The Upper Crust on Cleveland near Peabody is still a work in progress — Tina and Arthur Seay opened it in June, and Gregory Ray bought them out in October. The menu and hours under Ray's ownership are still in flux, but once I tasted the sweet potato fries and turnip greens the cook is making there, I began hoping the place finds its balance.
On a first visit, we arrived for lunch about 12:30 p.m., and sat alone in the dining room a few minutes before the cook emerged from the kitchen to say that the waiter hadn't come in yet. Ray himself eventually arrived and served us. He told us that the holidays had thrown the schedule into disarray, and said that this was his first venture in the restaurant business.
"It's like having a baby," he said, looking toward the sky as if searching for patience. "Or a relationship." Translation: The restaurant business is relentless.
But the cook in the kitchen that day was resilient; before Ray had arrived, he'd delivered our tea and taken our orders. Soon Ray brought us one of the daily specials, the baked chicken with cornbread dressing. The chicken fell away from the bone with the touch of a fork, and the dressing was moist and flecked with green pepper, onions, celery and giblets. The dish was complemented by some nicely made sweet yams.
But the sweet potato fries we ordered were the real star of our meal that day. They were perfectly done, crisp and light, and sprinkled while hot with some large-granule sugar. We had them with The Upper Crust's generous plate of hot wings.
In fact, all the plates that were put before us were overloaded with food. On a second visit we ordered the meatloaf, a dense mound of meat with a thick tomato sauce, and on the side, the excellent turnip greens. The Upper Crust serves a model of Southern-style greens, so peppery they almost tasted smoked.
The country-fried chicken was heavily battered, of course, and, while it was a standard rendition of the dish, I prefer batter cooked with a crisper edge. Other vegetables — mashed potatoes, lima beans — were fine, if not extraordinary.
The restaurant has a picture window with a broad view of Central High School's Crump Stadium across the street, and the dining room is clean and unembellished, painted a pleasant shade of pumpkin. While the restaurant staff was very kind to us on both visits — during our second meal, they knew we were from the newspaper because of a mistake on our part — the service was capricious and unpredictable. We were never told there were alcoholic beverages listed on a separate menu, one we never saw. We even asked what was available to drink at dinner, and heard only about soft drinks, tea and lemonade.
Ray said he plans soon to expand the offerings of generally Southern fare on The Upper Crust menu to include steak and shrimp at dinner.
The Upper Crust
Address: 326 S. Cleveland
Telephone: (901) 435-6264
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 4-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m. Closed Monday.
Reviewer's choices: Baked chicken and cornbread dressing; sweet potato fries, turnip greens.
Alcohol: Wine and beer.