Restaurant Report: The Coop Café

1008 E. Woodland Ave., 865-525-9384

It's easy to drive past the little strip on Woodland Avenue that houses the Coop Café—St. Mary's is such an imposing and eye-drawing edifice on the other side of the street. But what a shame it would be to miss the colorful décor and good food of this jewel on the north side of town.

The Coop Café is the sister of Creative Catering of Knoxville, and the mind behind both is Nancy Kendrick. Kendrick came to the food industry through her love of the kitchen and others' love of her cooking—especially her tarragon chicken salad. That signature dish led to her commercial debut a little over three years ago at the Market Square Farmer's Market. "I was so nervous," Kendrick recalls, "I worried that nobody would buy it." Instead, she sold out of her wares, and her die was cast.

Within months she set up shop for an adventure in catering. "I rush in where angels fear to tread," says Kendrick, describing the expansion of her business and the move into her own space on North Central, where she developed Creative Catering into a successful and popular business.

The Coop Café was a natural step for the business, and it began in the Knoxville Visitors' Center in 2011 before landing in its current abode this summer.

The restaurant itself is a multi-hued ménage of local art and found objects, including a variety of doors from Brownlow School and various spots around the world. The Coop Café is a bright and joyful place to eat and, fortunately, the food is tasty as well.

The menu is a mix of hot panini, cold sandwiches, soups, salads, and a weekly blue plate special. Desserts are worth every bit of the indulgence—particularly the virtually sinful chocolate pecan tart and the textural wonder of the firm and yet soft oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. Desserts (and soups) rotate daily, which makes regular visits pleasantly surprising.

Kendrick and Executive Chef Simon Hall work to use local ingredients to create their menu. In fact, during the summer months they source lots of food from their own sizable gardens: This little place is a very personal farm-to-table experience.

The food is fresh and happy in a way that reflects the very obvious pleasure that both Kendrick and Hall have found in their vocations. That makes for a great meal anytime.

1008 E. Woodland Ave., 525-9384

Monday-Friday: 7:30 a.m. – 3 p.m., Saturday: 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Must Haves

Rooster Salad: The simplicity of good chicken salad over greens is always a winner, but the Coop's offering is gently spicy with spikes of black beans, cumin, and jalapeño that carry through to the last swallow. The spice is subtle and balanced and, thus, gives the salad a hint of fire without a big burn. It's served with blue chips and salsa and was particularly nice with their refreshing cilantro-lime vinaigrette.

Grilled Cheese: This is a special worth seeking because the interesting combination of ham, apples, Gouda, and sage is delicious. The marriage of these ingredients produces a sweet and savory experience in which the sage is a supporting player to the hint of smokiness in the ham. The buttery melt of the cheese is both a flavorful and textural contrast to the bright crispness of the apples. Served on beautifully browned sourdough, this is a good example of the café's toothsome creativity.

Grilled Chicken Pesto and Provolone: In this pressed sandwich it's hard to differentiate between main ingredient and condiment. Certainly the grilled chicken is well cooked, flavorful, and juicy, but the pesto is aromatic and tastes fresh from the garden. They're nicely complementary and play equal parts on the palate. Ultimately, it's a fine mouthful of sandwich that gets a hint of smoke from the crunchy ciabatta that surrounds it.