For more than a decade, a line of railroad passenger cars has been sitting empty alongside Collierville's town square. Until early this year, that is, when Collierville resident Marshall Criss and his stepson Tom Powell decided to renovate them into a fine-dining restaurant. The result is The Tennessean, opened in March and named for the passenger service that ran between Memphis and Washington, D.C., from 1941 to 1966. The partners renovated the two restaurant cars and lounge car as authentically and simply as possible, with the blessings of the cars' owner, the Memphis Transportation Museum. The result is so realistic you expect the train to lurch forward at any moment. (In fact, the train doesn't go anywhere, although special-event excursions are in the works.) I have to admit I'm a total romantic about trains, so I found this whole concept completely enchanting.
The kitchen is in the capable hands of executive chef David Krog, who made a name for himself as the original chef at Madidi, the Clarksdale, Mississippi, restaurant co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman. Most recently, Krog cooked at Bari Ristorante in Midtown, and is committed to using only top-quality fresh ingredients, and as a result the menu changes frequently.
We visited first for dinner on an insufferably hot evening, and were seated in the west car, a former dormitory lounge car from the Santa Fe Railroad (so-called because it had sleeping quarters onboard for employees). Most of the ambiance comes from the big windows, the long center aisle, and other train details.
Sampling most of the appetizers on the dinner menu, we started with the cornmeal fried oysters. They were flash-fried crisp and light to the point of being downright airy, with a touch of caramel flavor and a cognac cream sauce. The shrimp and grits were delectable, big fresh shrimp and an agreeable tomato sauce, the creamy texture of the grits setting it apart from other versions. The foie gras was grilled and served on toast with greens and a mellow apricot chutney on the side, a lovely little indulgence. The Southern spring roll was good, with chicken and vegetable bits served with apricot chutney, but a little dull.
We tried two salads, and found the bibb lettuce with marinated goat cheese and pine nut dressing to be the standout. Spring mix with tarragon vinaigrette was fresh and straightforward.
For entrees, we ordered the filet of beef with three-cheese au gratin potatoes, a beautiful cut of beef cooked medium to order with luscious potatoes that were creamy yet well defined in flavor by sharp cheddar. The filet is not cheap, at $39, but worth a splurge for anyone who rarely eats red meat. The chicken was crisp on the outside and tender inside, served with summer-fresh field peas and a crab potato pancake. The pan-seared red snapper was fresh and expertly cooked, its cold crab and roast corn salad a clean-tasting accompaniment. The Niman Ranch pork tenderloin preparation really played up the extraordinary flavor and tenderness of the meat, with a disk of fresh corn pudding and a savory sweet potato mousse.
Two of the three desserts were pretty standard fine-dining choices. Crème brûlée was thicker than most, with a nice thick burnt-sugar candy coating on top. Dense chocolate ganache cake was scrumptious and well-matched with excellent homemade vanilla ice cream. The banana bread pudding was the one we fought over: Delectable and dense with a deeply caramel sauce, wonderful vanilla ice cream, and a garnish of a burnt-sugar-crusted banana.
At lunch we tried both of The Tennessean's soups. The she-crab soup was delicious, with a large clump of jumbo lump crabmeat in the middle of the cup and a subtle bit of sherry. The flavor was much more focused on the crabmeat, and while the soup was plenty rich, this version didn't have the goopy quality she-crab soup often has. The fresh tomato bisque was a thick puree, flavorful but not overly intense, as summery and refreshing as hot soup can be. Among the salads, we tried the chunky chicken salad, a refreshing combination of chicken breast chunks, red grapes, celery, and pecans in a sweet poppy-seed dressing. The accompanying rollups of sliced smoked salmon added to the elegance of the dish. The pecan fried grouper sandwich consisted of a juicy grouper filet, its mellow pecan crust slipping off, served on a sourdough roll. The sandwich needed an oomph of flavor, which the remoulade sauce did not provide. The paper-thin housemade potato chips, dusted with cayenne, were the thinnest chips I've ever seen, and quite toothsome. The Tennessean's homemade pimento cheese was a delectable twist on the Southern sandwich classic, made with smoked gouda and chopped roasted red bell pepper, and served on toast.
The lunch menu also lists hot entrees, including homemade chicken pot pie, fried catfish (fried light and airy, I'm told, like the oysters at dinner), and meatloaf. I tried the meatloaf, and found it to be light in texture and flavorful, with dense mashed potatoes and a veal reduction sauce that seemed a lot like good old-fashioned gravy. The only thing I didn't like were the accompanying green beans, which were tough and tasted a bit metallic. For dessert we shared the banana bread pudding, which was every bit as scrumptious as before.
We should mention that most of the menu changes each month, but it's kept up to date on the restaurant's website (tennesseanrestaurant.com). The wine list has about 40 choices priced mostly under $40, with about a third of them available by the glass. A full bar is available, too.
Service at both meals was good. At dinner our server was attentive and very familiar with the menu. He kept everything coming and going at a good pace, and won us over by recommending a wine that proved very compatible with most of our food. At lunch our server was personable and knowledgeable about the menu. Dishes arrived promptly, and glasses were filled frequently enough, and the owners came by often to check on us, often with a war story about the restaurant. The exception was the dessert, which took forever to arrive despite the server's frequent progress reports. My only quibble was at the beginning of our lunch, when the waiter and owner were at odds as to which car we should pick. We made our choice, yet we were put uncomfortably on the spot about changing our minds. Disagreements like that should be kept out of sight, and certainly not allowed to make things unpleasant for the customer.
But The Tennessean's charms far outweigh that one quibble. We were tickled pink over the quality of the food, which demonstrates the pleasures that can result from top-notch ingredients in the hands of a capable chef. Commonplace dishes such as fried oysters, pimento cheese, she-crab soup, and beef filet were exceptionally well-executed here, and everything was beautifully prepared. Maybe a few things could have used some oomph — I'm thinking of the grouper sandwich and the Southern spring roll. Being able to enjoy all of that in a charming vintage railroad dining car is icing on the cake.
Our conclusion: A visit to The Tennessean makes you long for the days of train travel, but the food makes you quite content to be in the here and now.
The Tennessean 123 North Rowlett, Collierville 853-4997