For many years, locals and visitors to Memphis have walked into the lobby of The Peabody hotel and been impressed with the elegance, the music, the fountains and the general pomp as well as the warmth and Southern hospitality of it. It's hard not to be, and at no time is it prettier than when it's all a-twinkle for the holidays.
Tucked away behind the lobby bar is a treasure awaiting rediscovery. Chez Philippe, under the hand of chef de cuisine Jason Dallas, is serving exquisite food.
Dallas is only the fourth chef in the restaurant's 29-year history (the first was there only a few months). For 22 of those, Jose Gutierrez served mostly classic French cuisine. Reny Alfonso took the restaurant in different directions, with Asian fusion and later with Latin influences. Dallas has taken the menu back to updated and upscale French classics.
The menu is prix-fixe, and while indeed expensive, it is not overpriced. The quality of the ingredients, the creativity of the dishes, and above all, the taste of the end product are in line with the cost.
Witness the cognac apple foie gras brûlée from the appetizer selection. On the left, a plump crescent of seared goose liver is nestled against a few slices of thinly sliced apple. Next to it, a thick, cored slice of apple cooked sous vide is filled with cured foie gras and topped with a whispery crust of burnt sugar. A small square of brioche and an artful gastrique, gelled and piped on the plate, finish a dish that could not be improved in any way.
Another flawless appetizer was the roasted squab breast, served over Roquefort cheese grits and finished with a huckleberry sauce, intensely deep, rich and savory, but lightly sweet from the fruit. The dark meat of the squab compares closely to duck, and as with all dishes we tried, was served in generous portion.
Meals are served in three or five courses, and the tasting menu is seven courses. The chef recommends that all diners have the same number of courses to make the meal run smoothly. The tasting menu is set (and changes seasonally), and in order to try a wider variety of food, we chose a five-course to go with it. It worked, both because the kitchen executed it without a hitch and because the service at the restaurant is exemplary.
Every question was answered, each wine selection an excellent pairing, and we never wanted for anything -- yet we never felt disturbed by our servers. It was service just as it should be.
The fish course in the tasting menu is a whole Dover sole, served tableside. Our server expertly removed the head, then carved each side from the bone and divided it in four fillets. Arranged in a loose lattice weave on the plate, they were topped with a sauce Meuniere and served alongside artichoke barigoule and potatoes.
While this course was probably the heartiest, don't make the assumption that "tasting" means small portions at Chez Philippe. They are full-size, or close to it, and the same can be said of the wine pours. To keep a clear head, I had to leave most of the glasses partially full (as nothing could be described as half-empty here.)
The food -- all of it -- is a visual treat. Presentation goes hand in glove with fine dining at this level, and great care is taken to carve purple potatoes into tiny spheres and to expertly compose vegetable towers next to meat or fish.
Dallas has a fine touch with fish, and is particular about acquiring it from sources who adhere to sustainable practices. We were lucky to dine when steelhead was a special. This rainbow trout is a migratory fish, born in freshwater. It spends most of its life in the ocean and returns to freshwater to spawn. The fish served was caught by the Quiluete Indians in the Quiluete River of the Olympic Peninsula. It was very lightly smoked -- spending just about 15 minutes on smoke -- and served with truffle pearls, trumpet mushrooms and a sliver of shaved Oregon black truffle.
Dallas has been with Chez Philippe just over a year as chef de cuisine, though he worked in the kitchen some after moving home in 2009. He's from Memphis, but has worked in the restaurants of four James Beard award-winning chefs: Susanna Foo, Todd English, Jean Marie Lacroix and Jerry Traunfeld.
Also new in the restaurant is maitre d'hotel Philippe Brainos, a French charmer who likes to top off wine glasses with a wiggle of his eyebrows and prepare bananas Foster tableside with a blazing flourish. As entertaining as it is to watch -- and delicious to eat -- the creme brûlée trio and the soufflé of the day are better choices. We had the cinnamon soufflé with caramel sauce, which offered all the flavor of an excellent bread pudding yet was light and delicate.
How fortunate we are to have such a restaurant here, particularly in such a popular hotel for visitors. (It has been awarded a Four-Star Forbes Travel Guide, formerly the Mobil Travel Guide, for the past 22 years.) The décor is opulent, certainly over the top, but undeniably luxurious. The murals, the chandeliers, the lighting, the big armchairs, even the silver flatware and serving pieces are part of the experience. The music -- including holiday music in classical compositions this time of the year -- is subdued, but loud enough to sit back and enjoy between courses.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Address: 149 Union.
Telephone: (901) 529-4188.
Hours: 6-10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Cognac apple foie gras brulee; roasted squab breast; Dover sole; cinnamon souffle; everything tasted was excellent. Three-course meals are $78 and wine pairing is $34; five-course, $88 and $48 for wine; the seven-course tasting menu is $100 and five paired wines are $48.
Alcohol: The wine list is extensive and includes several dozen wines by the glass; prices are generally in line with the menu with a few very expensive selections. Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars