I was recently at the first ever Southern Food Writing Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee where I was lucky enough to stumble upon one of the best meals of my life. Minutes after arriving in town with my amazingly fun and fabulous friend Joyce Pinson (you can see her full accounting of this hot spot at Friends Drift Inn) I had the pleasure of visiting RouXbarb, a small shotgun style restaurant off the beaten path from downtown and the latest endeavor of record setting five time Best Chef of Knoxville Bruce Bogartz. Chef Bruce’s inviting yet biting personality alone can easily fill the space, but we managed to squeeze our way in for a night of unforgettable food and lively conversation.
Chef Bruce believes good food brings people of all walks of life together and you can taste that philosophy in every dish he brings to the table. He takes upscale ingredients – Maytag blue cheese, duck, morels, truffles, Kobe beef – and gives them an approachable Southern spin that even the least of the culinary adventurous can eat. As Chef Bruce notes, “Southern food is a bridge. Rich people, poor people – everyone has a story about fried chicken.”
Chef Bruce’s culinary mastery has been acknowledged in numerous publications including Southern Living and Garden & Gun. He has conquered numerous adventures on his culinary career path, most notably working for Warner Brothers for seven years in Aspen, Colorado and cooking up a storm for HGTV. After leaving HGTV Chef Bruce claimed his dream of opening his own Southern inspired restaurant. Since that initial venture he has certainly hit some bumps in the road but RouXbarb, his fourth and most successful venture yet, holds many years of future promise.
Given Chef Bruce’s proclivity for unique, on-the-spot creations, RouXbarb’s menu has become a mere means of identifying unsuspecting tourists. His regulars never look at a menu and allow the chef to prepare masterful creations for them on a whim. His patrons are so loyal that one even purchased new chairs for the bar so he would have a more cozy spot to sit on his regular visits. Now that is a sure sign of loyalty and commitment.
Chef Bruce loves to take care of people by serving them good food and works around the clock to meet the needs of his frequenting clientele. In addition to the casual yet divine dinner vibe of RouXbarb, Chef Bruce runs The Shack Out Back (now technically out front due to city regulations) featuring barbecue themed lunches. He also contributes to the community food scene every Saturday at the Market Square Farmer’s Market with fresh biscuits, jams, chutneys and other seasonal creations. Chef Bruce is also proud of his Jewish roots, and fondly remembers Harold’s Kosher Deli that sat on Gay street in downtown for 57 years. Chef Bruce often ponders the potential of opening his own Kosher deli or, in other fantasies, a dessert themed hangout. Either would be a gift to the city of Knoxville.
The foods I shared with friends at the chef’s table that night were unreal. To prove it, I’m going to first acknowledge the mushroom laced dishes. I ate button mushrooms, morels and truffles that night and I NEVER EVER eat mushrooms. I actually had numerous of each (Do you see that? Numerous!) because the flavors were bursting with a heavenly buttery complexity. The Burgundy mushrooms soaked in Sherry were the first, followed by morels with homemade gnocchi, Maytag blue cheese sauce and spring veggies, then trout with brown butter morels. The truffles were in a lemon vinaigrette adorning bitter greens, pineapple and goat cheese.
As for breads and other side dishes we shared Cheddar biscuits accompanied by simple strawberry rhubarb jam, fried chicken livers (again, something I never eat that was amazing), a salad of arugula, backyard strawberries (yes, they actually came from a lady down the street), pickled onion and goat cheese and perfectly cheesy and puffy pimento cheese beignets. The beignets were the perfect homage to the classic Southern sandwich spread and all of New Orleans rolled into one. We then had some beef ribs with barbecue sauce and a coffee reduction sauce they refer to as “red eye gravy” served up with a cole slaw style blue cheese salad.
At this point, we settled back into our seats for a rest, a few sips of wine and a little moonshine (note the restaurant is BYOB as the size doesn’t qualify it for a liquor license) while Chef Bruce prepared a sampling of entrees. Yes, I’ve yet to address the main courses. We ate an ungodly amount of food that night, and I say that as the highest compliment because I love to eat. What came out of the kitchen next was the best of the night, and made me wish I had a bigger belly.
We had duck cured in curry salt, pressed and shortly aged. It was some of the best duck I’ve had and that includes all the duck I recently ate in China, even the succulent Peking varieties I sampled. Next was the Pork accompanied by a gooey sweet potato funnel cake and spring veggies. The richest dish of all, of which I couldn’t manage more than one bite, was the Kobe beef flank steak marinated in Jack Daniels and coke. I have never tasted a beef so luscious and decadent.
And just in case all of that wasn’t enough, we were served a dessert plate sampler with smoked praline pie, vanilla pound cake with raspberry sorbet, butterscotch banana pudding, chocolate mousse with red wine and lemon chess pie with key lime ice cream. Whew! I’m wiping my brow at the mere thought of all that food again.
A couple days later at the conference, a local Knoxville food expert commented that “Chef Bruce has the best palate in town.” After enjoying my illustrious meal at the chef’s table at RouXbarb I believe it. When perusing the standard menu I have to say the prices at RouXbarb can’t be beat, especially given the outstanding quality of the food. As Chef Bruce quipped, “I don’t want to live in the Taj Mahal, but I just don’t want to end up living under a bridge.” He just wants to feed good people good food.
Chef Bruce commented at the beginning of the meal, “If you don’t go home stuffed we didn’t do our job.” I certainly left satiated and happy. All around, it was a great night and I’ll gladly make the four hour trip down to Knoxville for dinner at RouXbarb anytime. Be sure to check it out the next time you’re in town and support this Knoxville gem.