Parisian Vacation


Lilou’s Belle Epoque vibe and French cuisine, wines, and cheeses combine for an elegant cultural sojourn

A gentle rain falls as the streetlamps cast shadows on the sidewalks and you enter the doors of Lilou, walk past the desk of the boutique Hotel Cleo, and peer inside to see walls covered with gilt-framed paintings. Is that Salvador Dali at the bar? Is that Hemingway arguing with Gertrude Stein at that far table? 

Walking into Lilou is like a trip to Paris. Co-owner Jessica King spent years collecting artwork from estate sales to fulfill her inspired design of un restaurant Francais. “We want to create a cultural experience for the guests,” says server Cosette Schoepke. “We want to bring you into a different culture.”

Chef Benjamin Tilatti is a native of Agen, a small town southeast of Bordeau in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France. It is just north of Basque country, the land of Chef Benjamin’s forebears. From 2006 to 2010 he cheffed in Montreal at restaurants named after Emile Zola novels—La Bête Humaine, La Chronique, Les Deux Gamins. Returning home to Bayonne, on the west coast of Basque Country, he ran his own private chef and catering business, La Cuisine de Benjamin. A client suggested that he open his own restaurant far away. He chose Singapore and operated Kinou for four years. As he chatted with us tableside, we were drawn into the rhythms of his country and his obvious passion for cuisine.

Lilou Culinary Team

When co-owners King and Aaron Thompson went looking for a genuine French chef, it was important he had experience at running a business and managing the menu. “French cuisine is complicated,” says Thompson. “There’s a different sauce for every dish, and they take days to make.” Tilatti, who might be played by a bearded Adrien Brody in a movie, brings both culinary excellence and business sense to Lilou. 

For the full experience, ask Sommelier Brad Poyner to match glasses of wine with your courses. All the wines are from the 19 wine-growing regions of France. “Our goal is to grow the wine scene here in Knoxville,” says Thompson.

Our evening started with an amuse bouche of Huitres en Demi-Coquille (New Brunswick Honey Moon oysters) on the half shell. You may think you do not like oysters, but we promise you when you taste these bright and briny bites, topped with Crème Fraiche, Caviar, Chives, and Shallots, you will become a believer.

The oysters were served with a Voirin-Jumel Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs. This domain is located in Cramant, and this bottle shows off its grand cru origins. The bright citrus and cool mineral notes were the perfect complement to showcase the seafood.

The entrées were a preview of the care and expertise Chef Benjamin brings to his work. Forget what you know about the heavy Coquille St. Jacques your grandmother made, this haute cuisine St. Jacques is one large scallop topped with Chorizo foam, floating on sweet corn coulis and crispy Bayonne ham. 


Tartare de Boeuf is served in the classic French manner: a blend of prime beef, mustard, shallots, capers, and other seasonings and topped with an egg yolk. Gravlax, typically a Nordic sugar-salt cured salmon is given a new twist here: beet-cured trout, topped with lemon crème fraiche, dill oil, grapefruit, and pickled golden beet purée. There was a small tussle at our table for the last savory-sweet bite.

Soupe a L’Oignon combines Emmental cheese from Switzerland chicken stock, duck fat, and toasted brioche bread. “If you don’t like the onion soup,” says Chef Benjamin, “call my grandmother. It’s my family way.” All honneur to Grand-Mere Tilatti—this is an outstanding preparation.

These flavors were accented by Poyner’s second pick– a Chardonnay from a vineyard founded by the Knights Templar returning from the Crusades in the 12th century, Chevalier de la Crée, Montagny Premier Cru Knights Templar Cuvée. With hints of Meyer lemon and white peach, this wine combines a lovely minerality with a creamy mouthfeel.

You would not be in a French restaurant without some house-favorite Plats. Lilou’s summer menu includes an outstanding Filet au Poivre: prime filet mignon in a classic peppercorn sauce, served with a spinach fondue and pommes purée. The duck breast is prepared in a light apricot gastrique, making for a lovely summer choice.


An unexpected star is the Champignon: seared black oyster mushroom from ET Fungi, accented by an artichoke sunchoke duo and vegetable jus. “We cook the mushrooms as a steak,” says Chef Benjamin. This may just make a vegetarian of you. The substantial mushroom, combined with Chef Bejamin’s preparation style is an earthy and flavorful pleasure.

The plats were paired with a Château Kirwan Margaux, a quintessential Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and merlot. This wine is produced from the premier parts of the vineyard, established in 1710, which contains both gravel soils and clay. Half-oak barrels complete the process, adding just a touch of vanilla, and the result is a generous, full-bodied wine that allows the fruit to be the star of the show.

In la mode Francaise, we savored a Plat de Trois Fromages, with our choices introduced by fromagier Natalie Murty. She recommended the Ossrau-Iraty AOC tomme, a mild sheep’s-milk cheese from Basque sheep. Tomme is a class of cheeses produced mainly in the French Alps. The second cheese was Fromage D’Affinois – a mild and buttery cheese similar to brie with a bloomy rind. The selection was completed with a Rhone-Alpes: double cream cow. All were served with house made baguettes. The cheese course was paired with a Fixin (pronounced Feex-a) Le Rozier Burgundy. The earthy and dark fruit notes set off the cheese to perfection. “This Burgundy is amazing with cheese,” said Poyner. “Burgundy has that special je ne sais quois.”

Dessert offerings include decadent profiteroles: Orange Craquelin choux pastry, filled with chilled Chantilly cream, and topped with warm chocolate ganache (Lilou has a fulltime pastry kitchen of 10 people), and a Crème Brulée, the creamy vanilla custard topped by caramelized sugar. With dessert, we enjoyed Château Les Justices Sauternes, a sweet wine, honeyed, rich, and well balanced, with a hint of apricots. “It’s a sexy wine,” says Poyner. 

The summer menu at Lilou is not to be missed. Don your beret, tie your red neckerchief and make a reservation at Lilou for une délicieuse soirée à Paris.  

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