There is an antidote to the combination of low temperatures and high humidity we confront in a Memphis winter. It's taken orally, and it's called macaroni and cheese. At the Downtown restaurant Automatic Slim's Tonga Club, the homely remedy is elevated by an alluring combination of cheeses -- cheddar, Parmesan, blue -- melted over pasta flecked with dry-cured bacon from Benton's in Madisonville, Tenn. (At night, the menu indicates, this dish is more elegant, with brie, chevre and truffle oil.)
Almost 20 years ago, the kinetic force of artistic energy known as Karen Carrier turned the cozy 19th-century brick
building across from The Peabody hotel's Second Street entrance into a glamorous hybrid restaurant, art gallery and occasional music performance scene. Carrier sold Slim's in 2008, and David Schrier recently became chef and general manager.
Schrier said in a profile this fall in The Commercial Appeal that he likes Southern flourishes in his food, and he pays homage to the South on his menu in sometimes-predictable, sometimes-fanciful ways. His fried chicken slider -- a thick slice of chicken breast in a traditional crispy batter -- arrives on an airy, perfectly browned buttermilk biscuit, topped with a pickle and served with onion rings in a light batter.
He creates a clever and satisfying twist on meat-and-potatoes with the braised beef short rib gnocchi -- bite-sized potato dumplings with beautifully trimmed and rendered meat in a savory, mushroom-laden sauce.
But a grilled ribeye we ordered on a Saturday night at Slim's was poorly trimmed and came with an inert white sauce, a blue cheese fondue, pooled on top. The entrée, at $25, the most expensive item on the dinner menu, was ordinary. We ordered the ribeye after learning that the seared scallops were sold out. Weird coincidence: A random review of Slim's from the same date on TripAdvisor.com praised the scallops on pumpkin risotto as "nothing short of brilliant."
The smoked chicken we had one night was somewhat dry and severe, in spite of the influence of the sweet tea reduction -- another witty tip of the hat to the South -- but the fondant potatoes on the plate -- golden, silo-shaped spuds flavored with butter -- were artfully done.
At lunch one day, aside from the lovely bowl of "mac and cheese," we ordered a roasted beet salad, which arrived with two toasty goat cheese fritters and firm red and golden beets on arugula. Order your dressing on the side if you like your greens crisp.
The tuna and watermelon crudo brings identically shaped slices of the title ingredients in oil and tomato water. It's an intriguing idea, and looks very cool when it is placed before you, since the watermelon and Ahi tuna are the same color. But the day we were there, this dish went awry. My companion asked for the tuna crudo -- Italian for 'raw' -- and the server said incredulously, "To go?" We said, "No, crudo," and he said, "Oh, like judo." But a few minutes later he delivered the watermelon salad instead of the watermelon crudo. There must have been a rush to get the plate out on reorder, because the sushi-grade fish had been cut with the wrong knife, and the edges were serrated. The oil and tomato water on the plate were separated, from each other as well as from the food. The elements simply didn't come together.
In fact, our service was off-kilter on two visits. Aside from apparently being unfamiliar with the menu, our lunch server asked me if we wanted our check while I was holding a forkful of pasta in mid-air.
On a Saturday night, a server mixed our wine order -- I had a smooth DeLoach Pinot Noir and my friend had the rich Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon. We discovered the mistake and swapped glasses after a couple of sips.
For dessert, the server recommended the "chocolate terrine." The dish that arrived was a hard bar of dark chocolate, broken into two parts and garnished with lemon and mint, with two spoons on the side. If we had tried to eat that item with a spoon, we might have provided a few minutes of comic distraction to our fellow diners, but we just picked it up with our fingers. The chocolate itself was delicious.
The dining room at Slim's now is a subdued version of the space Carrier created there, but it still retains the eccentric charm and some of the art elements she installed. Schrier says the interior design is still in transition.
--Peggy Burch: 529-2392
Automatic Slim's Tonga Club
Address: 83 S. Second
Telephone: (901) 525-7948
Hours: Monday through Saturday: Lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner 4 "until late." Sunday brunch served from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner 4 p.m. "until late."
Reviewer's choices: Braised beef shortrib gnocchi, $10; "mac n cheese," $9; fried chicken sliders, $9.
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars