Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, 14 years and running, has outlasted numerous fine dining establishments in town. It has received consistently excellent reviews from critics near and far, has maintained top standards and has kept the menu fresh and updated.
What it has not done, until now, is have a bar, and, more important perhaps, a bar menu. And you know what that means:
Yes, Erling's Bar Burger. A fine burger it is, too, but we'll come back to that.
Top-end restaurants have taken a hard hit as economy-strapped diners have become more parsimonious with their dining dollar. Erling's has responded in several ways.
Friday night wine dinners, at $75 per person, might still be a bit pricey, but they're also a bargain: Five nice wines and four courses, all generous, all superb. Perfectly paced, served by professionals in an upscale yet comfortable environment.
The big bargain comes on Sunday nights, with a three-course dinner for $36. You can even take your own wine for a $10 corkage fee, and some nights that's waived.
So Erling's is keeping up with the times, and I've never had a meal there that wasn't excellent. But this review, keep in mind, is confined to the bar menu.
The new bar is comfortable and cozy, but we chose to sit at the new patio for two reasons. When we arrived, we were the only two in the bar, and reviewing the food would have been terribly conspicuous with the bartender standing right at hand.
More important, a beautiful evening should never be spent indoors when outdoors is an option.
So we sat and looked over the wine and cocktail menus for a moment before we turned our attention to the food menu, where the choices were easier.
You can get anything you want to drink, but there's a good-size selection of wines by the glass and both specialty champagne cocktails and martinis.
I could be off base. I could be out of touch. But I don't think so, as I spend a lot of time in restaurants for a living. I believe $15 is too much money for a French 75, a cocktail made of sparkling wine, brandy or gin (Bombay gin, in this case), and a bit of lemon and sugar. While I've always thought the martinis on the pricey side (also $15) at Erling's, I've justified it because it is a very generous pour. Not so with the champagne cocktails, which are served in small wine glasses and simply seem skimpy for the price.
The wine prices start at about $9 per glass, perhaps a bit less, and go on up. No complaint there, and I would say that other restaurants are marking up wine a good deal more than Erling's.
The food, however, is reasonably priced. We sampled our way through about half of the menu -- for about $50 in total -- savored every delicious bite, and while each plate was, in true fact, a small plate, we ended up with leftovers here and there.
The first round brought a plate of fromager d'Affinois with four slices of cured and smoked duck breast and a spoonful of Kirsch-infused cherries; petit Cantal cheese with brandied pheasant sausage and a strong, grainy mustard; and cornmeal dusted oysters with a lemon-caper remoulade.
Fromager d'Affinois is a French double-cream cow's milk cheese, yet it is so soft, so oozy, that it has the mouth-feel of a triple cream. It's younger than a brie, yet the flavor is intense and an excellent pairing for the thin slices of slightly smoky duck. The bite of the cherries balanced the rich flavors.
The petit Cantal, another French cheese, is harder and sharper and also superbly matched to the strongly flavored, thin slices of pheasant sausage. The grainy mustard was extremely bold -- there was indeed a lot happening on this one small plate.
Both plates came with thin baguette toasts, and while we nibbled from plate to plate, I'd estimate that each makes for four to six good-size bites. And that's plenty for a small plate of top-quality ingredients that costs $6.
I would happily have made a meal from the oysters, though it might have taken two orders. They were small, but fried to a tender crispness. There was nothing crunchy about them, but instead a gentle bite to the crust. The remoulade was thick in texture and lively in flavor. It was outstanding, and we held on to it for spreading on the housemade rolls after the oysters were gone. (I noticed these oysters were on the menu in a salad on a recent Sunday night, which I would order in a minute.)
Next we ordered the main dishes -- E.J.'s Pizza and Erling's Bar Burger.
The pizza was small, but the housemade and herb-infused flatbread crust was sturdy enough to hold a heavy load of toppings: Smoked chicken, roasted garlic and red bell pepper covered with manchego, a slightly tangy sheep's milk cheese.
The burger is a winner, too. It's buffalo, which tends to be very lean. We ordered it medium, which was perfect. It's served on another housemade roll, topped with Benton's bacon, lightly grilled onions and a Stilton (an English blue cheese) aioli. There's a hint of mustard in the sauce, and the blackened seasonings marry beautifully with the sauce.
My dining companion didn't find the burger too spicy (it would be hard to call it so), but said he'd like a choice of blackened or simply grilled. A side order of freshly cut and fried potato chips comes with the burger (and we finished off the remoulade as a dip).
The bar is a welcome addition to the restaurant, but I'd like to come back to the prices of the drinks. Around $10 is more the norm for cocktails at high-end restaurants, and that varies a couple of dollars each way. I'd be a more frequent guest at the bar if the drink prices were lowered, and if that means reducing the size of the martini, all the better. A smaller drink would stay cold until the finish, and in the end, most of us would order another round.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Erling Jensen (bar only)
Address: 1044 S. Yates
Telephone: (901) 763-3700
Hours: Nightly 5-10 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Cornmeal dusted oysters ($10); Erling's Bar Burger ($15); d'Affinois cheese with cured and smoked duck breast ($6); petit Cantal with brandied pheasant sausage ($6).
Alcohol: Full bar, extensive wine list, specialty cocktails.