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 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.
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.