“How do you choose the restaurants that are on the tours?” is a question I frequently get asked as I am leading the Knoxville Food Tours. “Well, it happens in various different ways,” I most often respond. Currently in my 5th year of the tours, restaurant owners will often contact me now in order to get their business in the tour rotation. That’s exactly what happened recently with a new restaurant that popped up in downtown Knoxville, called Café du Soleil.
In the movie True Grit, our protagonist Mattie Ross states that she is from Dardanelle, in Yell County, Arkansas, the Western frontier at the time, and that influences her culinary tastes in that she is partial to cold buttermilk. My ancestors came to this new world in the 1600’s, from England, Ireland, and France. In addition to potatoes a hundred ways, I inherited an affinity for mille-feuille, profiteroles, and beurre blanc, that is – multi layered pastry, cream puffs, and butter sauce. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no need to feel intimidated by French food, especially at Café du Soleil, where French fare is made approachable and attainable for us old East Tennesseans.
Café du Soleil, Cafe of the Sun, derives its name from its close proximity to Knoxville’s iconic Sunsphere, the 75 foot steel truss structure built for the 1982 World’s Fair to represent the fair’s theme of energy. This petit cafe seats 30-35 guests and lies along Clinch Ave., just a couple of blocks over from the heavily tourist traveled Market Square. For visitors to downtown, it’s well worth the short walk to Clinch Ave. It’s an equal opportunity street, home to the Knoxville YMCA and the YWCA, both housed in historic buildings designed by Charles Barber, son of George Barber, one of the first architects to send out his home plans in mail order catalogs. You can casually make your way from the Tennessee marble clad old Knoxville Custom House, now the East Tennessee History Center, all the way to the Sunsphere and World’s Fair Park, with a stop at Café du Soleil in between.
“French inspired, Southern style, that’s our motto,” owner Joe Consumo tells me. “It gives us room for freedom and creativity.” Joe possesses traits every new business owner needs, excitement and energy. He bought the business in June of 2014 with one other business partner, Chris Dillon, of Baton Rouge. “We were always looking for a business to get into together, and when this opportunity came along, we thought it was perfect to start with something small.” Although Joe is very familiar with fine dining, it is his first foray into running a restaurant. “It’s a fun challenge, and I’m learning every day.” ￼
One main way Joe is keeping this French restaurant accessible is by using as many local ingredients as possible. The steaks are from Mitchell Family Farms in Blaine, TN, in Grainger County, just East of Knoxville. “The beef is organic, grass fed, healthier, and tastes better,” Joe emphasizes. I tell him I know he had been working with the local farmers from the beginning, because I had been following this restaurant since it opened, as I do most new restaurants, because I know my tour guests will ask about them.
All this talk of farmers and fresh food brings over Café du Soleil’s chef, Dino Nicolou. “French cooking is all about ingredients and technique,” Dino declares, noting that he will be visiting with all the local farmers. “We want to be true Farm to Table, where I can go to the farmers and say, what do you have for me today?” He doesn’t want to tell them what to grow specifically for Café du Soleil, but rather to wait and see what becomes available through the seasons and build dishes based on that. “We will have many seasonal specials.” Dino learned his culinary skills in his native Greece. In Knoxville he has worked as executive chef at Regas, Baker Peters, and Café 4. “We are looking forward to the challenge of building up Café du Soleil. We want to have food you won’t find anywhere else in Knoxville, so that our guests will say, ‘That wasn’t what I was expecting’. We want guests to try new things, French food is not intimidating,” Dino assures.
Some of the items that have recently been on Café du Soleil’s menu are a filet au poivre (steak with cracked peppercorn) with Cognac (brandy named after the town of Cognac, France) cream, duck confit (cooked in its own fat) collard greens, steelhead salmon filet with basil beurre blanc (butter sauce), leg of lamb in Herbs de Provence (dried herbs from Provence, France), potato au gratin (potatoes baked with a crust), crème brulee (cream with a burnt or torched topping), and Gateau Basque (an exquisite almond tart from the Basque region of France). See, easy, right? There’s even a croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese) sandwich, for the traditionalists. ￼
As we are talking, Joe introduces me to someone breezing out of the restaurant. It’s Stephanie Russo, a baker who has started working out of the kitchen at Café du Soleil. “Stephanie will be baking all of our bread, desserts, and cakes from scratch, and she also sells to other restaurants and individuals,” Joe tells me. “She’s a freelance baker?” I ask Joe, and we all giggle at my unusual terminology. Joe shows me some pictures of her beautiful cakes, then she’s off, I assume to her next intriguing gig.
“We’ve been getting many of our customers through word of mouth,” Joe says. “People can keep updated through our facebook page and our website www.cafedusoleilknoxville.com. We have the perfect space for private events such as private parties, birthdays, and corporate events. We usually have a 15 person minimum and a 30 person cap. Our prices are negotiable.” Café du Soleil is open for lunch now Monday thru Friday from 11:00-2:00 and dinner Tuesday thru Saturday 5:00-10:00.
Alright now, you brave Volunteers, I urge you to put aside your orange for a day and go out and experience, explore, and enjoy Café du Soleil, where French food is not daunting at all, but simply…delicieux!