The Memphis dining stage has a new star, and it's a brightly shining one. Acre opened in May with more fanfare than any local restaurant in recent memory, and has had a full house from day one.
The space is beautiful. If you follow the restaurant scene even slightly, you've heard talk about the expense of the renovation, about the painstaking attention to detail from the tables to the upholstery, the linens to the lighting, the wood to the stunning oversized Roberto Dutesco prints of Sable Island horses.
Acre is in a renovated house, tucked away on Perkins behind Theatre Memphis. Old houses make for cozy and welcoming restaurants anyway, and this is a spectacular example of refinement and comfort from the porch to the patio.
While there are people who will go to Acre just to see it (and to be seen), it will be the food that gets diners in again and again.
Veteran restaurateur Wally Joe is the chef, but it's his longtime right hand, Andrew Adams, running the kitchen as the executive chef. The menu is not simple, but it is simplified so that the freshest ingredients can stand in for others that are unavailable or not at top quality on any given day.
The menu is so subject to minor changes that a new menu is printed daily. However, it's not so fluid that every day is a mystery. There is a standard menu; it just gets tweaked as needed to turn out dishes made with the best ingredients. As in any fine restaurant, this is most evident with the fish. I'd planned to order the Hawaiian opah, highly recommended by a reliable source, on a recent visit, only to find snapper on the menu instead.
I have no complaint, though, and in fact found the dish to be among the best I've eaten in a very long time and my favorite at Acre. It was prepared in the same manner as the opah -- a fillet on top of a bed of polenta rich and creamy with mascarpone, with chopped pieces of earthy chanterelle mushrooms around the side, a spare touch of a sprightly anchovy mustard sauce, a tangle of baby arugula with leaves no larger than a pea, and an irresistible salty, briny clutch of smoked steelhead roe to finish it. Every flavor stands on its own, and each complements the other. It was superb. Try the dish, whatever the fish might be when you visit.
Sturgeon, more familiar for its roe than its flesh, also stands out. It's a firm, meaty fish with a texture similar to swordfish. It can be a difficult fish to cook, but at Acre it's given star treatment, served on a thick slab of smoky pork belly and a salad of pickled green papaya.
The pork infuses the fish with just a touch of smokiness, nothing that overwhelms the fish, and the freshness of the salad brightens the flavors. Another excellent treatment.
I found the gnocchi a bit heavy, though the sauce of shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, slivered roasted okra and sage brown butter was excellent. The tandoori-spiced pork loin was a little confusing, served as it was with browned sauerkraut or choucroute.
The pork was tender and nicely flavored though delicate, and I wouldn't have defined the spices as Indian had it not been noted on the menu. The smokiness seemed to come more from the choucroute than the meat, but it's hard to say for sure (pork is cooked in the cabbage). The diner at our table who ordered the dish was very happy with it, but it was my least favorite. It was a fusion that didn't work for me, but let me be clear that first of all, the choucroute, Alsatian sauerkraut, isn't a typical vinegary version. And while combining Indian and Alsatian might seem a bit of a stretch, the common warm spices should unify the plate. It just fell short of the other dishes, and I believe the chefs will find a better use for pork.
(In fact, Acre recently started serving a suckling pig at market price with 10 days' notice. Last week, a special was suckling pig four ways, but I wasn't there when it was served and can't speak to it.)
The chicken galantine was another excellent dish, also recommended before I went to the restaurant. I ate it at lunch and was served a generous four slices of the stuffed roll on a bed of quinoa, surrounded by an intense reduced chicken stock with maitake mushrooms and crawfish tails.
The stuffing, a fine mix of chicken paté, is heady with truffles and tarragon, the combination of which is intoxicating. It's available at lunch or dinner.
Service at lunch was a bit peculiar. Plates weren't cleared until we asked, and my request for the salad with my meal instead of before it was met with either disdain or genuine confusion; I couldn't tell which. The same server at dinner was efficient and friendly.
I prefer the more casual approach to service at Acre to the restrained one at the former Wally Joe, and am a believer in relaxed but attentive service. I think it can set the tone for a meal and a fun evening, and in general that's what you'll find at Acre. A low soundtrack of familiar songs plays, and there's a happy buzz of conversation and table noise. It's slightly on the loud side, but not distractingly so -- just enough to feel the energy.
A few more words about the food. At dinner we sampled three appetizers, the best of which was hard to choose. The Dungeness crab cake was the table favorite, a serving the size of a smallish but decent burger that was almost all crab. A salad of carrot, daikon and shiso (also known as Japanese basil) in a sesame-mustard vinaigrette was an ideal accompaniment. But my favorite was the raw duo, a plate with two servings: Sliced raw scallops, zebra tomatoes (with just a finish of coarse salt) and a basil pistou garnish is one; and lightly seared hamachi with lemon grass ketchup, melon, cucumber and green olives is the other.
On dessert, there was consensus on the sticky toffee date cake. The dense cake, the size of a good muffin, was covered with a toffee sauce and served alongside a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
The wine list at Acre is thoughtful and affordable. There are many bottles under $40, some under $30, and a selection of pricier wines, too (as well as a decent by-the-glass list). There are several signature cocktails, and I look forward to trying more of those when the bar menu launches.
Now you can order from the regular menu at the bar or patio, but in about a month diners in those areas soon will be able to order from a menu that will feature items such as a burger and fries.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Address: 690 S. Perkins
Telephone: (901) 818-2273
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday 5-10 p.m. for dinner and Monday through Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch.
Reviewer's choices: Chicken galantine ($15 lunch, $21 dinner); red snapper ($25); raw duo ($13); Dungeness crab cake ($12)
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars