Dining spotlight: McEwen's changes hands, not quality

The 'new' place meets old expectations

Chef David Johnson stayed with  McEwen's after this spring's sale of the restaurant on Monroe to Bert Smythe and John Littlefield and sees to it that the kitchen still turns out fine fare.

Photos by Ben Fant/Special to The Commercial Appeal

Chef David Johnson stayed with McEwen's after this spring's sale of the restaurant on Monroe to Bert Smythe and John Littlefield and sees to it that the kitchen still turns out fine fare.

This spring, Mac Edwards assured everyone he talked to -- and he's a man who likes to talk -- that even though he was selling McEwen's on Monroe to Bert Smythe and John Littlefield, the transition would be seamless. Recent visits reveal Edwards was right.

Chef David Johnson stayed with  McEwen's after this spring's sale of the restaurant on Monroe to Bert Smythe and John Littlefield and sees to it that the kitchen still turns out fine fare.

Photos by Ben Fant/Special to The Commercial Appeal

Chef David Johnson stayed with McEwen's after this spring's sale of the restaurant on Monroe to Bert Smythe and John Littlefield and sees to it that the kitchen still turns out fine fare.

McEwen's on Monroe is in its same location Downtown at 122 Monroe.

McEwen's on Monroe is in its same location Downtown at 122 Monroe.

 The saffron lobster risotto at McEwen's is a dish you should be sure to try. It's creamy, comforting and elegant, too.

The saffron lobster risotto at McEwen's is a dish you should be sure to try. It's creamy, comforting and elegant, too.

Sea bass is pan seared with an orange soy glaze and served on a bed of shiitake mushroom risotto in a miso broth.

Sea bass is pan seared with an orange soy glaze and served on a bed of shiitake mushroom risotto in a miso broth.

There have been changes, most notably the small plates menu, but the kitchen is still under chef David Johnson, the front of the house moves along just as easily -- Smythe and Littlefield are both front-end veterans of Erling Jensen: The Restaurant -- and the food is still delicious.

I was so smitten with McEwen's Cuban sandwich at lunch that I took it upon myself to make dozens of them for family, a task I won't repeat. Cooking so many of them was time-consuming, and they didn't even approach the sublime sandwich I was trying to copy.

It's not the traditional pressed sandwich, but you won't complain. Layers of pork loin and Black Forest ham are held together with melty, oozy Swiss, topped with puckery sour pickles, slathered with Creole mustard and tucked inside a crusty hoagie roll. Pork, cheese and pickles are way at the top of my favorite foods list, and this sandwich is wOw. (Say it the way Christopher Walken does).

The small plates -- OK, I know, everyone is doing small plates these days -- are also very good, with a few exceptional standouts.

Don't even think about skipping the saffron lobster risotto. It's as comforting as mac and cheese, but an elegant dish too.

Risotto is typically made with the tiny grains of Italian arborio rice. It's starchy, and by cooking it slowly, adding liquid in increments and only as much as the rice can absorb, a creamy, dreamy dish is born. At McEwen's, they add a touch of saffron, tender sweet lobster, a little Parmesan cheese, mold it into a round and top it with a smidgen of micro-greens. Call me after you eat this. Leave a message and just say thanks; I'll know what you mean.

The beef tenderloin meatballs in a demi-glace and topped with fried onions are delicious and fun. Meatballs as an appetizer can't help but take you back to old cocktail parties where all it took was a Crockpot and a handful of toothpicks to be a hit. But I promise you, these babies aren't floating in a sauce made of grape jelly and barbecue sauce.

The biscuits (McEwen's holds its own with just about any home-cooking joint on biscuits) are perfect for dabbing at the demi-glace, a deep, earthy stock reduction that pools beneath the meatballs. Again, simple food made special.

The third dish that had us opening our eyes wide was the sweet crab fritters. Don't even think crab cakes, because they're not at all alike. The fritters are mostly crab meat (there might be minimal filler) formed into balls, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. They're served -- beautifully, I'll add -- with squiggles of a spicy chili aioli and tiny dots of pureed green peppers.

The new owners have updated the wine list and are proud that it's an evolving one, with some selections changing weekly.

"There are some things that we might just be able to get six bottles of, but if it's something good, we'll put it on the list and when it's gone, it's gone," Littlefield said.

The "new" McEwen's is pretty much the old McEwen's, with these changes that have only improved it. As I said, the chef remained, as has most of the staff. Only three employees of 20 have left, and Littlefield attributes that to general turnover.

"The staff staying was one of the things that made the idea of buying the place so attractive," he said. "They were already trained."

-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223

McEwen's on Monroe

Address: 122 Monroe

Telephone: (901) 527-7085

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m Monday-Friday. Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The bar stays open one hour after the restaurant closes

Price: $$$

No smoking

Handicapped access: Yes

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar; extensive wine list.

Dress: Casual

Don't miss: The small plates menu, particularly the lobster risotto.

What's hot: The wine list is updated weekly.

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