at the invitation of Shawn Poynter and Dale Mackey, owners of Central Collective, returned to their pop-up dinners under the brand Table Forty9. They have a scheduled pasta class tonight, The French Table dinner Thursday night and a stocks and sauces class Monday night.
The classes allowed them to re-connect with the regular customers Paul’s food had attracted in his previous pop-up dinners and at the restaurant. Among those regular customers and fans of his work were Avi Zenatti and his wife, Ilana Brodt. Born and raised in Israel, the couple had grown to love his work and were dismayed when they learned that Paul and Franchesca were considering a return move to Florida.
What followed was a proposal from Avi and Ilana that the two couples become partners in a venture Avi and Ilana had long considered. The couple immigrated from Israel in 2007 and began investing in properties in Florida, where they resided. Ilana had a property in Knoxville and the couple began to invest more in the city, began to visit more often and, ultimately, purchased a downtown home.
Avi says the couple are devoted foodies, routinely planning trips around the world centered on food. They travel twice a year to Morocco, for example, simply to enjoy the food. They also enjoy Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Chef Dan Barber’s exclusive restaurant in upstate New York. They regularly travel to Italy for the food.
Avi and Illana invited Paul and Francesca to their Gay Street home and prepared babaganoush, hummus, falafels and other dishes. Paul connected through his Greek/Mediterranean background and the healthy food they try to feed their own family. Franchesca had helped open Green Sage in Asheville and Paul had stepped into the kitchen there when they needed help. They knew this food was the real thing and when offered a partnership, Paul and Franchesca began to feel Avi and Ilana’s excitement for bringing authentic, organic Israeli food to Gay Street.
Both the pita and the tahini will be imported from Israel. Avi says it is the Pita used by the best kitchens in major cities around the world. The tahini is expensive, but, Avi says, is worth the price. The vegetables for the dishes will come exclusively from local farmers. Paul and Francesca are excited to continue relationships they have developed over recent years and to expand on those. Farmers and their stories will be highlighted on the walls of the restaurant.
Avi said the food will be fully vegan and genuinely organic, while insisting that much that is promoted as organic really isn’t. The food, he insists will be both healthy and affordable. The salads will change with available ingredients through the year. You’ll find olive oil, salt and lemon for a salad topping, but not American dressings.
Everything will be made fresh and from scratch and spices used will be middle eastern. You’ll find three different kinds of hummus and freshly made falafel each day. Hot hummus will be featured, which involves boiling the chickpeas all night. It is served in a bowl with pita for dipping. They will grind chickpeas fresh every morning and use safflower oil.
He describes the changes in Knoxville’s culinary scene in recent years as an awakening, citing J.C. Holdway, Emelia, The Oliver Royale and Rebel Kitchen as examples of the way Knoxville has improved its food options. When he learned Paul and Francesca might move away, he flew here from Florida in an attempt to get them to stay. His dream has been to open something healthy and different.
He feels that Paul’s unique personality and skills can lift the Israeli street food to an upscale level the city is ready for. That said, it will be food that can be enjoyed and share around the counter at the restaurant or taken home and it will come with a modest price tag of $10 to $12 for a meal.
The restaurant will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 AM to 8:00 PM or 9:00 PM depending on demand, with shorter hours on Sunday. He says they may be open later on event nights. Interior design is by DIA.
“We understand good food.” Saying he doesn’t see Knoxville restaurateurs as competitors, he said, “We want to bring the energy for good food from Nashville and Asheville. It’s exciting to do business here.” Look for them to start doing that business here sometime next month.
Ticket Giveaway: Rick Bragg is coming to Knoxville next week (May 21, Bijou Theatre) for a night of reading, conversation and fun in support of his new book Home Cookin’ with Rick Bragg. If you haven’t heard him speak before, you owe it to yourself for a very funny evening with a master story teller, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of All Over But the Shoutin’. Tickets are only $30 and may be purchased here. For a lucky reader, here’s your chance to win two tickets courtesy of sponsors, Friends of the Knox County Public Library: Send an email to Knoxvilleurbanguy@gmail.com with the subject heading “I want to Cook with Rick!” I’ll randomly select a winner for a pair of tickets and I’ll inform the winner via email.