Until very late in the 20th century, a citizen of Memphis could not walk into a bar and order a beer made on the premises. A local brew pub was seriously needed; restaurateur Jeremy Feinstone and brewmaster Chuck Skypeck saw the gap in the fabric of our community and repaired it.
They established what has become a mini-empire of microbreweries, starting in Germantown, moving to Overton Square, then expanding to Little Rock, Nashville and Franklin. Although the original restaurant in Germantown's Saddle Creek shopping center -- with its Tom-Cruise-sat-here memorial booth -- closed in 2002, the Overton Square version, Boscos Squared, is approaching its 10th anniversary.
At the moment, Overton Square is a bizarre real estate patchwork. Vacant buildings on the northeast and southwest corners of Cooper and Madison present ghost-town facades, while a truly vital restaurant district -- which includes Paulette's, Memphis Pizza Cafe, Bari, Bayou Bar and Grill, Golden India and Bogie's -- thrives in the spaces between the theater complexes of Studio on the Square and Playhouse on the Square.
Boscos, with its shiny metal brewing vats glowing behind a wall of glass in the sleek wood and brick dining room, is a key fixture here. It's a haven on a cold night, with the open fire in the brick oven at the back of the restaurant, and the dark-wood bar under racks of ceramic steins for the 250 or so regulars. On balmy days, the outdoor wood deck on the east side of the building is an oasis. In fact, it seems to positively float above the ground after you've sampled two or three of the excellent housemade beers.
I have a longstanding loyalty to Boscos' "Famous Flaming Stone," the hot-rock beer with the caramel flavor, as well as to its wood-fire baked pizza. You know how familiarity can breed contentment? You like what you get when you go to one of your regular places, so you keep getting it. You love pine nuts and goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes so you always order the California pizza. Or, if you want meat, you get the more substantial Palermo, with Italian sausage, pepperoni and portobello mushrooms. Or maybe you don't, but I did until this week, when I was reviewing Boscos and became adventurous in the name of professionalism.
My friend the human food encyclopedia said to get the ahi tuna tacos, and when I fall back into my same old ways, ahi tuna tacos will be part of my standard Boscos order. Sushi tuna and pico de gallo are a natural combination, and the taco provides just the right hard surface to deliver the goods. The other appetizer I tried for the first time -- but definitely not the last -- was the smoked duck spring roll with scallions and cabbage in a crisp, toasty-brown wrap. I finished the spicy Szechwan sauce, the consistency of syrup, with a spoon.
The wood-fire-roasted shrimp appetizer sizzles in a Creole spice and butter sauce, which is great for dipping the French bread. The shrimp are split at the fat end, so they arrive looking like pink scorpions, with tails curled over their backs.
The House Mista and House Caesar are reliably good, but Boscos has two high-concept salads that make satisfying lunches. The seared tuna salad with red peppers is paired with those sushi staples wasabi and ginger. It's a full meal -- and at $13.50, it should be. The $10 Gorgonzola pear salad is a refined balancing act, with sun-dried cranberries and crushed walnuts, in a vinaigrette. So often, combinations of nuts and cheese and fruit on greens seem random; the ingredients all sound good individually, but have no synergy. This salad is more than the sum of its parts.
Which, unfortunately, was not the case with the Nori Crusted Tuna. It seems sound on paper: ahi tuna wrapped in seaweed and flash-fried in tempura batter. But it doesn't come together in the end. The batter is the batter and the tuna is the tuna, and it's separated by seaweed. The 'vegetable medley' -- will that annoying use of the word 'medley' on menus ever go away? -- of sauteed purple onion and red pepper is good, though, and the jasmine rice is positively creamy.
My meat-loving friend ordered the smoked double cut pork chop. It's a dramatic presentation with the chops stacked vertically and a splash of orange from the mashed sweet potatoes. As it was delivered a man at the next table leapt up and followed it, then hollered out to the bartender: "What is that? That's what I want!" The fat, fairly dry but tasty chops are matched with a dusky chile and coffee bean sauce.
The Boscos burger is a model of its kind, plump and juicy, but the reason to order any sandwich at Boscos is to get the garlic Parmesan fries, a degenerately tasty fried treat.
Especially at lunch, there are some true bargains. The baked lasagna, in a very dense and meaty style of Bolognese with porcini mushrooms, arrives in its ceramic baking dish, enough for two meals at $8.50.
The ballast here is the beer. We tried the "bottle conditioned" Belgian Golden Ales -- an Abbey and a Trappist brew, both dated June 2 on the cap -- and the light and pleasing Tennessee Cream Ale, but my new favorite Boscos beer is one our server recommended on Saturday, a delicious Hefeweizen. The Boscos beer menu is a good guide to the eight styles available, and the servers we had were knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the beer-making process.
-- Peggy Burch: 529-2392
Address: 2120 Madison
Telephone: (901) 432-2222
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., with lunch through 2 p.m. and dinner 3-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. with lunch ending at 3 p.m. and dinner at midnight. Sunday brunch is 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with entertainment by Joyce Cobb Trio. Dinner until 11 p.m.; after-hours menus until closing every night.
Reviewer's choice: Ahi tuna tacos, wood-fire-roasted shrimp appetizer, California and Palermo pizzas, Gorgonzola pear salad, black-bean tamale, baked lasagna, smoked pork chop.