Spotlight: River Oaks brings touch of classy dining where you get your just desserts

Patrons enjoy the bar scene at River Oaks during a midweek social stopover at the East Memphis restaurant.

Photos by Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal

Patrons enjoy the bar scene at River Oaks during a midweek social stopover at the East Memphis restaurant.

My eyes were closed, but I could feel other eyes on me. Didn't matter -- I was fully focused on the ambrosia just an inch or two beneath my nose.

Complex. Lush. Earthy but refined. Light notes of vanilla, the most subtle dark berry -- a notion, really, not a true scent. Heat. Definitely heat. I could smell it and feel it, because it wasn't a glass of wine in my hand. It was a spoonful of River Oaks' Godiva chocolate souffle.

Patrons enjoy the bar scene at River Oaks during a midweek social stopover at the East Memphis restaurant.

Photos by Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal

Patrons enjoy the bar scene at River Oaks during a midweek social stopover at the East Memphis restaurant.

Chef Ben Vaughn (middle) prepares dishes with visiting chefs for a special dinner. Entrees aside, the appetizers, desserts and wine list make a visit worthwhile.

Chef Ben Vaughn (middle) prepares dishes with visiting chefs for a special dinner. Entrees aside, the appetizers, desserts and wine list make a visit worthwhile.

Waiter Scott Miles pours a wine from one of River Oaks' stellar offerings. On Monday nights, bottled wines are half price.

Waiter Scott Miles pours a wine from one of River Oaks' stellar offerings. On Monday nights, bottled wines are half price.

Video

The James Beard Dinner was held at River Oaks, featuring dishes from some of the city's finest chefs.

The James Beard Dinner was held at River Oaks, featuring dishes from some of the city's finest chefs. Watch »

When I opened my eyes, I was proved right. My husband was smiling and the woman from the next table was looking at me, a little wistfully.

"Is that the chocolate thing?" she asked.

She was trim and I noted she'd eaten trout and nursed one glass of wine throughout dinner. Poor thing, she wasn't going to indulge.

As for me, one bite was all it took. After savoring the aroma, I nibbled a get-acquainted taste, then I put the whole spoon in my mouth and let the souffle have its way with my taste buds.

It was a perfect end to my meal. Not a sip of water or wine followed. As soon as my husband made short work of the rest of the souffle (there's no way you can appreciate it without a ritual) we left.

Can it be that River Oaks has been open only two years? It's settled so snugly into East Memphis, it's hard to believe the Cockeyed Camel called the space home so many years. (It started so long ago, in fact, that it had to call itself a "bup" because it was illegal for the word "pub" to be in the restaurant's name.)

River Oaks is at home, certainly, but also elegantly homey. Halogen lighting washes against gold walls, bathing diners in a flattering warm light. Gleaming wood, white tablecloths, a signature logo at the door and on the plates, and the art on the walls clue you in that this restaurant didn't just happen. It was thoughtfully created by restaurant designer and Memphis native Nancy Mah, daughter of famed architect Francis Mah.

It's romantic and comfortable, though Monday nights seem to be popular for girlfriends dishing while taking advantage of the half-price wine. Every bottle, from the Penfold's Koonunga Hills Shiraz at $28, to the $450 bottle of a 1999 Louis Roederer Cristal, becomes a relative bargain on Monday. The excellent Caymus Conundrum is reason enough to show up: You can enjoy a bottle for $22.50, cheaper than you can buy it in a liquor store.

It's a lovely and truly interesting wine that gets its name from a lovely -- and secret -- blend of grapes that changes each year and inspires the wine's name. Do you taste chardonnay, or a viognier? Sauvignon blanc? The guessing is great fun for oenophiles and wannabes.

We grazed through four appetizers instead of eating entrees, and the wine was beautiful with the mussels in a buttery tomato/wine sauce, with the artichoke wontons (balanced by goat cheese and fennel, although I suspect Conundrum might be the rare wine that could tolerate a more simply prepared artichoke), the charcuterie plate and especially with the spicy lobster salad on brioche.

Acoustic guitarist Grace Askew plays most Mondays. The throaty singer -- it's hard to imagine such a husky voice belonging to a 21-year-old, or so says MySpace -- performs original material and covers of artists from Elvis to Joni Mitchell.

She sounds a little like Rikki Lee Jones, my husband said.

An unplugged, toned-down Susan Tedeschi was my offering.

The server said she reminds her of Norah Jones.

That made two conundrums.

River Oaks Restaurant

Address: 5871 Poplar

Telephone: (901) 683-9305

Hours: Sunday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Price: $$$

No-smoking area: All nonsmoking

Handicapped access: Yes

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Don't miss: The sea bass, mussels, charcuterie plate and artichoke wontons (they're only $4!)

What's hot: Half-price wine from an extensive list on Mondays; four-or six-cheese plates available and most change weekly.

What's new: A small plates menu. And it's evolving.

-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223

© 2008 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.