Spotlight: Cafe Society is still fun, classy

Spotlight: Café Society's changes remain behind scenes, not on plate

A favorite at Cafe Society is pan-seared scallops served over a summer salad.

Photo by Photos by Ben Fant
Special to The Commercial Appeal

A favorite at Cafe Society is pan-seared scallops served over a summer salad.

Her voice carried across the room at Café Society, but I liked it: "I'll have a martini, straight up. And I prefer those little onions to olives." Well, never mind that adding the onions and subtracting the olives makes it a gibson, not a martini. What I liked is that she was about 75 years old and a little sassy.

Later I told former owner Michele Leny that I wanted to be ordering martinis when I'm 75.

"Yes! I want to be drinking them for breakfast," he said.

A favorite at Café Society is pan-seared scallops served over a summer salad. Photos by Ben Fant/Special to The Commercial Appeal

A favorite at Café Society is pan-seared scallops served over a summer salad. Photos by Ben Fant/Special to The Commercial Appeal

LEFT: Bartender Geoff Ware makes a martini for a bar patron at Café Society. RIGHT:   When the heat-wave breaks, the outdoor tables at the Midtown restaurant will once again fill with diners and folks visiting over a glass of wine.

LEFT: Bartender Geoff Ware makes a martini for a bar patron at Café Society. RIGHT: When the heat-wave breaks, the outdoor tables at the Midtown restaurant will once again fill with diners and folks visiting over a glass of wine.

Last year, after 20 years in business, Leny sold the restaurant to Cullen Kent, the chef who trained at Chez Philippe and La Tourelle before coming to Café Society nearly four years ago. But Leny stayed on as an employee and his influence remains on the menu, from his father's decadent and old-school Oysters Maurice appetizer (and truly, don't most of us love a bit of creamy melted cheese on our shell fish? We loved Justine's, after all.) to the wine list.

I ordered a Le Rosé de Phélan Ségur

and caused a bit of a stir. First the waiter had to be sure I understood it wasn't like a white zinfandel. A bit later we heard an exclamation of surprise from the back when Leny saw the bottle waiting to be served. "Ah, someone has ordered the rosé!" (A lot of what he says is followed by an exclamation point.)

When it came to the table, he stopped by to be sure that we were happy with it. "So many people think of it like that Beringer (white zinfandel)," he explained. "Is it too dry for you? Did the waiter explain this?"

Sigh. I told him I requested it, that it wasn't pushed on me. A bit later we overheard him talking to the waiter, wanting to know if I understood what the wine was. "She asked me for it!" the waiter said, a little panic in his voice.

It was excellent, a restaurant value at $30 for the bottle, and complementary with both the scallops and the coq au vin.

The scallops were perfectly cooked, seared until barely browned with a light crust on the outside, crossed with tiny hash marks. While firm, they were also meltingly tender and not even the tiniest bit chewy. They were also among the cleanest scallops I've eaten, with nary a grain of sand nor touch of grittiness.

The cool tomato and shallot salad the warm scallops were served atop was superb. A melange of colorful tomatoes, bursting with summer, was tossed with marinated shallots and finished with a balsamic vinaigrette, both lush and sprightly as only a good balsamic can be. It was light and refreshing but filling too, a delight on a very hot summer night.

The coq au vin, a special of the day, was a hearty selection yet not beyond the constraints of 100 degrees of mercury. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender, delicately infused with wine and the sauce was light, not as heavy with wine as many versions of the classic French dish are.

We'll move on to Kent's plans, but not without mentioning the Grand Marnier creme brulee. I only eat dessert when I review, never at home, because I can't afford the calories. But a creme brulee is the dessert I have the hardest time resisting. The menu states that Café Society's is the best in Memphis, so I had to bite. Usually one thoughtful mouthful will satisfy me, but oh no, not this time. Best in Memphis?

Well, I'm more than happy to conduct a taste-off, but this is certainly in the top three. It's also a little different than many, because the silky custard is a bit sweeter than you often find. To balance the sweetness, the sugar top is a bit more deeply burnt, so there's an interesting juxtaposition of sugar's sweetness against its bitterness, which works beautifully.

When the no-smoking ban went into effect in October, Cafe Society took the unusual approach of separating the bar from the restaurant and giving them separate entrances. You can smoke in the bar, where the age restriction is 21 and older, but not in the restaurant. Kent has started a remodeling job that has already resulted in a private dining room and will soon include a lounge, which will buffer the two areas. Patrons choosing the lounge will be able to order from the more casual bar menu but will be able to eat in a nonsmoking environment.

The bar menu includes appetizers and a few sandwiches, including a burger that comes with pommes frites.

And those, Belgian Leny will remind anyone who happens to mention them, are never to be called french fries.

"They are not from France," he declares. "They are from Belgium. Belgium! I am very passionate about this."

-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223

Café Society

Address: 212 N. Evergreen

Telephone: (901) 722-2177

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: Smoking only in the separate bar.

Handicapped access: Yes

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Don't miss: Pan-seared scallops, Oysters Maurice, Grand Marnier creme brulee, pommes frites

What's hot: Smokers can enjoy air conditioning in an upscale bar, yet diners are protected from the smoke by closed doors.

What's new: A lounge is in the works; an interesting wine list is updated frequently.

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

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