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(out of five)

Separation Anxiety Soothed

Bistro At the Bijou
807 S. Gay Street

by Les DuLunch

Late last week was just dreadful. Word spread like wildfire. Lula, long one my favorite restaurants, was closing—and quickly too.

My Tuesday night wine-flight wings had been cruelly clipped. How could anyone have possibly foreseen that those wonderful tacquitos of herbed sour cream and refried beans served with a four-glass round of peppery Australian Shiraz would be my last Lula meal? Thank god I'd had the presence of mind to order dessert—a flan so smooth it could've been spun by silkworms. But worst of all, there would be no more tomato-mint salsa to dip deep-fried flour tortilla triangles into—ever. I could cry just thinking about it.

At the time, however, I was simply thunderstruck. Blundering out of my office and onto Gay Street, the eternal separation anxiety cliches pulsed through my mind. Why must good things end? Why can't I have my milk-soaked tres leches with rum deglazed bananas and eat it too? Whither would I turn? Honking horns and loud curses eventually brought my attention back to earth and I discovered that I was standing in front of the Bistro at the Bijou, a restaurant I vaguely recalled having been to and enjoyed before this fugue-like state set in.

It's a subtle sort of place that can be easily overlooked. And not just because it's unobtrusively located on Chris Whittle's dusty South Gay Street block. When you say you had dinner at the "Bistro," most people automatically assume that you've dined at Bistro by the Tracks, one of Knoxville's favorite (and finest) restaurants. Whereas By the Tracks Bistro is sleekly upscale with well-worth-it menu prices to match the chocolatey fabric-covered walls and toney art, Bistro at the Bijou is a different sort of animal.

This elder, downtown Bistro calls to mind the gentlemen's clubs of days gone by. Of course, that might have something to do with the mobs of men in gray worsted wool suits and red ties who flock there on power-lunch breaks from their nearby mirrored glass towers. Or it might be because, in spite of the windows fronting Gay Street, the Bistro's interior is very dim and lends a sort of clandestine-feeling to everything, as if business deals and marketing plots were being hatched at every table. Or it could be the distinctly masculine aura created by forest green paint, exposed brick, and a particularly lovely dark, wooden bar. Then, again, it could also be the stripper. No gentlemen's club is complete without one and the Bistro has made a tasteful nod to the pornographic with a prominently featured painting of a Rubenesque lady who's as naked as a jaybird. (Check the back of the menu for the story on how it came to be there.)

So, after surveying this business-like scene, you'll feel fairly confident that you've got the place figured all out and that big slabs of red meat must be the dish of every day. Wrong.

The $8- to $12-range specials board is home to a rotating daily variety of interesting and appealing dishes. In particular, the Bistro seems to work well with fish, such as garlicky ginger-spiced tuna steak over soy-soaked noodles and julienne vegetables or a sweet mustard and dill sauce-covered salmon fillet with potato gratin that I once tried. The portions are on the larger end of the lunchtime spectrum and, therefore, make perfectly sized dinner entrees as well.

All the daily soups I remember trying—a tomato-based Mediterranean fish stew that was more fish than stew, wintry white bean and ham, creamy rich tomato basil—were also consistently wonderful. And I distinctly recall relishing Bistro's black and blue burger—a blackened, Cajun-spiced hamburger topped with stinky bleu cheese. They even have a fine homemade pimento cheese sammy.

Then, the curtain parted and I was swept back to a gray workaday lunch that was brightened by the funniest dish I'd ever consumed. Sense of humor is difficult concept to express in food. A sense of whimsy, yes, but rarely are you served up a steaming platter of sardonic wit without one word. I'd espied the delectably artery-clogging fried peanut butter and banana sandwich ($5.95) and ordered it on a dare from a colleague. It arrived—two slices of thick, nutty wheat bread laden with creamy peanut butter and length-wise sliced banana—with a clump of egg-yolk-yellow potato salad on the side.

Immediately, images of Elvis at his most bloated and rhinestone-bedecked glory leapt to mind. But it was the small paper cup of jujubes perched on the plate's rim and masquerading as meds that completed the amusing picture in a brilliantly (no pun intended) dead-frying-pan style. The King of Rock and Roll and Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls all on one uber-campy plate! I laughed out loud.

Now, standing dazed and confused in the middle of the street, a smile began to play at the corner of my mouth. Maybe there would be life after Lula after all; it could be relegated to that hazy, halcyon place where all long-lost loves live. I stepped in to the Bistro and bellied up to the bar for a beer and an order of nicely jalapeno-spiced spinach con queso made with, of all things, white American cheese. Oh yes, I was feeling better already.

October 5, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 40
© 2000 Metro Pulse