Best of 2011: Auspicious Memphis restaurant debuts get their due

A four-star review in The Commercial Appeal is a rare thing, but Chez Phillippe in The Peabody earned it. The dining room is sumptuously appointed, the service flawless, the food stellar and beautifully presented.

Photo by Brandon Dill // Buy this photo

A four-star review in The Commercial Appeal is a rare thing, but Chez Phillippe in The Peabody earned it. The dining room is sumptuously appointed, the service flawless, the food stellar and beautifully presented.

The Grilled Snake River Sturgeon is a signature dish at Acre.

Photo by Kyle Kurlick

The Grilled Snake River Sturgeon is a signature dish at Acre.

Chef Robert Cirillo got off to a good start in 2011 with Bleu in the Westin.

Photo by Mike Maple

Chef Robert Cirillo got off to a good start in 2011 with Bleu in the Westin.

The Elegant Farmer focuses on local products, with suppliers listed on its website and at the restaurant.

Photo by Mike Maple

The Elegant Farmer focuses on local products, with suppliers listed on its website and at the restaurant.

Stone Soup Café in Cooper-Young makes diners feel like  guests in a good friend's home.

Photo by Mark Weber

Stone Soup Café in Cooper-Young makes diners feel like guests in a good friend's home.

A year-end dining story is always filled with comings and goings, and we had our share in Memphis in 2011. But this year also saw movement and expansion of existing restaurants.

Paulette's moved from its long-held spot in Overton Square, and despite an outcry from loyal diners, has flourished at its new location at the River Inn of Harbor Town, where it replaced Currents.

Circa by John Bragg moved from its Downtown location to Regalia in East Memphis, in the former location of Mikasa Japanese restaurant.

At Sweet Grass in Cooper-Young, Next Door — in the same building and, of course, just next door — both handles the overflow from Sweet Grass and offers a

more casual, barlike atmosphere while utilizing the same kitchen and offering many of the same dishes. At Wang's Mandarin House in East Memphis, East Tapas & Drinks opened in the same format: Shared kitchen and shared but separate space.

Alchemy took over the formerly connected space of Grace and Au Fond in Cooper-Young and combined it, centering it on a large center bar and offering an open kitchen for chef Karen Roth (who left Erling Jensen: The Restaurant to become a partner in Alchemy).

The Brass Door and Thai Bistro opened just across the street from each other on Madison in Downtown. Chef Michael Patrick, having cooked in many kitchens, now has his own; he opened Rizzo's Diner on G.E. Patterson.

And the year started with Jackson Kramer, Interim's first chef, returning to the restaurant.

Another veteran restaurateur, Mac Edwards, opened The Elegant Farmer on Highland in the former Crumpet's.

Now, to the Top 5 reviewed restaurants of 2011.

Chez Philippe at The Peabody earned a rare four-star review, one of fewer than 10 in the paper's history of dining reviews and the second in the past five years. Chef de cuisine Jason Dallas has been in the kitchen for the past year and has returned to the restaurant's classic French roots.

The food is stellar, prepared with great care and beautifully presented. The atmosphere is luxurious and service exemplary. Tourists, certainly hotel guests, find their way to the restaurant and are easily spotted because they're the ones in jeans. Locals tend to think of it as a special-occasion restaurant — and it is — but don't file this one so high on the shelf that you forget to take it down. An experience like this -- the food, the service, the attention, the comfort and the peace and satisfaction derived from all — should be enjoyed as often as you need a lift and can afford it. (Reviewed Dec. 16, 2011.)

The local dining community was all abuzz when Wally Joe announced back in January 2009 that he was opening a new restaurant, and that buzz got stirred up several times in anticipation of the opening of Acre. More than two years after acquiring the building, Joe opened in May (and phased in services, even until the fall's bar menu). It turned out to be worth the wait and the hard work.

The space is lovely, with plenty of exposed wood, leather banquettes, natural light and a few stunning Roberto Dutesco prints of the wild horses of Sable Island. Joe is the chef, but he spends most of his time in the front of the house, and Andrew Adams, long the man cooking next to Joe, runs the kitchen.

The menu changes seasonally and is designed to allow substitutions for items that might not be up to par on a particular day. With notice and enough hungry people (usually 10 to 12), you can order a feast of a suckling pig with all the trimmings. (Reviewed Sept. 2, 2011.)

Here's hoping that the third time is the charm for the Westin. Bleu Restaurant and Lounge opened in October, and chef Robert Cirillo is delivering creative and delicious dishes from the kitchen. The front of the house needs work, but a little time should be the cure.

Cirillo's plates can be busy, such as the salmon roulade. The fish is wrapped around a seafood stuffing of crab, shrimp and scallops, served on a bed of Chinese black rice with edamame and cherry tomatoes and finished with a citrus beurre blanc. But it's not fussy, and every ingredient brings something to the dish.

Standout dishes include the calamari, with fried pepperoncini and peppadews, and the B.Y.O sandwich. The latter, at lunch, features a checklist for you to build your own sandwich. You pick the meat, bread, toppings, condiments and so on. (Reviewed Dec. 9, 2011.)

Veteran restaurateur Mac Edwards, who sold McEwen's on Monroe in 2008, has another success with The Elegant Farmer. He's committed to local farmers and other suppliers, and even lists them on his website and in the restaurant. What's most important to most diners, though, is that the food is excellent. The menu, like many in town, changes seasonally.

Some items are constant: Mississippi farm-raised catfish is on every day, though the preparation can change (if you find it served over browned and pureed cauliflower, don't miss it). America's Cut pork chop, served with a wild mushroom, sweet potato and sweet pepper hash, is another standard that is excellent. But order as you like from the reasonably priced menu; it's all good. (Reviewed June 3, 2011.)

The hits just keep coming in Cooper-Young, and Stone Soup Café has rounded out the list with comfort food and a warmth that makes you feel like you're a special guest in a good friend's home. Soup servings are generous (a "cup" is really two cups), and all the soups are very good. The pimiento cheese ranks among the best in town, and the daily specials, with a meat and vegetables on the side, are filling and delicious.

Some of the food at Stone Soup is undersalted, but a shaker on the table provides a quick remedy. It's a small price to pay, and it affects only some dishes — taste before you add. Whatever you do, save room for dessert, whether something simple like a pecan bar or over-the-top, as with the banana pudding cheesecake. (Reviewed Oct. 28, 2011.)

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