Dining Spotlight: Erling Jensen is pricey, but it's more than a meal

Timing is everything: Yana Wilson serves patrons at Erling Jensen, where service is attentive but not intrusive.

Photos by Sean Davis/Special to The Commercial Appeal

Timing is everything: Yana Wilson serves patrons at Erling Jensen, where service is attentive but not intrusive.

Memphis doesn't lack for good food, from home cooking to ethnic specialties to fine dining. But even among the latter, Erling Jensen: The Restaurant stands out.

For more than 10 years the Dane who could cook anywhere but has chosen to stay in Memphis has owned and operated his upscale restaurant in East Memphis. Despite the pricey menu and the details (down to a doorman who's handy with an umbrella), the place manages to exude warmth and comfort while the kitchen turns out exceptional haute cuisine.

Timing is everything: Yana Wilson serves patrons at Erling Jensen, where service is attentive but not intrusive.

Photos by Sean Davis/Special to The Commercial Appeal

Timing is everything: Yana Wilson serves patrons at Erling Jensen, where service is attentive but not intrusive.

Miso glazed black grouper and Thai black rice with spiced coconut broth would make up just one of four courses.

Miso glazed black grouper and Thai black rice with spiced coconut broth would make up just one of four courses.

Chef Erling Jensen takes a quick breather during a long night.

Chef Erling Jensen takes a quick breather during a long night.

Karen Roth prepares a dish for Friday night's service.

Karen Roth prepares a dish for Friday night's service.

Did I say pricey? Well, it is, although it's easy these days to pay as much in restaurants that aren't nearly as innovative or thoughtful as Erling's. But here's a deal you might not know about: The Friday night wine dinners.

Each Friday, $75 delivers four courses with five wines to the savvy diner who knows when to show up. The menu changes weekly; the dinners are partly to give Jensen and chef Karen Roth (formerly Noriega) the opportunity to try out new dishes. Some will find their way to the regular menu, some won't.

Is $75 an inexpensive dinner? Of course not. But it is a value at Erling's.

We dined there recently and enjoyed -- really, savored is a better word -- every bite. We started with cocktails and our server was watchful but never intrusive as she gave us time to sip our drinks before she started serving from the menu. She delivered the amusette, a tiny halibut tart, in perfect time, along with a glass of sauvignon blanc.

I immensely appreciated that the same pace continued through the evening. Not long ago we went out to a different restaurant for a weekday meal, were whisked in and out in an hour and 15 minutes, and spent $120. The food was good, but you need a bit of an experience, too, when you're dropping serious money on dinner.

Erling's delivers. We were there nearly three hours, although admittedly we could've shortened our visit had I not been so curious about the wines. Bobby Maupin with Southwestern Distributors and Erling's wine manager John Condy selected an interesting lineup of mostly California wines for the dinner, and Maupin made his way from table to table to answer questions.

I was ready with them every time he came around, and he and Condy both graciously spent time explaining their choices.

The first course, a sauteed walleyed pike with spicy Thai-style green mango slaw, brought a delicate yet crisp piece of fish -- skin still attached -- with the slightly sweet yet sprightly tangle of slaw. The duck salad with arugula and essence of mint was eye-opening: Arugula and mint were grown for each other, just as arugula and pinot noir were meant to be together. It was innovative and divine; the peppery, earthy arugula bridging the wine and the mint sauce.

Although the portions were moderate -- it's four courses, after all, and they should be -- the herb-encrusted buffalo tenderloin with gnocchi and a foie gras-laced demi-glace (yes, it's a mouthful in more ways than one) was so hearty that half of it ended up in a to-go box.

I've never tasted buffalo as tender. I used my knife, but it wasn't necessary. (By the way, don't be put off by all the silverware on the table when you sit for dinner; the server will place the correct one next to your plate when he or she brings your dish.) The meat was deeply flavored; the depth intensified by the lush demi-glace.

Still, we managed room for dessert, which was more like three desserts. The darkest, richest bittersweet chocolate tart anchored one end of the platter, grilled peaches were in the center, and a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream tried to pool in the other end. (Foil the pooling -- eat it!) Again, the to-go box was needed.

Roth's kitchen instincts are uncannily like Erling's. The food is not simple, but it's uncluttered and flavors shine on their own while they complement each other. Condy's wine list is extensive, with a vast range in selection and price.

If you've eaten at Erling's, you know it's an experience. If you haven't, you need to set aside a Friday night to give it a try.

Erling Jensen: The Restaurant

Address: 1044 S. Yates

Telephone: (901) 763-3700

Hours: 5-10 p.m. nightly

Price: $$$$

No smoking

Handicapped access: Yes

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar; extensive wine list.

Dress: You can pull out the real jewels if you want, or you can dress down to business casual. Most men are in jackets, though they're not required.

What's hot: Friday night wine dinners.

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