There are few restaurants that have earned the level of trust that allows Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen to serve devoted diners at the popular No Menu Monday.
Eating what a chef chooses to serve you is one thing. Eating what Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman whip up is another thing, as these chef/owners have an adventurous bent, particularly when it comes to things porcine. All things porcine.
Experiencing it is a must, though. While the food is excellent — and no surprise there — No Menu Monday is also the most fun you'll have in a restaurant on the otherwise dreariest night of the week.
Here's the deal: You don't know exactly what you're eating, and it's up to you to figure it out. Now, you don't have to play the game if you don't want to — just go eat and leave if that's how you're made — after all, you're only denying yourself.
Our first course was a stumper. From the bottom, there was a thin piece of toasted baguette, a layer of shredded pickled vegetable, a slice of meat, and an egg.
We — I had a serious foodie friend with me for this — examined the egg. With such a large yolk-to-white ratio, we pondered, unsuccessfully, what kind it was. We guessed all cuts of meat (we knew enough to stay in the pork family) yet failed to identify the correct one. We did come up with the housemade sauerkraut.
The other courses were easier on us. Picking out the pear in the stuffing with the veal was simple enough (yet I wonder if we simply would have passed it off as apple had we not been savoring — somewhat competitively — every bite).
After dinner, we had our notes in hand when our server came to tell us about each dish.
Egg: Chicken, but with about one third of the white poured off before cooking (yes, they take the time to do this in the kitchen).
Mystery meat: Pig tongue, cooked sous vide with pastrami spice.
There are plenty of good chefs in Memphis and a handful of extraordinary ones. Yet none approach Ticer and Hudman when it comes down to hands-on prep work.
These guys do it all. Pastas are made in-house (some completely handmade, no machines involved). Sauces are either family recipes or are created by the two chefs, best friends since childhood, who went to Italy together to learn to cook.
Memphians have flocked to the restaurant. There's generally a full house; romantic couples at two-tops and jovial groups at larger tables, all enjoying food and companionship. But Hudman and Ticer are making a name for themselves around the country, too, cooking in the prestigious Cochon 555 event in Atlanta and in Food Network's Chris Cosentino's "Do You Have the Guts to Cook With Guts 2.0" contest (Hudman did that one solo) in San Francisco.
Ah, the guts. The nasty parts and all that. Refer back to the line about all things porcine. A friend's recent Facebook post noted that he'd like to get a top cut of pork at Andrew Michael (and you can, of course), but, well, I like parts.
Last week, the Newman Farms Pork dish was either a boneless chop or braised pork cheek. I chose the latter and can't imagine that the prime cut would have been as satisfying. The cheek was fall-apart tender and deeply flavored. A sprightly pistachio relish on top cut the richness. The spinach gnudi, tiny dumplings, were delightful, the very essence of spinach captured in a soft, pillowy bite.
The fish on the menu at present — selections change seasonally — is haddock, mild and white but served with plenty of punch. The skin is left on and is crisp; roasted slivers of almond add extra texture, and olives lend a briny touch.
Because the menu is so tempting, I've never gone to Andrew Michael and just eaten a pasta course. Instead, we typically split a half serving before the entree. Maw Maw's Ravioli is as good as it gets for old-style Italian. The large meat-filled ravioli served under an insanely intense meat gravy is a decadent indulgence. A lighter choice, but just as satisfying, is the garganelli. It would be easy to get lost in the morass of pasta names — there are so many and they are so Italian. Just think of this as something similar to penne. Unless your grandmother made it from scratch, though, it's probably not like any penne you've tasted.
Lord have mercy, but this is a tender dish. The pasta is soft and lush, the rosemary tomato sugo (think light marinara) is fresh, the polpette (tiny meatballs) savory yet delicate. The finishing touch is the slightly sharp parmesan fonduta, a creamy cheese sauce drizzled on top.
Yet I believe the best dish on this menu is the Andrew Michael Breakfast. A pool of creamy polenta is topped with a piece of grilled pork belly, a softly poached, mostly-yolk egg, and freshly made pork rinds.
It's a excellent explanation of what the restaurant is really about: Elevating simple food — peasant food, even — to new heights.
It's beautifully executed all around.
Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen
Address: 712 W. Brookhaven Circle.
Telephone: (901) 347-3569.
Hours: Opens at 5 p.m. for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and on the last Monday of the month for No Menu Monday ($45 for four courses; $20 for drink pairings).
Reviewer's choices: Andrew Michael Breakfast ($9); Maw Maw's Ravioli ($10/$18); Garganelli ($10/$18); Newman Farms Pork ($28); Haddock ($27); Bravo sorbet and gelato for dessert (assorted flavors, $7).
Alcohol: Full bar, nice wine list by the bottle and the glass; excellent brown sugar mojito.