At first glance, the menu at eighty3 food & drink is as dazzling as the room itself, which glows under halogen lights.
There are 11 categories on the dinner list -- starting with bar snacks of nuts and bacon, progressing to breads, then soups, salads, "hot dishes" and "bowls, skillets and plates," the latter subdivided into "noshing" and full portions. There are clever and whimsical possibilities -- we had the lump crab and shrimp ceviche, for instance, an exhilarating relish of raw shellfish, scallions and sweet potato slivers that you spoon onto wontons.
From the "natural and organic" main dishes, we chose a honey-glazed seabass, plump and perfectly done inside its caramelized crust and served with a few of my favorite things: fennel, braised endive and warm grapefruit wedges.
You might be reluctant to get something traditional like roasted chicken breast when braised shortrib with peanut sauce or mussels with chorizo and leeks are available. But sometimes it's gratifying to get what you want instead of what you should try. The chicken breast at eighty3 defines the word gratifying. It was tender with a hint of lemon in the juices, and served with buttery sauteed spinach and feather-light whipped potatoes.
The dinner menu is a riot of crazy temptations. Under "crudos and tartares," in addition to ceviche, we ordered elk carpaccio, the thin shavings of barely sauteed meat served with arugula, evoo (from Rachael Ray's mouth to the Oxford American College Dictionary) and Parmesan. These are ingredients that come together at restaurants in the West Village; Asheville, N.C., and Park City, Utah, y'all. Here in Memphis, Chef Connor O'Neill adds fried capers. Elk is lean and milder than venison; we had it with the La Crema Pinot Noir.
Our server convinced us that it would be our loss if we didn't try the eighty3 "signature cornbread." It arrived hot in its skillet, crusty outside, moist inside, with a subtle influence of jalapeño.
This server had a pleasing voice and an impressive command of the menu and the language, and we pretty much did what she told us to do. Should we have a steak? "The steaks are phenomenal, really the best steaks Downtown now," she said. The filet came with a brilliant side of salad, a wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese and bacon.
Chef O'Neill is playing with Southern traditions, but he may go too far with the Blues Fries, $6 worth of skinny fries topped with sausage gravy and melted cheddar -- you don't want that dish cooling on your table long. Before we ordered, our server said it was popular and "very filling."
But that down-South influence works beautifully with two breakfast dishes -- the pulled pork hash, which arrives in an individual skillet, and the chicken fried ribeye, great values at $10 and $15, respectively.
The hash, topped with two poached eggs, mixes bite-size shreds of pork with roasted potatoes in their skins, scallions and bits of sweet red pepper.
The crusty brown batter on the ribeye was an inch thick in places. This dish was a clever affront to the notion that batter disguises an economical piece of meat. The ribeye was lean and pink, and could have stood on its own, a perfect contrast to the over-the-top batter and sausage gravy.
Four women at a table nearby with an admirable lack of self-restraint had each ordered a plate of the "deep fried" French toast sticks, and when we looked curious -- maybe jealous is the right word -- as the piled-high platters passed us by, our server slipped us a sample. This "French toast" would fit in easily at the Iowa State Fair. It's fried brioche -- a bread with such a high sugar and butter content, it's half cake.
This server who snuck us that sweet sample had steered us to the chicken-fried ribeye and solicitously slipped a fresh saucer under my coffee cup when I spilled a bit. Service here is individual and interesting, quirky in a good way.
eighty3 is a redesign of the space formerly known as Grill 83 at the Madison Hotel. The room is intimate but animated now by pictures that suggest graffiti, one massive wall in black and white and a series in garish shades of red, yellow, green and blue. The music is low-key rock with occasional anthemic pop -- we heard Adele's "Rumour Has It" at breakfast and dinner.
The lovable thing about the place is that it really is "fun," which is the stated goal of the makeover. The menu is eccentric, and the kitchen is skilled enough to pull that off with real ingredients.
And if all you want is a drink, there's a bar studded with sparkling "crystals," a view of Madison Avenue and a collection of sly cocktails. We tried two that were perfect for people who don't like sugary drinks. The Memphis Cup -- Hendricks gin, muddled cucumber, lime juice and simple syrup -- and the shaken and fresh-tasting Frothy Bourbon Sour, with Maker's Mark, lemon juice and Angostura bitters.
-- Peggy Burch: (901) 529-2392
eighty3 food & drink
Address: 83 Madison.
Telephone: (901) 333-1224.
Hours: Breakfast 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday; brunch 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Sunday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Elk carpaccio, $14; eighty3 signature cornbread, $6; Amish chicken breast, $22; honey-soy glazed seabass, $34; pulled pork hash, $10.
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars