Grub Scout: Chicken-salad fans will want to flock to downtown's Coop Cafe

Coop Cafe

Downtown - Knoxville

301 South Gay St.

865-342-9140

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Critic's star breakdown

  • Food: 3.5 stars (out of five)
  • Service: 3.5
  • Atmosphere: 3.5
  • Overall: 3.5

I realized going in that Coop Cafe, which operates out of the Knoxville Visitor Center on Gay Street, would be my third little restaurant on that street within a four-week span. No matter; my schedule only allowed a daytime outing this week, so I once again headed downtown — this time to meet a friend for a late-lunch Grub.

The cafe is actually the sit-down dining arm of Ms. Cock-A-Doodle's catering kitchen on Woodland Avenue. The creations are made off site and brought in to the Gay Street site on a daily basis. The menu emphasizes lunch fare like soups, sandwiches and salads — those made with greens as well as multiple varieties of chicken salad. There is also a limited breakfast menu that offers oatmeal, yogurt, bagels and muffins.

However, my friend and I focused on the other sections of the menu and fortunately found ourselves drawn to different categories. I lingered on the panini listings, which include a veggie-friendly sandwich with sun-dried tomato spread and a jalapeno pimento cheese-based sandwich. I've never cared for pimento cheese, but I sampled their spicy version, and although it was much better than expected, I couldn't commit to a full serving. So I played it safe with the grilled chicken, pesto and provolone panini.

My friend decided to go with one of the several varieties of chicken salad, which is the mainstay of this poultry-loving place. Flavors include basil artichoke, Buffalo blue cheese, chipotle lime, curry cranberry pecan, pesto and tarragon, although my sidekick picked the spinach, roasted red pepper and goat cheese blend. For side items, we got pasta salad and black-eyed pea salad, respectively.

For the record, the menu features other cold sandwiches like egg salad and turkey (with bacon, spinach and Swiss cheese); seasonal soups like chicken and wild rice, potato cheddar and tomato basil; and salads that combine mixed baby greens with different kinds of chicken salad.

Although we ordered at the counter, our food was brought out to our table when it was ready. The sole employee on hand had to be reminded about our drinks, and even though I had paid up front for a bottled water, I was brought fountain water. The server smoothed my ruffled feathers by making the switch.

My friend had expected her chicken salad to be served by the scoop, but it was actually assembled as a sandwich. In context, I think that was a fair assumption for the server to make, although you can buy the chicken salad only by the half-pound and pound.

I thought all the items were pleasantly palatable though not quite in the outstanding category. The chicken salad was a nice mix of flavors and creamier/whippier than many chunky recipes I've tasted. The bread was thick and fresh, making a nice sandwich overall. I'm not crazy about black-eyed peas either, but the Coop's pea salad was a solid effort.

My panini elicited no major complaints either, although I thought the chicken was underrepresented compared to the strong presence of the pesto and cheese. The pasta salad was probably the biggest disappointment of the lot, actually coming across on the dry and bland side.

Our lunch was so late that we decided to fly the coop without sampling the assortment of homemade brownies, cookies and other baked goods.

And although Coop Cafe didn't strike me as being cock of the restaurant walk, I think its quality and market niche still mean there's plenty of room for this hen in the downtown pecking order.

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