When the University of Memphis was courting the commissioner of the Big East Conference a year ago, the school’s president and athletic director, along with the founder of FedEx and the former First Tennessee Bank chairman, had steaks with their guest in a private room at Folk’s Folly. The choice made sense. When you’re making deals with grand implications, you want to feel confident in your surroundings; what you don’t want are distractions or unpleasant surprises.
The late Humphrey Folk Jr. founded this restaurant in 1977 in a low-slung, sound-proofed, beige-brick, residential-style building near the intersection of Poplar and Mendenhall because he liked to conduct business over steak. He was in construction, and didn’t know anything about the restaurant business at the time; hence the name. Now Folk’s Folly is run by a partnership of Folk’s progeny and those of a Memphis restaurant legend, the late Thomas Boggs.
The formula is straightforward. Javier Lopez, Folk’s Folly chef for a decade, says he orders an average of 2,500 pounds of prime steak a week, three or four times as much at holidays, from Stock Yards of Chicago, the restaurant’s supplier of 35 years. He gets 10 different cuts, aged a minimum of 21 days. “The quality they are, you don’t want to add anything but salt and pepper,” Lopez says.
A steakhouse should be a place of indulgence — generous portions, dark and sumptuous interiors, and the high tickets that go with those things. Folk’s Folly has all the trappings — valet parking, coat check, scrolled dark blue and mushroom-brown walls, lined at the entrance and in the bar with wine racks and aquariums full of wafting clusters of sea anemone. Entrees range from $28 to $50.
One weekend night, we had an unfussy early dinner at a table in the bar, called The Cellar, which has full service seven nights a week and a piano player every night but Sunday. The wine list has won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, the most basic of the magazine’s three restaurant wine ratings, the past 14 years. Its 2012 award described Folk’s Folly as strongest in California wines, moderately priced, with an inventory of 3,100 and 305 selections.
We asked about an inexpensive Rioja. Our server said she hadn’t tried it. She checked, and neither had our bartender. They offered to fetch a manager out of a staff meeting, but we turned to the drinkable Root: 1 Chilean cabernet. And though it may sound as if there was much ado about that selection, the whole transaction went swiftly. The restaurant’s signature fried dill pickles, a gift to diners in the bar, arrived soon after.
While we listened to piano standards in the low-key, Henry Mancini mode, we had potato chips in blue-cheese fondue, with the crisp, welcome addition of scallions. This is a dish you want to make quick work of, since the bottom layer of chips is “smothered,” as the menu promises, in cheese sauce.
Two of us split the Maker’s Mark medallions. A peppercorn cream sauce uses bourbon instead of cognac or brandy, and there was nothing subtle about it. The pepper punch was overwhelming.
On a recent Sunday night, the restaurant was densely populated, with diners as well as servers moving briskly down hallways and teaming up to deliver plates at larger tables. Lopez says the goal is to deliver each meal within 20 to 25 minutes after the ticket gets to the kitchen. There are “12 distinct dining areas,” a manager said, including curtained booths, three large rooms and small rooms that contain a single table that accommodates 12 or so. The restaurant can seat 325.
We started with catfish beignets — morsels of the mild white fish in cornmeal batter that, like the fried dill pickles, are easy to like.
The creamy, peppery she-crab soup and crisp Caesar salad were impeccable, though it’s odd to require the guest to specially order anchovies, which should be standard on that salad.
A ribeye and a filet mignon were flawless. Nicely browned, not punishingly scorched, unpierced, they’ve rested a bit to reabsorb their juices before they arrive at the table. The 16-ounce (!) breast of duck on a port reduction is an equally flawless entree.
You order, and pay for, all vegetables separately. The menu lists potatoes nine ways. The twice baked and au gratin potatoes were an over-indulgence of cream, cheese and butter. The mashed potatoes infused with garlic and leek had finesse. A second vegetable that will nicely balance your plate is the broiled tomato with a cap of Parmesan and a dash of salt; that glorified garnish costs $6.95.
At dessert, we were baffled by the “Famous Folk’s Folly Freeze.” It’s described as a mix of Amaretto, Frangelico or other liqueurs with vanilla ice cream, but we received a bland, cool but not cold brownish melted milk shake in a parfait glass. It may have waited too long for pickup. On the other hand, the chocolate fudge brownie, studded with pecans and topped with Häagen-Dazs, was a hit.
Food: 3 stars
Service: 3 stars
Atmosphere: 3 stars
Address: 551 S. Mendenhall
Telephone: (901) 762-8200
Hours: Dinner Monday through Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Sunday 5:30-9 p.m.
Reviewer’s Choice: Catfish beignets ($7.95); she-crab soup ($8.95); 16-ounce ribeye ($39.95); breast of duck ($32.95); garlic and leek mashed potatoes ($6.95) chocolate fudge brownie ($8.95).
Alcohol: Full bar.