For Knoxville’s serious eaters this weekend marks the end of a long wait as Chef Joseph Lenn finally opens the doors to J.C. Holdway. The James Beard Award-winning chef’s restaurant on Union Avenue has brought some national attention to the Daylight Building as it was recently listed on Eater.com as one of the fall’s 23 most anticipated restaurant openings. Chef Lenn eased open his doors on Wednesday night with a soft opening to invited guests that will continue this evening before he flings out the welcome mat to all comers over the weekend. (Note: A fire early this morning will likely delay those plans.)
It’s a beautiful, almost minimalist space with bare walls and lighting that might make you think you’re sitting in one of Edward Hopper’s paintings—except that you’re unlikely to find solitude at J.C Holdway anytime soon. On opening night the place was full of happy eaters making a joyful noise; and while I’m sure the room was full of soft sighs of satisfaction, they were overwhelmed by the roar of happy conversation bouncing off the unadorned pale-green walls.
In fact, everything is beautiful—from the serving ware by Maryville’s McQueen Pottery to the furniture that manages to be both light and comfortable.
The menu, as anticipated, features a slate of biscuits, catfish, pork and the other usual suspects of Southeastern regional cuisine along with a handful of vegetarian options—all organized as tastes, bites, eats, sides, and desserts. At this eating, the offerings were all full of flavor, very approachable, and refreshingly free of even the barest hint of artifice. Everything was balanced, appealing, and managed a happy variety of texture and flavor, often with a good color mix, too.
The major successes of the evening came where the dishes included a healthy vegetable component, like a taste of lunch-box peppers that were simply roasted and dressed with lime juice and sea salt; or a delightful wood-grilled trout salad with generous ribbons of zucchini tossed with a creamy and lusty garlic vinaigrette, all topped with a surprisingly nice garnish of crumbled cornbread, adding a good chew to the otherwise silky dish.
A tender filet of grilled catfish over a lovely bed of perfect, pillowy rice matched nicely with toothsome squash and pistou—a classic French sauce of basil and olive oil that made tasteful sense when mixed up with the accompanying tomato vinaigrette.
That said, the comfort food element is also very well done. Chef Lenn offers what my table concluded is the best biscuit yet served in the downtown area—light as air on the inside with a delicate crunch about the edges. It’s the biscuit that copy-writers dream about when writing ads for the unfortunate mixes that sit on grocery shelves. It helps that these biscuits are stuffed with pork belly and bread-and-butter pickles, but I’d have been just as happy with some good butter and a dollop of honey.
A slow-cooked farm egg and crispy mushrooms arrived floating in a bowl of luxuriously cooked mushroom broth; it had the kind of soul-stirring depth of flavor that would warm the bones and lift the heart on a dark and rainy night. And a duo of pork loin and crispy pork shoulder with sea-island beans offered the taste of home, so much so that it felt like a plain-speaking cousin in a room of elegant relatives.
That’s the good news, and we’ll leave it that. The place and people are awfully welcoming: service was attentive and a little homey, even—peppered with Southern endearments. There were no major mishaps and only a slight hint of opening-night jitters, but that’s what one hopes to find from a chef with his reputation; unfortunately, sometimes, that can lead to impossible-to-meet expectations. But on this warm evening, made warmer inside by all those wood-burning ovens cranking out waves of good food, the happy throng of satisfied eaters was far from disappointed.
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