Lilou, Downtown’s French Brasserie, Details Announced

Hotel Cleo and French Brasserie Lilou, Knoville, November 2023
Hotel Cleo and French Brasserie Lilou, Knoville, November 2023

Aaron Thompson and Jessica King, owners of Brother Wolf and Osteria Stella in the Old City, have released details for their upcoming French brasserie, Lilou to be located at 428 South Gay Street, the location of their former bar, Sapphire. The couple has hired Chef Benjamin Tilatti, a native of southwest France to bring “contemporary interpretations of classic French dishes to the restaurant, with plans to open in January 2024.

Chef Benjamin’s creations will include dishes “inspired by culinary visionaries like Chef Bernard Loiseau, Chef Hélène Darroze, Chef Michel Sarran and Chef Pierre Gagnaire.” He grew up between Gascony and the Basque country in France will augment the traditional French dishes you might expect with recipes inspired by his grandmother’s cooking. As a child, he ate the fresh foods she prepared from the produce of their family farm.

“Chef Benjamin is upholding the brasserie’s tradition of simple dishes made with honest, local ingredients, prepared quickly and served in a convivial manner, complemented by a robust beverage program.” Chef worked his way through restaurants in Paris, Nouvelle Aquitaine, Biarritz/Toulouse and Montreal, ultimately owning and operating “Kinou, an acclaimed restaurant in Singapore specialized in Basque dishes from France’s southwest region, the Pays Basque,” prior to joining Lilou.

Jessica said the couple searched for a chef, not only trained in French cuisine, but who grew up immersed in the food and culture. Chef Benjamin had sold his restaurant in Singapore a few months earlier, returning to France to await his next adventure. They found each other on the internet. “It was a happy coincidence. I wanted something new; I didn’t know what exactly. I was fortunate. Working in the U.S. on a project like this, you don’t say ‘no.'”

He’s previously worked in Canada, but had never been to the southern U.S. And it took some effort to get him here. After finding him via a recruitment service and getting to know each other via Zoom, they flew him to town last March to meet and interview him in person. He cooked for them and they were sold, though that was the beginning of about a six month saga involving hiring an immigration attorney and securing an 0-1 visa, allowing him to work in the US for two years before reapplying or getting a green card.

For his part, Benjamin said he wants people to know that “French food is not pretentious. It’s very simple, we just use the best ingredients that we can find with the seasonality. I want people to realize that French cuisine is approachable.” He said the root of French food is in taking what you have access to and making it last as long as possible.

400 Block of Gay Street, Future Home for French Brasserie Lilou, Knoville, November 2023

The couple has long enjoyed an affinity for French gastronomy and wine culture. King visited France first as a teenager and fell in love with the food, while Thompson’s reading of Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route propelled him into the world of wine, earning certifications from the Court of Master Sommelies and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and leading to visits in Champagne, Burgundy, and Provence.

As they made plans for opening Lilou, they not only dined at acclaimed French restaurants in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., “the couple spent a month in France conducting research and visiting iconic restaurants in Lyon, Paris, Reims, Beaune, Nice, Nîmes, Toulon, Paradou and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.” The vision for Lilou grew as they traveled.

French favorites, such as escargot, will be updated to “be lighter on the palate” and “contemporary techniques like sous vide, smoking and curing to intensify flavors and textures” will be practiced in the restaurant. Chef will also deliver “plating to make the dishes more dramatic and photogenic” and the restaurant will offer an extensive boulangerie and pâtisserie program, producing all house-made pastries by Hallie Vanlandingham, previously of Blackberry Farm. Highlights from the menu:

  • Grandmother’s Foie Gras au Torchon, Armagnac, Truffles
    ● Escargot
    ● Frog Legs à la Bernard Loiseau
    ● Grilled Snail, Pork Belly Bites in Duck Fat, Persillade Emulsion
    ● Tournedos Rossini Madeira Sauce
    ● Veal Sweetbreads, Foie Gras-Stuffed Morels, Veal Jus Corsé
    ● Kokotxe, Raviole of Pulled Pork Cheeks in Red Wine, Foamy Bordelaise Sauce

His creations will be paired with an extensive and exclusively French wine list and a planned collection of about 2,000 bottles representing “each of France’s 19 wine producing regions, as well as cocktails powered by French spirits and modifiers.” The wine list, curated by Thompson and fellow Sommelier and restaurant employee, Brad Poyner, comprises one of the largest French wine lists in the state, with bottles ranging from $35 to $25,000. The list includes wines from “legendary wineries like Chateau Margaux and Domaine Romanee-Conti, to grower Champagne producers, like Frederic Savart, and quaffable wines from Provence and Languedoc and South-West, all terroir-driven.” Wines by the glass will not be neglected, with whites, rosés, reds, Champagnes, and dessert wine ranging from $9 to $75.

At Paul Bocuse (Photo Courtesy of Aaron Thompson and Jessica King)

A beautiful wine cellar was added below the restaurant. Aaron said, “The type of wine program that is really important to me is one that . . . increases the wine IQ of the city at large. I feel any restaurant we open should expand people’s horizons; give them access to wines they don’t normally have access to, which is why we spent a considerable amount of resources bringing in rare wines from Burgandy, Champagne, and Bordeaux. You don’t see them very often. This has been a dream of mine. When we open we will have eighty to a hundred different wines. The list will continue to grow and evolve every week.”

The cocktail program, created by King, “features drinks based on French spirits, like Cognac, as well as absinthes, amers, eaux de vie, vermouths and modifiers. The initial list will include “12 to 16 cocktails that will include seasonally inspired signature drinks.” The two have an extensive resumé, winning awards for their work, while dramatically impacting the local cocktail and wine scene. Brother Wolf was named to Esquire’s Best Bars in America 2022, and Osteria Stella, received Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Award 2023.

Sapphire, the cocktail bar that put Thompson on the local map, also won awards, and helped drive downtown’s renaissance. Thompson began at Sapphire as a bartender and worked his way through management before ultimately purchasing the bar. King developed the cocktail menu at Peter Kern and competed in international bartending competitions, eventually joining Thompson at Sapphire. The couple later married and joined forces.

The result is a restaurant they are very excited to share with downtown and all of Knoxville. Aaron said,

“We are very excited to launch Lilou, an exuberant French retreat on South Gay St. Working with a native French chef was a top priority for us to ensure authenticity. Chef Benjamin has delighted us with his modern takes on classic dishes that respect tradition yet make them relevant for a new generation. It was also a pleasure to help guide the curation of one of the largest French wine lists in Tennessee that includes the most renowned châteaux, as well as best of class, smaller producers, complemented by Jessica’s delectable French spirit-celebrating cocktails.”

King added:

“France’s gastronomic and wine cultures have long captured my imagination and palate. During our research, we were privileged to dine at Paul Bocuse in Lyon, La Poule au Pot and Alain Ducasse’s Allard in Paris, Le Coucou, Boulud and Les Trois Chevaux in New York, among many others. It really honed our culinary intentions and deepened our admiration for this incredible cuisine that is always evolving. We can’t wait to share Chef Benjamin’s revelatory cooking with Knoxvillians and visitors to our wonderful city and provide a truly transporting experience that they will never forget.”

When you enter the restaurant, you’ll find an incredibly beautiful space, designed to take you to another place and time. Fans of Sapphire will notice a few familiar touches, but mostly, you’ll be entering an experience designed to be unlike any other available in the city. Just before the restaurant officially opens its doors, I’ll give you the full measure of photographs and details about this space that has been so beautifully and carefully prepared.

Expect the restaurant to open its doors in January.