It was a year of anniversaries and celebrations for the Memphis restaurant community. Three of our favorite reviewed restaurants of the year celebrated with 10 candles on the cake: Bhan Thai, Felicia Suzanne's and Bari all proved that if you do it right, a city of diners will get behind you.
RP Tracks, a pub by the University of Memphis that has morphed from a college hangout to more of a burger and casual dining spot, celebrated its silver anniversary, making it a few years older than its average customer was back at the beginning. Folk's Folly turned 35, Molly's La Casita marked 30 years in its current location on Madison, and River Oaks
Restaurant chef/owner Jose Gutierrez celebrated two milestones with his "30 plus 1" combo — 30 years in Memphis and his first anniversary of owning River Oaks.
In 2012, Aldo Dean opened the long-awaited Aldo's Pizza Pies in Downtown, and Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman opened Hog & Hominy in East Memphis, both adding considerably to the popular pizza scene in Memphis. It was a big year for the latter, who were also semifinalists in the James Beard Best Chef: Southeast.
The Rendezvous added a lunch delivery service, via bicycle, to Downtown diners. We saw two Cochon events, the Cochon 555 competition in February and the inaugural Cochon Heritage BBQ over Labor Day weekend. LeBonAppetit, a fundraiser for Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, brought prestigious chefs from around the South to town to cook with local chef partners.
We discovered the flan at VGM Market & Deli, a little Filipino shop with a food counter at 6195 Macon Road, and we'll never bother with making another one. We revisited an old favorite, Mortimer's at 590 N. Perkins, and remembered how good fresh fried mushrooms can be.
Ronnie Grisanti closed on Poplar, opened in Stella Marris, closed, then reopened inside Sheffield's Antique mall in Collierville. The second location of Casablanca (or third, if you count the one in Cooper-Young that closed) opened at 1890 N. Germantown Pkwy. in Cordova.
Double J Smokehouse & Saloon opened at 124 East G.E. Patterson; Central BBQ opened its third location at 147 Butler; and One & Only Barbecue took over one of the C.K.'s Coffee Shop locations at 567 Perkins Extd.
A fire destroyed Willie Moore's Family restaurant on South Third, and Moore moved to 109 N. Main Street, where he serves all of the hearty soul food he served in his former location — except chitterlings.
Thomas and Valerie Schranz opened the excellent Cafe Fontana in Cordova, earning them a spot on our Top 10 of 2012 list. In alphabetical order, these are the best restaurants we reviewed this year:
The folks at Alchemy, 940 S. Cooper (901) 726-4444, know how to pour a drink. Further, they know their way around a kitchen and have done a great job creating a hospitable and fun place to meet for drinks and dinner. The restaurant opened in November 2011, with Karen Roth running the kitchen, but Roth left and was replaced by Nick Seabergh, who started in November 2012. The small plates were great on a recent visit — the pimento cheese with flat bread might be the best version in town, and the shrimp with grit cakes and jalapeño butter is excellent. Drinks are muddled, mixed or shaken to order, and everything is fresh. If bourbon's your drink, find co-owner Bert Smythe and let him tell you about the selection. J.B.
At Bari in Midtown, 22 S. Cooper (901-722-2244), chef Jason Severs and his wife Rebecca Severs pay homage to his family's roots in southeast Italy and the city on the Adriatic after which the restaurant is named. Try the appetizer of grilled calamari and whole baby octopus, with a pesto of roasted red pepper oil and parsley, and the excellent crusty bread, and you'll begin to appreciate Severs' fascination with his family's origins. Other dishes that have earned their long standing on the menu are the eggplant and pecorino fritters, the carbonara spaghetti, the intensely red tomato soup with a poached egg, and the branzino, or European sea bass. The restaurant's menu of nearly 40 Italian cheeses should have local-treasure status. P.B.
Bhan Thai has it all: Great food, great location, great patio, and it works for a group of friends or for an intimate dinner for two. It's in an old house at 1324 Peabody (901-272-1538), which was once home to Raji Jallepalli's Maison Raji. The green curry is excellent; the fiery spices both blossom in and are tamed by the fatty coconut milk. Yum tuna is fresh and fragrant, and the Bangkok chicken marries rice, herbs and spices to create a comfort dish that lights a little fire too. If you ask for hot here, rest assured it will be delivered. J.B.
