Dining Review: High Standards at Fuel

The bouillabaisse at Fuel Cafe with mussels, shrimp, chunks of white fish.

Photo by Mike Maple // Buy this photo

The bouillabaisse at Fuel Cafe with mussels, shrimp, chunks of white fish.

Fuel Cafe on Madison is the kind of place Midtown residents hope will flourish in their midst. The restaurant is located in what was once Hattley's garage, a 1920s-vintage building worthy of preservation. Now it has a patio where gasoline once was dispensed, and dining rooms that once functioned as auto repair bays.

The cafe opened in February, the joint project of Carrie Mitchum, a transplanted Californian, and Erik Proveaux, who has a film catering company and first came to Memphis as chef for "Hustle & Flow."

The Fuel Cafe building at 1761 Madison  has been adapted from its original use as Hattley's  garage.

Photo by Mike Maple

The Fuel Cafe building at 1761 Madison has been adapted from its original use as Hattley's garage.

The bouillabaisse at Fuel Cafe with mussels, shrimp, chunks of white fish.

Photo by Mike Maple

The bouillabaisse at Fuel Cafe with mussels, shrimp, chunks of white fish.

The site has had a couple of incarnations as a

restaurant -- most recently it was Petra -- and Fuel's version brightens the space with blue and white paint and white cotton eyelet curtains.

It was a beautiful spring evening when we first visited, and we decided to stay on the patio. (We did pause over that decision, since we had sniffed the Dumpster on the far edge of the lot; the wind was in our favor that night, but Fuel may need to consider more frequent collection service for the summer.)

To start, we asked for the cheese plate ($10), a sampling of three cheeses that included a honey-sweetened fig preserve. The round of goat cheese had a blueberry border, which made a good combination of flavors, but black olives on the side came from a can, a surprising compromise of the standards here.

And it's clear there are standards. Meat is grass-fed and humanely killed; fish are wild-caught; ingredients are local to the extent possible.

The bowl of bouillabaisse was crowded with white fish, probably halibut, as well as shrimp, potatoes and mussels, in a flavorsome tomato broth that could stand as a meal on its own. Saffron is the spice included in the menu description of the broth, but we mostly detected a pleasing, if unexpected influence of tarragon. (When I asked Mitchum about the herb, she said someone on the line had gotten the composition wrong, and that fennel was part of her usual recipe.)

I'm probably too cautious about shellfish, so I left all but one of my mussels, but the large chunks of white fish, with shrimp and potatoes made this a hearty meal. It's $20, but that seemed a fair price considering the amount and quality of the ingredients.

That night, we also tried the chicken-fried bison, marinated in buttermilk. The batter surrounding the meat arrived crisp and hot, but quickly cooled in the early spring air, and since the two steaks on the dish were stacked and the milk gravy was poured over, it soon became damp as well. Ask for the gravy on the side if you're eating outdoors. The mashed potatoes were fine rather than lumpy, the greens on the side were grainy.

Our first impression of Fuel was influenced by our server, who was friendly and talkative, but also bewildering. During her description of the night's special, she stopped short and looked past us to the sidewalk, announcing, "There goes (guy's name)."

We looked where she was looking and saw this distraction going by on a bicycle.

"Without a shirt," she said.

We both turned quizzically toward her.

"I guess you ladies don't know who (that name again) is."

Probably, considering appearance and context, a Midtown musician, and I guess we could find out if we wanted to know, but when you're serving entrees that range from $15 to $20, do you really want to make people work like this to order them? A moment later, she told us that the beef medallions were "grass-fed and Montana and some other adjective," and that the greens were "mustard and arugula and some other kind." Then she explained, "I'm not a cook," a fact we had already guessed.

Meantime, at Fuel's Sunday brunch, I did have a chance to try the "Montana Ranch Medallions of Piedmont Beef," with poached eggs and Hollandaise, and it was lean, of course, but juicy and flavorful. A bison burger, also lean and flavorful, came on a bun with a brown butter top, and a tomato and mayonnaise sauce.

At another meal we ordered the fish cakes ($8), a dense but fluffy white patty of smoked salmon and white fish with a touch of red onion and caper, in a crisp and light batter. The horseradish sauce was the perfect complement, and a pretty salad of dark greens came on the side.

The Fuel french fries with dipping sauce were a little adventure. They're hand-cut and sprinkled with coarse salt, but the sauces are the best part: a creamy white truffle, a Thai-spiced chili sauce, and a mayonnaise rouille.

The dessert called "Gam's Apple Yum Stuff a la mode," is cobbler-like with a crumbly top and stewed, sweet apple center. Mitchum says the recipe was her great-great-grandmother's, inspired by the apple groves of California. (Among her other accomplished relatives is the actor Robert Mitchum, her grandfather.)

The restaurant serves beer, but not wine and liquor. There is a $7 corkage fee if you bring your own wine, a price that seemed a bit steep, given that Fuel doesn't offer its own list.

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Fuel Cafe

Food:

Service:

Atmosphere:

Address: 1761 Madison

Telephone: (901) 725-9025

Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Reviewer's choices: Bouillabaisse, $20; Smoked salmon and white fish cakes, $8; French fries with trio of dipping sauces, $9; Gam's Apple Yum, $6.

Alcohol: Beer only; $7 corkage fee when you bring your own wine.

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© 2010 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 6

tootsmcgoo writes:

I visited Fuel with friends in March and had wonderful, attentive service. We also ordered the cheese plate and the olives did not seem to be canned at all. In fact, we really liked them! The Cafe Salad is incredible...gorgonzola, candied walnuts, granny smith apples, etc. The best salad I have tasted in my life. Bar none.

I haven't tried the veggie burger since it's only on the lunch menu, but I hear it is absolutely delish.

The owner and staff were very friendly and appeared to know their patrons by name. In fact, the owner recognized one of my friends right away and welcomed her back.

irvuss writes:

Go Biggs, call them to the carpet.
Sounds like the food is good, but there is room for improvement.
Its better to get their attention early so they can improve.
Waiters that are more interested in the scene should clock out and make the scene. I hope you left her 13%, pre-tax, only, for her inattentive approach.

milo82 writes:

Let me get this straight the food "critic" here ordered a dish that contains mussels and shrimp but is "probably too cautious about shellfish." Why would you order a dish that contains items you don't even like and be a food critic if you have hang ups on certain foods? Seems unfair to the restaurant to review items that have foods you don't even like. Why would I put any weight in this review after that revelation? If you order food you know you won't like I don't think you should have an opinion on it.

I have enjoyed the food i have eaten a few times at fuel. It has "standards" but doesn't put on the appearance of a fine dining establishment, it's nice, cozy and friendly atmosphere is what a restaurant should be.

sophoij writes:

If the Commercial Appeal is going to run restaurant reviews, they should take the time and spend the money to find a qualified food critic to write the reviews.

These reviews often contain unnecessary comments about customers, wait staff, and "ambiance", and contain little information of any substance about the actual food that is served at the establishment.

These reviews too often read like an article from a high school newspaper, not something from a metro paper with a circulation of over 250,000 readers.

Stop assigning these columns to fresh-faced journalists straight out of college who treat it like a "night out" on mommy and daddy's credit card.

Come on C.A., we deserve better than this!

mvz85 writes:

I love Fuel! Everyone there is extremely friendly, and the food is out of this world! I won't waste my time reading anything else this lady writes. I'd rather make up my own mind anyway.

8tstrick#408492 writes:

A. This appears that it may have been a joint review. Note the “we.”

B. The review was written by Peggy Birch not “Biggs.”

C. After reading the review in its entirety you can pick up on other subtle clues that there could have been other reasons to be cautious about the shellfish.

D. Not sure if you know what has happened at newspapers around the country, but many reporters have lost their jobs. Most of the reporters that are still at the CA are seasoned veterans, but at one time or another they will be stretched to work outside their comfort zone.

E. It is a review and by its very nature it is an opinion/experience based on a fixed point in time. The reviewer’s opinion/experience is sometimes going to be different from yours.

Isn’t that what a good review is all about… Creating the opportunity for an intelligent discussion and not necessarily the rating in and of itself.

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