Knoxville's Brunch Masters

All hail the best meal of the week! We tour Knoxville's ever-growing brunch scene.

The Best of Knoxville 2012 Brunch:

Bistro at the Bijou

Martha Boggs, owner and cook

Years before Martha Boggs attained national fame by refusing service in January 2012 to renegade state Sen. Stacey Campfield (following remarks made about monkeys and AIDS), she'd earned a wildly enthusiastic and loyal following for the most lovely brunch she serves Saturday until 3 p.m. and all day Sundays. Still, she's humble and grateful about last year's Best of Knoxville reader-voted Best Brunch award. "I probably earned that more through notoriety than anything, and I really appreciate it because there are a lot of really good brunches in Knoxville," she says. Here, Boggs shares the secrets to her brunchly success.

Our brunch philosophy: We can put an egg on anything. And I do.

My biggest brunch influence: Oh gosh, I guess I cook brunch just because I like breakfast so much. Also, the reason the menu is so creative is I'll be back there, and I make what I like and then I put stuff on the menu that I like. I guess we could say my stomach is the greatest influence on this brunch.

Menu standouts: People seem to love the chicken fried-steak—it's authentic, and people just love that. And there's the Cool Hand Luke. My rheumatologist was talking about my brunch, "Why don't you have all-you-can-eat omelets?" I was like, "Who are you, Cool Hand Luke?" This is ginormous, a 10-egg omelet. The college students order and eat them regularly. That's the reason my brunch is good. It's not so much the meat, it's that we have the best egg cooks in town. I've got four guys back there flipping eggs for this big ol' house. It's the Waffle House times 10, the Waffle House with liquor. We are here to have a good time.

A surprising thing about the menu: You don't see beets at a lot of places, or fried bologna. I've got a regular who gets fried bologna with cheese and a fried egg on it. It's served on a hamburger bun. I call it the Senator Burger.

Brunch when I was a kid: We were poor, and breakfast for dinner was a big treat. That's when you got pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon. My poor mother probably didn't have any other groceries, but we thought it was super special.

The best brunch beverage: For me, that's a mimosa made with Cook's—the beer of champagnes.

My favorite brunch item: I love Bearnaise, so probably the steak and Bearnaise, or Bearnaise and a poached egg. My grandmother showed me how to poach an egg when I was little. And we have a brunch burger to die for. Thinking about it, a brunch burger topped with an egg and Bearnaise sauce, that would be really good. That's why my menu keeps changing, I can't make my mind up.

The Classic Brunch:

Copper Cellar West

Lynn Melton, general manager

Our brunch philosophy: We try to cater to a lot of different people with a little bit of everything, something for everyone, depending on your mood. And we want it to be relaxing, a place where you can sit and visit—kind of like if you can imagine a Sunday dinner, with the family coming over.

My biggest brunch influence: We've made it accessible—you're not fighting the crowd since there are stations. You can go in and get what you want and get back to your family and friends. That's kind of developed over time. Other things we do have been based on guest suggestions—something they've seen out. We just want to create a little excitement.

Brunch standouts: A lot of different things: an omelet bar, a make-your-own waffle station, biscuits and gravy, chicken tenders, different types of hash browns and potato casseroles, a huge fruit station. We carve, always prime rib and at the holidays we usually add turkey or ham. With Easter coming up, we'll carve lamb or something else.

Most surprising about our menu: Mostly, people coming in for the first time are a little shocked when they see how much stuff there is. Salads, stir fry, pastas, omelets. We have cheesecake, and little bite-size nano bars, one peanut butter and nuts, one amaretto, one Bailey's Irish cream. There's literally something for everybody.

The best brunch beverage: a Bloody Mary. We have a bar where you can choose from 20 different hot sauces, and pick your type of liquor—vodka, gin—your mix, and garnishes like olives, celery, and spicy green beans. We also squeeze all our juices fresh by hand that morning. For my Bloody Mary, I choose Clamato, Absolut, and celery. I do lime, and kick it with a little bit of horseradish, maybe even a little cucumber—my own little salad bar on top of my drink.

My favorite brunch item: My wife doesn't do the biscuit and gravy for me anymore, so my kind of ritual is to get in early and set it all up, and then eat biscuits and gravy. I also love our fruits—cantaloupe, fresh strawberry, canned fruit cocktail, pineapple, and mandarin oranges. When it's seasonal, we also run watermelon and such.

The New Brunch:

Knox Mason

Matt Gallaher, chef, owner, plumber, janitor, etc.

Our brunch philosophy: It's pretty much the same as we have for our dinner service—we really showcase and feature foods and ingredients from local farms, producers, and artisans. We've built the menu around what we can get locally. We do have Benton's bacon and ham prominently featured, and also Swaggerty sausage, which is a big producer. I think it's important to support the community, and bigger business as well as the small enterprises. It's all about supporting the local economy.

My biggest brunch influence: I'd cooked brunch probably twice before opening the restaurant, so I haven't been locked into anything traditional. We just decided what we would want on a morning after a weary, long work week and maybe a late night. What's going to drag you out of bed? Something a little heartier, and somewhat unique, but brunch and breakfast can't get too esoteric.

Some menu standouts: We serve fresh pork rinds. I love the idea of fresh, popping pork rinds being the first bite you have on Sunday. One of our most popular items is Eggs Monroe. It's named for Monroe County, where Madisonville and Benton's are based. It's a tip of the hat to Allan Benton. We take a pretty traditional English muffin, toast it on the grill so it's crunchy outside, and top it with two poached eggs from Knoxville's Riverplains Farm. We put homemade Hollandaise sauce on top, so it's real simple, but a twist on great local ingredients that people seem to enjoy.

Most surprising about our menu: We have a salad on our brunch menu. It's not a traditional salad, although in some ways it's a very traditional dish. The governor's stepmother, Natalie Haslam, told me years ago about a dish she had growing up, They'd take the first young lettuces of spring, and spring onions, fry some bacon, and throw the hot fat over the greens. Then a little bit of vinegar and a hard-cooked egg, and they'd call it "killed salad." On our opening menu this January, we wanted to feature our own killed salad—it's a winter version. I toast Flour Head Bakery wheat bread, and get kale, or frisée, or whatever we have of a hearty winter-type green. Then Benton's bacon, boiled mustard, shallots, all in a quick sauté until the greens are beginning to wilt. We serve that on top of the toast with perfectly poached Riverplains eggs.

Brunch when I was a kid: I grew up in pretty rural East Knoxville and we didn't go out to eat much. My mother is a wonderful cook. She would do breakfast on occasion for my brother and I, but we weren't big breakfast or brunch eaters. Probably my biggest memory is that she was such a good cook she had a catering business. At age 9 or so I was already cooking with my mom, getting up on Sundays to help her prepare Sunday's catering. It's not a cliche: Once that love for cooking gets in you, you can never escape. I had a degree in chemical engineering but decided I would rather be chef. I was given opportunities, like those Sunday mornings, and I thank my mom for that.

The perfect brunch beverage: The beer cocktails we've done here... One is the Beermosa, a twist on a drink that is popular in Wisconsin. We have a wheat ale on tap that is really light and has a good balance. We mix that with orange juice and it's great. My favorite though is a Mexican beer "Michelada," a pint glass filled with ice and a salted rim. Then we add ground chile pequin (which you can buy at any Latino market), for a little smoky flavor, a squeeze of lime, and Miller High Life. The freshness of the beer and ice makes it a great brunch or summer cocktail that really sets the tone.

My favorite brunch item: I really like our chicken and waffles. We take dark meat—legs and thighs—and fry it and serve it with what we call the "yellow box waffle." It's the Eggo waffle everyone grew up with; we don't have a waffle iron at the restaurant. We take a chili garlic sauce and add it to honey and drizzle it over the chicken. It's wonderful on its own, but with the kick of the sauce, going back and forth, bite of chicken, bite of waffle—it's really, really good. We do a really good fried chicken here. The staff, if any is left over, we all sit down and reflect on the week and eat fried chicken together. That's our tradition, a place in the heart. I love my staff, I can't express how incredible they are. Having that chicken at the end of the week really means a lot to me.

