Le Chardonnay is known by those who follow local government -- and shouldn't that be all of us? -- as the site of the mysterious private meeting in 2007 between then-Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and then-Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton.
Since then, Herenton has moved out of City Hall and Wharton has moved in. And Le Chardonnay is in a different place, too.
In May 2008, the restaurant left its cozy corner of Overton Square near Palm Court, and moved across Madison into the space west of Paulette's. In August, chef Joseph Cartwright, formerly of Lolo's Table, took over the kitchen at Le Chardonnay.
The new location is comfortable and tasteful -- Oriental-style rugs, couches by a fire on the east wall, a wood-burning pizza oven glowing in the north wall -- if not as dark and cozy as the smaller original site.
There are seven starters on the menu, and we tried three; each one was so impressive, I will make a point of returning to try the other four.
The "Fried Green Tomato Ladder" is a generous stack of tomatoes in crispy fried batter interspersed with shrimp and crab meat. The wise decision the chef makes with this dish is to keep the shellfish clean and simple, and to let the trails of spicy red remoulade and cilantro oil enhance the flavors.
The seared tuna starter is another perfectly composed dish, the plump, plum-pink slices of tuna splayed like cards on a pillow of tart, bright-green seaweed, with wasabi vinaigrette and soy sauce on either side. The colors are vivid, the flavors are clean and classic.
The "Duck Confit Cigar" comes in a paper-thin fried casing. It was light on duck and heavy on cream cheese and pistachios. The hot, as in spicy, ponzu vinaigrette was the main attraction on this plate.
The entrees we ordered were solid but generally less ingenious than the starters.
The smoked chicken and wild mushroom ravioli displayed the restaurant's tendency to be liberal with its portions. There was lots of chicken with the mushroom-stuffed pasta, all floating in a soup of Alfredo sauce, so rich it seemed to be trying too hard to appeal to our dark, calorie-driven side.
The beef tenderloin came with a chocolate sauce that was interesting, although if I'm given a choice between an interesting sauce and a delicious one, I'll choose delicious every time. The baked, stuffed potato that came with the tenderloin was overwhelmed by Roquefort, the blue cheese tending more to sour than sharp.
The seared scallops were nicely done, but slightly sandy. They came on a succotash of sweet potatoes, corn and smoked bacon that was appealing.
We didn't forget the wood-burning pizza oven on the premises. We ordered the "Grateful Nothing's Dead," a thin-crust pizza with sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, mozzarella, pistachios and spinach. It seemed bland when it arrived at the table, but reheated at home the next day, when all the ingredients had melded, it was great.
There's a fairly priced and wide ranging wine list, as you'd expect at a wine bar. We wanted a red wine with our scallops and pizza, and ordered the Fire Road Pinot Noir from New Zealand, which was featured for the week. It hit the mark -- it was round and plummy -- although it was $32, and usually a restaurant promotion is more of a bargain. We had a glass of the pleasant Francis Coppolla Claret for $9 with the tenderloin.
The service at Le Chardonnay was discreet, quiet and timely. The server we had one dark and stormy night, when we arrived with soggy clothes, quickly accommodated our request to cut off the fan over our table. When we showed him that the tenderloin we ordered medium rare was actually rare, he allowed tactfully that it was "on the rare side," whisked it away and brought it back done correctly soon enough. Then without saying a word, he removed it from our bill.
--Peggy Burch: 529-2392
Le Chardonnay Wine bar and Bistro
Address: 2094 Madison Ave.
Telephone: (901) 725-1375
Hours: Open at 5 nightly. Kitchen is open until midnight Sunday through Thursday, and until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reviewer' choices: Fried Green Tomato Ladder, $8.50; Seared tuna, $9.50; Seared Sea Scallops, $22; Grateful Nothing's Dead pizza, $13
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars