Bruce Bogartz—chef, entrepreneur, and force of nature—has returned to Knoxville in some style, transforming a low-slung, surly little building on Northshore Drive into a beautiful (and currently liquor-free) gem of a restaurant.
The indefatigable Bogartz is certainly a better cook than he is a christener of restaurants; as well as being an appalling pun, the name of his latest is, I would imagine, more or less Google-proof to anyone who hasn’t actually seen it written down.
From the outside, RouXbarb’s premises at 130 S. Northshore Drive appear as limited as its opening hours. Inside, however, one is greeted by an interior that is intimate but not restricting, and a maitre d’ with the same qualities. The intelligent yet unpretentious menu and handful of specials together offer some of the very best fare for perhaps 200 miles.
Largely Southern traditional cuisine with a twist, the food here is robust, hearty and tactile. Gratis cheddar-and-herb biscuits are dispensed as liberally as table water. Chunky, fluffy, and served with a deliciously tangy chutney, they are substantial enough to suggest the possibility of putting on weight without actually ordering anything.
The restaurant claims to use hormone-free, organic produce from family-sustained farms “wherever possible.” (On further probing, this proves to mean “more often than not.”) The benefits of this policy are not just ethical. The duck confit is delicately flavored and unbelievably moist, and the steakhouse filet, while being one of the less adventurous dishes, offers just the right amount of polite resistance to the knife.
Throughout the menu, Bogartz’s inventiveness is never absent, but occasionally his wit can be unnecessary or distracting. Chicken wings come, somewhat counter-intuitively, with an egg. Huge, fresh shrimp and sweet, almost nutty grits are drowned out by an over-salty bacon accompaniment. Yet when his ideas work, they work beautifully. The crawfish soup, less celebrated than Bogartz’ wedding variety, is a bold balancing act of rustic and sophisticated flavors. And rather than delegating the preparation of a wan, token non-meat item to a lowly sous, the chef seems to actively relish cooking for vegetarians, sacrificing neither quality nor brio in their daily specials.
The menu, although varied, is relatively brief and is made shorter by the philosophy of preferring to run out of something rather than keeping it overnight. This can be rather frustrating, but such absenteeism is redeemed by the dessert list.
Chief among the desserts is arguably one of the better chocolate mousses in the hemisphere. Bourbon-spiked and with a dusting of pecan shards, the mousse is impossibly plush, the alcohol giving just one good kick before backing off. A Drew Barrymore among desserts, it is ample and glamorous yet so soft and comforting it could move you to tears.
A word about the prices: They seem expensive (entrees go from $16 to $26), but they’re not. This is the price that food is meant to be. These are natural, good-quality ingredients prepared by someone who actually cares about what you’re going to eat tonight. As Marx reminds us, quantity changes quality, and that’s as true for the number of animals squeezed into a factory-farm as it is for the number of covers in a restaurant. As a society we’ve been pretty consistent not only in celebrating the desire to own as much as possible but also in rewarding lack of imagination and lack of taste. Hence the corporation—ironically the closest thing we have to anything Soviet in America.
As a nation, we have collectively voted for the cheap, the nasty and the mass-produced. But of course you can’t have both power and pleasure. Smugglers, bootleggers and resistance fighters for the sensual will find a kindred spirit in Bruce Bogartz, a man with passion and talent larger than his restaurant. There’ll be a statue of him here when the culture wars are over.