The Modern Brunch:

Sunspot

Brandon Cruze, executive chef

Our brunch philosophy: Basically to cater to anybody and everybody. We always have two vegetarian options, and some sort of carnivore option—this week it's a barbecue grilled quail. We do have a few children who come in and we like to provide them something they'd like to eat. We always change the specials weekly to include various dishes focusing on seasonal items.

My biggest brunch influence: There are three, actually, all within my family. My daughter is a vegetarian, my son will eat anything or at least try anything, and my wife is like the middle ground—she knows her palate and won't even touch certain foods. Any dinner or brunch for us ends up as four different meals, and that's the same here at Sunspot. We've got some crazy and exciting dishes, the Plain Jane dishes, and the vegetarian items that are quite delicious.

Some menu standouts: We try to incorporate waffles of various types. We also have a classic Monte Cristo, with the French-toasted turkey sandwich. And a couple of variations of Eggs Benedict—shrimp, crab, or steak. And we serve rosemary biscuits.

Most surprising about our menu: One of the biggest surprises is probably our waffles, people are surprised to find them here, that and us using more local products. With our new location on the Cumberland Strip, I'll have time to go to the farmers market and get lots of fresh ingredients.

Brunch when I was a kid: Was wonderful. I have a picture of myself when I was three at the stove cooking an omelet. I don't think it turned out great or anything, but that is a perfect brunch memory of childhood: the classic French rolled omelet.

The perfect brunch beverage: This depends on the night before—either a Mimosa or a Bloody Mary. Our Bloody Marys here are really good. Another great brunch beverage is the old Clamato/Budweiser mixed with a little tomato juice. Those are pretty tasty, especially on the beach.

My favorite brunch item: Whenever I run it on the menu, my favorite brunch item is bacon pancakes—or anything involving bacon, really.

The East Tennessee Brunch:

The Grill at Highlands Row

Ron Watkins, executive chef

Our brunch philosophy: To impart the feeling of being at your grandparents' or aunt's house on a Sunday—to invoke the flavors and feelings from childhood, the warm biscuits, the sausage gravy, the feeling of home and warmth. We want to put out the feeling that you are very welcome to be at our restaurant.

Some brunch standouts: Probably the most popular item we serve is the Highlands Benedict—one little spin on the traditional Eggs Benedict. It begins with a fried green tomato, served over an award-winning blue lump crab cake, topped with a poached egg and a very herbaceous cilantro hollandaise. Another one I'm pretty proud of is a dish I created in honor of Miss Katie, a cook at the original Highlands Grill in the '30s, who is still alive. It's a blackberry French toast.

Brunch when I was a kid: The Sunday meal was a very exciting time with friends and family. All the worries kind of stopped at the table. The bonus was you left with a full stomach—it was just about being happy.

A surprising thing about the menu: I don't think most people have had exposure to how many local ingredients we're using—Benton's bacon, Shelton Farm grits, Swaggerty sausage, Clifty Farms country ham. We're trying to showcase local foods. I've also recently started serving Wampler's sausage links a la carte, and I use Cruze Farm milk for gravy.

The perfect brunch beverage: Brunch is probably the one meal when most people order multiple beverages. They may start with a mimosa, finish with coffee, or start with juice and then get a tea with a hamburger. A Bloody Mary is going to be my go-to for brunch. We have coined a phrase here for use around the restaurant: "Bland is banned." So it's got a little more kick than most.

My favorite brunch dish: This is a chef speaking—I probably snack all day is the honest answer. But I'm a huge fan of Southern food: biscuits, country ham and red eye gravy, eggs and grits. Can't forget the grits! Growing up, a really special great aunt started me rolling biscuits and peppering the gravy, probably at literally age six or seven. The rolling pin I learned with I still have. It was hand-carved from a single piece of hickory and given to my great aunt by her mother-in-law as a wedding gift back in the late '50s. It is at least 110 years old and one of my prized possessions.


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