• photographs by Justin Fox Burks •
O n the first Wednesday evening in March, during the surprise finale of winter, my husband and I drove through sleet and snow to introduce a friend from Washington, D.C., to Erling Jensen, the celebrated restaurant in East Memphis tucked away on South Yates. With its white cloth etiquette and exquisite continental cuisine, the restaurant is a Memphis favorite for impressing family and out-of-towners, and we weren’t going to let a little snow storm keep us away.
In a restaurant where lemon-lime sorbet comes between courses, the idea of a gourmet burger for $7.50 on Wednesday nights made us a little giddy.
The only foolhardy guests in the restaurant for an hour or so, we settled into a bar table, munched on pork rinds dressed up with crispy kale, and ordered drinks: an icy martini to mimic the weather and Wiseacre IPAs served in pretty Pilsner glasses. