After more than two decades in someone else's kitchen, Michael Patrick has opened his own restaurant, Rizzo's Diner, in the former Harry's Detour location. And it's clear he's having a good time.
The food is comforting, delicious and well-prepared, but there's a touch of whimsy to it as well, with items such as cheeseburger soup and a lobster "Pronto Pup" (which could well end up being a lobster corn dog as the former is a trademarked name).
Diners who have followed Patrick around his mostly Downtown circuit of kitchens will recognize some of his dishes from other places, even if they're a bit different. He started serving his scallops and grits at McEwen's on Monroe, and the
spring rolls are similar to ones he served at Automatic Slim's.
But Rizzo's is Patrick's place, and he has designed the menu around hearty ingredients and bold flavors.
Meatloaf seems to be on half the menus in town at present, but Patrick's version stands out because of the addition of chorizo.
He serves a thick slab of it, fragrant with the cumin, garlic and chilis from the spicy Mexican sausage (quite different from cured Spanish chorizo). The mix is about 20 percent sausage to 80 percent ground beef, so the Mexican flavor accents the loaf and doesn't overwhelm it. Texturally, it's a bit looser than some of the others I've tasted recently, which is to my liking.
Patrick whips up a creamy green tomato gravy to go with it, and serves the meatloaf on a dollop of thick but creamy mashed potatoes. Steamed snow peas on the side seemed an unlikely accompaniment, but vegetable selections change frequently.
If the squash casserole is available, be sure to try it. This is much lighter than the name implies. It's a medley of yellow squash and zucchini, cooked tender and left in rounds instead of mashed. A light crust of cheese on the top is the only garnish, giving just a hint of crunch and depth and complementing the fresh vegetables.
Wilted spinach is a nice choice for a side, but it also makes an appearance in the best dish I tasted at Rizzo's:
Southern eggs Benedict with blackened catfish and Creole hollandaise.
The restaurant has been open seven weeks today, but was serving only its second Sunday brunch when we visited last week. No one could be expected to be on target with only one brunch under his belt, and I wouldn't have gone had I known. But Patrick delivered one of the best riffs on eggs Benedict I've ever tasted.
Two thin, crisp-toasted English muffin halves were topped with perfectly poached eggs -- whites just set and yolks runny. Nestled between the two was a fillet of catfish cooked with a blend of Patrick's own blackened seasoning. There was just enough smoked paprika to tease the palate, to suggest a hint of bacon, even though none was near the dish.
A tangle of the bright green spinach, barely wilted, topped the fish, and everything was covered with a generous serving of a warm lemony hollandaise spiked with Creole spices.
It had been a while since I tried a dish I liked so much. My husband looked at me and commented: "I'm not even going to get a bite of that, am I?"
My only complaint is that there was a tad too much salt with the fish and the sauce combined. I mean the tiniest bit. Yes, it was enough to be noticeable, but certainly not enough to stop us from eating every bite (yes, I shared).
Another dish I'll order again is the radicchio, avocado and quinoa salad. Quinoa, the grain that has become as popular as meatloaf, is such a treat when done right. It's food you can feel good about eating as it's a nice whole grain with protein, and it's got a delicate texture closer to couscous than say, a true grain like bulgur or barley.
Patrick dresses it in a tangy citrus vinaigrette and mounds it over an avocado half nestled in a large radicchio leaf. It's all finished with a big spoonful of a sweet, slightly spicy and tangy chow-chow. It's an unusual and delicious salad.
Cheeseburger soup, which Patrick says is his gift to Memphis, varied from a bowl of soup that truly tasted like a cheeseburger -- cheese, pickles, tomatoes and chunks of burger -- at lunch to a creamier, less meaty and nearly cheese-less version at dinner. We loved the lunch soup, but the cup we tried at dinner was bland.
The restaurant is shotgun style, with two bigger tables anchoring a wider area just at the front. Patrick cut a hole in the wall to open the kitchen to the dining room, but the space is still pretty cozy. There is a back room for private parties or overflow seating, one table outside at present and plans to have a patio on the east side of the building when the weather improves.
The metal roof, curved down at the edge, lends the impression of an old-fashioned dining car or trailer. It's attractive, but be warned: Festive diners can amp up the volume because of the acoustics. Whether that provides a fun energy to your experience or distracts from it depends entirely on you and possibly even on your mood. Whatever the case, you'll like the food.
Address: 106 G.E. Patterson.
Telephone: (901) 523-2033.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. -2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Stuffed avocado salad ($8); chorizo meatloaf ($17 at dinner); Southern eggs Benedict with catfish and Creole hollandaise ($10 at Sunday brunch); plate lunch ($10 with meat and three sides).
Alcohol: Wine and beer license expected within the month. Bring your own until then with no corkage fee.