Cafe Fontana is a thoroughly charming restaurant in the old Farley house in Cordova, 8556 Macon Road (901-529-7526). Chef Thomas Schranz, formerly of La Tourelle and Cafe 1912, runs the kitchen, and his wife, Valerie Schranz, keeps the front of the house. It's a warm and inviting place, and the food is excellent. Torta di formaggio is a layered appetizer made with mascarpone cheese, basil and sun-dried tomatoes; don't miss it. Freshly baked bread is served with a whole roasted head of garlic and a spread of white bean purée at the start of every meal. It's heavy on Italian dishes (the chicken piccata is superb), but steaks, burgers and sandwiches are available too. Sunday brunch is full of surprises, such as the antipasto pie, a layered medley of cured meats and cheese cooked in pastry. Don't miss the fries. They're sliced and fried to order. J.B.
A stellar entry in the "new-this-year" category is the Madison Hotel's in-house restaurant, eighty3 food & drink, 83 Madison (901-333-1224). "The menu is eccentric, and the kitchen is skilled enough to pull that off with real ingredients," we said in our February review. A lump crab and shrimp ceviche was an exhilarating relish of raw shellfish, scallions and sweet potato slivers that are spooned onto wontons. A honey-glazed sea bass was served with fennel, braised endive and warm grapefruit. The steak came with a giant wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese and bacon. Chef Connor O'Neill plays with Southern traditions: cornbread with a hint of jalapeño arrives in its skillet. At breakfast, pulled pork hash with roasted potatoes in their skins also arrived in an individual skillet, and the chicken-fried rib-eye had an over-the-top batter and sausage gravy. P.B.
Chef Felicia Willett grew up in Arkansas in a family that took food seriously, and she has fun with Southern dishes like cornbread and fried green tomatoes, but her training with Emeril Lagasse lends intriguing Creole panache to her menu at Felicia Suzanne's, 80 Monroe (901-523-0877). And she has an impressive loyalty to the local farms that supply her vegetables, chicken, pork, fruit and dairy products. The menu she produced last fall was a beautifully edited collection of dishes she has perfected — the smoked salmon deviled eggs (which were on the menu when Willett presided this year at the James Beard House in New York), barbecue oysters, Tasso shrimp, fried chicken livers, her Classic Creole Turtle Soup, shrimp and grits, and a Colorado rack of lamb with an airy goat cheese and potato gratin. P.B.
Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman opened Hog & Hominy, 707 W. Brookhaven Circle (901-207-7396) just across the street from Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, their, um, Italian restaurant in East Memphis. Hog & Hominy's pizza oven turns out a lineup of excellent pizza, including the Red-Eye, which features a soft-cooked egg in the center. Sandwiches, salads (one with croutons made of fried chicken skin!), house-made hot dogs and a changing variety of small plates makes up the menu. Cocktails abound, and there's a bocce court along the side of the restaurant, tucked between two patios. J.B.
It's been a bit over a year since Jackson Kramer returned to Interim, 5040 Sanderlin (901-818-0821), and he's clearly at home in his kitchen. It's a lovely space and a friendly place, and watching Kramer and his staff work at the open kitchen provides a little dinner theater. You can't go wrong with pork dishes, and the Interim burger and the Cuban sandwich are also standouts. This is another place where you want to be sure to order the fries, and nestled up to a croque madame at Sunday brunch is as good a time as any. J.B.
It's the good fortune of the Memphis area that the families of Yong Hu, chef at New Asia, and Antonio Martinez, patriarch of the three locations for Las Delicias, chose to settle here and serve food from the cuisines of their respective countries of origin. Antonio Martinez, originally from Mexico City, this year opened a third Las Delicias location at 5698 Quince (901-800-2873). Memphis food writers have composed many tributes to Las Delicias' superior tortilla chips and guacamole, which are available in many local shops and farmers' markets. The restaurant's tacos on appetizer-size soft corn tortillas can be ordered with chorizo, grilled steak or pastor. Savory meat burritos include grilled onions and bell peppers and come with the restaurant's unusually good sour cream and pico de gallo. The enchiladas stuffed with shredded chicken can be covered in tomatillo, mole or tomato sauce. Choose the latter, the sauce of tomatoes and peppers for the rojas enchiladas is aromatic and subtle. P.B.
Yong Hu's New Asia opened nearly eight years ago at 2075 Exeter (901-753-8388) in Germantown, and its regular patrons know to order from the "authentic" red menu, not the more mundane one bound in green. The Peking duck comes on the bone, with the classic accompaniment of rice biscuits, crispy slices of skin and scallions on the side. Try the sole delicately fried in light batter and placed on fried fin "crackers." Sizzling scallops are served with all forms of peppers — bell, black, hot — as well as onions. P.B.