Last fall's closing of Encore Restaurant and Bar in Peabody Place came as a big surprise, but ever the professional, Jose Gutierrez simply took his cuisine to River Oaks Restaurant, and now East Memphians are clamoring for it.
On a recent Friday night, University of Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner paced the walkway in front of the restaurant, cell phone to ear and talking animatedly, prompting craned necks and a singular speculation from the full house:
"Is he recruiting?"
"I bet he's recruiting."
"I wonder who he's recruiting?"
Yet as plates were placed in front of diners, even coach Pastner couldn't hold their interest. Gutierrez is cooking on all burners. The restaurant is lively, full of beautiful people, foodies and the feeling of a collective lusty appreciation for life -- but it all starts with the food.
This is my fourth year reviewing Memphis restaurants, and the duck at River Oaks is among the best dishes I've tasted.
It starts simply enough: Three generous slices of duck breast on top of three potato cakes, all in a row on a long narrow dish. The duck is perfectly cooked. It's rare, and after cooking it's allowed to sit for about 10 minutes, which lets the meat relax and take on a texture similar to filet mignon.
But it's the "cherry sauce," a description that doesn't begin to prepare you for the delight to come, that elevates this dish to the exalted "best" level.
Onions are sauteed until sweet and tender, then added to a sauce of wine, port, a little thyme, perhaps a touch of bay leaf, and reduced with dried cherries. After reduction, veal stock is added, and it's reduced further. The resulting demi-glace is puddled beneath the potatoes, which soak it up, and spooned over the duck. It wasn't my dish, but it is my review, so I was able to eat most of my companion's duck while he enjoyed my halibut.
And until I tasted the duck, I was deliriously pleased with the halibut. The firm fish was served on top of a mix of haricots verts, olives, edamame, capers and delicately fried potato slices that provided a nice crunch. The lemon olive oil coupled with the salty, briny ingredients make this dish pop with flavor.
Remember the foodies I mentioned? It's worth noting that at least one person at that table was enjoying the burger.
It's mammoth and inspired. The sirloin is ground to order, bacon bits are in the burger, and you get your choice of gruyère, blue or cheddar cheese. The pommes frites are served Belgian-style, upright in a paper cone. It's for more than looks: The fries stay hot and crisp. It's available for lunch or dinner.
There's so much more. The jumbo lump crab cakes are true to their name. The pieces of crab are indeed jumbo, and these gorgeous balls are lightly breaded, fried and served alongside a small salad of baby greens with avocado and mango; we'll get back to the salads.
First, to my favorite appetizer, the camembert cheese beignets with ratatouille. The ratatouille is barely cooked, making it more a relish for the beignets than a side dish -- as I'm sure it's intended. The zucchini, eggplant, onion, tomato and so on are tender but not cooked down.
The beignets are light-as-air puffs of fried dough that encase a rich square of creamy, decadent camembert cheese.
Soups change daily and are made in house and served with excellent bread, which is not baked at the restaurant but delivered daily.
With the salads, I have a quibble. It's not the salads, actually, but the salad forks. The tines are thick and won't stab the baby greens. I had to eat the salad with my chicken paillard -- thinly pounded breasts fried crisp and served under a salad with a piquant Dijon dressing -- by either trapping the greens between my fork and a bite of chicken or between knife and fork. Many of the dishes come with a salad, and a proper salad fork would be appreciated. (A soup spoon, too, as dessert spoons come with the soup.)
About the desserts: I've never encountered a finer example of a Key lime pie. It's gussied up a bit, but not too much. The custard is smooth and rich, the tart note perfectly hit, and there's a macadamia nut crust that is rich, and picked up again in a dusting of macadamia nuts on top of the slightly caramelized whipped cream.
Dining in a restaurant run by a seasoned professional such as Gutierrez, who began training in France when he was a young teenager and was the chef at Chez Philippe for more than 20 years before opening Encore, is evident to anyone who eats out frequently. Service is professional (a little slow at times, but generally excellent), meals are properly paced, wines are served at the right temperature, and there is a feeling of being in capable hands in all respects.
Gutierrez has the option to buy the restaurant at the end of a year. When he does, his imprint will continue to grow, and I suspect River Oaks will get only better.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
River Oaks Restaurant
Address: 5871 Poplar
Telephone: (901) 683-9305
Hours: Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and until 10 p.m. on Friday; Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Duck breast ($23); crispy lemon chicken paillard ($18); pan-seared halibut ($24); sirloin burger ($12); camembert cheese beignets ($9); Key lime pie ($7)
Alcohol: Full bar, including 25 wines by the glass (more by the bottle) and specialty cocktails.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars