Duncan Aiken has pretty much reopened Overton Park Pizze Stone in Cooper-Young, though under the name Skunx Chef Pub. The menu is largely the same, with some variation. And I have this to say:
Shut the front door!
I mean it literally.
The tradeoff Aiken had to make, moving from a thoroughly charming space to the former Lou's Pizza on Young, will no doubt be a good one. A successful restaurant is all about location, location, location. And while he's made significant improvements to the space, he really has to get that front door fixed. We were constantly jumping up to close the door that other patrons left open as they came or left, and it was cold.
(The door has been this way since at least the very early days of Lou's, by the way. Should've been fixed long before Aiken took over.)
The food, though, is as good as ever. Aiken is serving most, maybe all, of the pizzas from Pizze Stone. The pasta dishes are gone from the set menu, but they're replaced with something far better: daily blackboard specials.
Many of these are dishes that Aiken has gotten from other chefs, and he's cooking them in tribute to both the chefs and the fine dishes. On recent visits, we tried Sara Jo's crab cakes, from Sara Jo Bridges (now at Erling Jensen:The Restaurant) and Chef Reny's chicken liver and truffle paté, from former Chez Philippe chef Reny Alfonso.
The crab cakes were so good we tried them twice, and though bigger on our first visit, they were about as good as crab cakes get both times.
We split ours as an appetizer, but an order is plenty for a simple meal. While they taste just as they should -- of crab -- the finely chopped onion and celery lend flavor and texture. They're served over a spicy srichacha mayonnaise, finished with a little squiggle of the flavorful hot sauce on each end of the plate, and topped with a tangle of arugula dressed with lemon and truffle oil.
Aiken has the chops to turn out food such as this: simple, but delicious and well-executed. He has been in the restaurant business since he was 15, starting at La Patisserie and moving his way through many kitchens around town, plus he studied in Italy. When he was in Europe, he purchased the pizza ovens he's using today; he stored them at his parents' home for about 15 years before he began using them at Pizze Stone.
He makes his own bread for his panini and sub sandwiches, and of course, he makes his own pizza dough.
The crust is superb -- thin and crisp, but substantial, with a bit of tug to it. (He's playing around with rice flour so he can offer a gluten-free pizza, but he's not there yet.)
Toppings are fresh, and combinations range from the unusual Achilles' Heel, which is a hummus pizza with cucumber, tomato, roasted red pepper, feta, goat cheese and red onion (I was tempted, but no one else was game) to the excellent meat-lover's pie, the Fat Skunk. This one is the standard pepperoni, sausage, onion, peppers and mushrooms, though it also is topped with sliced meatballs and smoked mozzarella instead of plain old mozzarella.
The Diavolo is spicy, as the name implies. Aiken isn't shy about using pepper and spice, and good for him. Don't promise the devil if you're not going to deliver. The pizza is not fiery, but it does have some heat.
The Mamma Luc, a simple and lovely pizza with ricotta, zucchini and velvety slices of prosciutto, is topped with arugula dressed with truffle oil (Aiken uses it frequently, but with a judicious hand). And the Sienna is an excellent vegetarian choice.
Not for said vegetarians, though a delight for many of us, is the beef marrow. Aiken roasts beef shin bones until the marrow turns to a rich and silky spread for toast. He's not serving them with marrow spoons, but a butter knife is a fine tool for working out the marrow and spreading it on toast. A sprinkle of salt is a must, then you top off the toast with a bit of the parsley and shallot salad to cut the richness and deliver a fresh and tangy note. Whether these will be a frequent blackboard special remains to be seen; how they are received and how difficult they are to obtain will guide that.
More to everyone's liking will be the blackened spicy shrimp mac 'n' cheese, because mac and cheese is a dish beloved by many. I didn't see any evidence that the shrimp were blackened, but the Cajun spices were present in abundance, and the dish was a satisfying one.
While Skunx' interior is not completely without charm, it sure isn't in the Pizze Stone ballpark. It's got a definite beer-joint vibe, not that there's anything wrong with that. Nobody turns up their nose at pizza and beer.
Right now, the restaurant continues to operate under Lou's in order to serve beer, but the name change should be official next week. No word on when the exterior sign will be changed, so for now, if you're looking for Skunx, seek the Lou's sign.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Skunx Chef Pub
Address: 2158 Young.
Telephone: (901) 722-4301.
Hours: Daily 11 a.m. until late.
Reviewer's choices: Sara Jo's crab cakes ($12); beef marrow ($12); Mamma Luc pizza ($14); Diavolo pizza ($14); Fat Skunk pizza ($17).
Alcohol: Beer at present. Bring your own wine; $3 glass fee.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars