photographs by Justin Fox Burks
Peabody executive chef Andreas Kisler and executive pastry chef Konrad Spitzbart.
Although I’ve lived in Memphis for more than two decades, I had never eaten at The Peabody’s storied Chez Philippe until September 14th, when the restaurant’s celebration of Dom Perignon coincided with my husband’s birthday. Happy to match up the dates, I reserved a table and kept the plan secret except for one clue: “You have to dress up.”
On Saturday night, we drove downtown, valet parked, and made our way to the restaurant through The Peabody’s animated lobby. Cloistered behind the hotel’s bar, Chez Philippe felt like a vintage wind-up music box: old-school opulence tempered with whimsy.
Introduced soon after The Peabody reopened in 1981 as “The South’s Grand Hotel,” the intimate restaurant’s two-tier design recreates a European opera house. It’s a lot to take in: mirrors, tasseled drapery swags, faux marble wall coverings, and deep green carpet emblazoned with fleur-de-lis. Dominant murals also depict costumed aristocrats, including the Belz family on the balcony, a light-hearted reminder that classical French dining can still be fun.
Starting with champagne and a charming amuse bouche, our first dinner at Chez Philippe was both elegant and effervescent, with a lively energy we didn’t expect. Yes, the flatware was elaborate and the sorbet between courses tasted like rose petals. But our servers were engaging, not turgid, and our dishes were more fanciful than ceremonious. We swooned, for instance, over our appetizers, a spirited American mix of shrimp, mussels, oysters, and roasted shitakes, layered with crème Chantilly and served in stemless glasses.
Throughout the rest of dinner we reveled in the artistry of each dish and the meal’s memorable details: rock candy stirring sticks, French-press coffee prepared at our table, and miniature duck butter molds, the only ducks at the Peabody allowed on a plate. Still, we wondered if the restaurant’s venerable reputation bolstered our enthusiasm. Certainly, its list of former chefs builds a prodigious pedigree. Jose Gutierrez, Andrew Ticer, Michael Hudman, Rick Farmer, Reinaldo Alfonso, and Jason Dallas all claim ties to the Chez Philippe legacy.
Curious about dinner a second time, we returned two months later for the restaurant’s fall menu developed by Andreas Kisler, executive chef of The Peabody for the past 13 years. After a rotation of chefs who experimented with more exotic cuisine, Kisler is back in the kitchen to mentor sous chef Derek Smith and to replant the restaurant’s roots in traditional French cuisine. Already, he has rewritten the menu twice, freshening classics such as seared Dover Sole and adding seasonal dishes sourced locally.
Only the menu’s French onion soup remains unchanged, and with apt reason. Declared by two at our table as “the best we’ve ever eaten,” the soup’s simple presentation in a mini-saucepan belied spoonfuls of caramelized onions hiding under warm melted Gruyere.
Our table’s reception for entrees, however, was mixed. My aunt from Los Angeles said the braised veal cheeks and brisket were good, but not exceptional. My mother-in-law from New York praised the filet mignon’s marjoram bordelaise, but not the beef. My husband and I, however, lauded the execution and plating of the restaurant’s seafood dishes. My fresh water pike, lightly sautéed, was a scrumptious coming together of braised leeks, Pattypan squash, cranberry grits, and sweet potato puree. And my husband’s plump sea scallops, expertly braised in brown butter, starred alongside crispy lobster claws rising like majestic stalagmites from a pool of ginger carrot jus.
Without question, the desserts from executive pastry chef Konrad Spitzbart were some of the meal’s most salient memories. For Our Almond Joy, Spitzbart reinvents the classic American candy bar with chocolate ganache, coconut cheesecake, and a crunchy almond crust. For brulée, he decorates a trio of custard dishes like parade soldiers, topping green tea, vanilla, and chocolate with macaroons, fresh raspberries, and a dropper of salted caramel sauce.
Yet despite the menu’s flirty winks, tradition still directs the Chez Philippe experience. The dress code is formal dining, which in Memphis means wear a Sunday best. The menu is fixed price with three or five courses and no a la carte options. When ordering, the chef requires decisions for all three courses including dessert, a stipulation my dinner mates found particularly irksome.
Dining at Chez Philippe is also expensive, but don’t skip the wine pairings despite the extra cost. With his revamped French wine list, sommelier Chris Wicher’s pairings are both accomplished and experimental. Here’s an example: He matched dessert wine (a 2011 Chapoutier Banyuls) with a seared tuna appetizer, stacked on a bed of couscous, pistachios, and black currants. The pairing was unexpected and delicious.
“Wine isn’t a measure of ego,” Wicher said later, explaining his inclusive approach. “It’s about sharing a laugh with friends, having dinner together, and appreciating how each glass of wine tastes with your food.”
Top Three to Try
Seared Ahi & French Couscous
Crusted with pumpkin seeds and seared only on the edges, the Ahi tuna updates humble couscous with pistachios, dried currants, and an adorable (and edible) spoon filled with Lingonberry vinaigrette.
Chocolat a’la Bavaroise
Who knew a Lego brick could inspire such artistry? So goes the story behind this lacquered stack of Bavarian cream plated with gold leaf, painted petals, and an eight-prong fork of molded white chocolate.
French Onion Soup
Don’t be confused by the Camembert pillow served alongside the French onion soup. Just plop it on top and voila: a luscious marriage of sweet onions and melted cheese with a perfect puff pastry.