Where Paris and West Knoxville collide
by Gay Lyons
Northshore Brasserie, which has been open about a month, has an uninspiring location on busy Northshore Drive. But inside, the space is very French—bright and airy with gleaming black wood. The kitchen is visible through a large window in the back of the dining room. Some café curtains in the front windows might better support the illusion of being in a brasserie in France instead of in a strip mall in West Knoxville.
What is a brasserie (pronounced brah-sree)? Simply, it’s a café serving the fresh, simple dishes of everyday French cuisine. In France, the term also indicates the café serves beer.
I’ve only been to Northshore Brasserie at lunchtime, but the dinner menu, which includes steaks, five preparations of mussels, veal, lamb, chicken, duck and fish, beckons. I want to try each of the six plats du jour, especially the bouillabaisse and the rabbit moutarde.
The soups du jour are fabulous. I especially loved the rich, dark roasted beet soup, flavored with amaretto and cardamom, drizzled with cream and enhanced with tiny pieces of beet and specks of flat leaf parsley. The savory, hearty rabbit and vegetable soup (very French to use leftover rabbit moutarde to make soup) included bits of carrot and onion along with tender meat in a tomato-based broth.
The crispy beer-battered frog legs were novel, and the miniature leek tart, filled with caramelized leeks perfectly complemented by smoky bacon, nutmeg crème fraiche and gouda, was tasty. The sautéed escargot came in a buttery, garlicky white wine sauce perfect for sopping with pieces of crusty baguette. But my favorite appetizer was the Frisee Lyonnaise, a blend of peppery lettuce, poached egg and warm bacon vinaigrette topped with lardons, the pork rind’s sleeker, more sophisticated cousin.
My favorite salad so far is the fried oyster salad with creamy parmesan dressing. The five stacked romaine leaves, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, white anchovies, smoked bacon and fried oysters made a pleasing combination of colors, textures and flavors, though I would have preferred a little more crunch to the oysters. If I’m going to indulge in fried things, I want all the crunch I can get. A friend let me sample her endive duck salad, a lovely combination of endive, radicchio and frisee with duck breast, caramelized apples and shaved fennel with flavorful pomegranate vinaigrette.
Choosing from the list of sandwiches, which includes tartines (beautifully presented open-faced sandwiches), was difficult. I bypassed lobster club, tartine of lamb and grilled ham and gruyere cheese with fried egg and mornay sauce to try the curry chicken tartine, buttered toasted bread topped with baby arugula, lightly curried chicken salad with pecan bits and a slice of oven-baked tomato. While a fresh tomato would have been too soggy, a sun-dried tomato too dry, this roasted version was perfect. The thick cheeseburger with truffled onions and mushrooms was expertly prepared, crusty and brown outside, tender and moist inside. It came with the usual condiments and a top bun, lettuce, tomato and onion, but I ate it as an open-faced burger with knife and fork, the better to savor the perfectly caramelized onions and the tangy Roquefort cheese.
The gratin of wild mushrooms was good, but I preferred the gratin of Belgium endive, long strips of endive baked in gruyere cheese and a little cream, with specks of parsley sprinkled on the crusty browned cheese. The braised peas, bright green and crispy snap peas speckled with bits of onion and tomato, were outstanding.
The chocolate mousse is delicious and the profiteroles, flaky pastry, vanilla ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream drenched at the table with a warmed sauce of Belgian chocolate, are elegant and satisfying, cold and warm, soft and crunchy all at once. The rich, creamy pumpkin crème brulee is beautifully presented with pecan arlettes, thin pastry flecked with pecans, and a molasses and cinnamon crisp that suggests rather than duplicates the shape of a pumpkin. Chocolate shavings, drizzles of sauce and a dab of whipped cream help make this dessert as appealing to the eye as to the tongue.
The café serves draft and bottled beers. The wine list offers several by the glass, a good option when everyone at the table has a different preference. I’d like to see some inexpensive European table wines listed.
Northshore Brasserie’s ambiance is warm and friendly. The servers are well trained, knowledgeable and willing to quiz the chef about ingredients, which is how I learned there was amaretto in the beet soup. It’s a modern café, offering free wireless for a “working” lunch.
I am so fond of well-prepared French food I once took a day-trip from London to Paris during which I managed to have three meals and buy madeleines to eat on the train. And, Northshore Brasserie serves the kind of food worth a three-hour train ride.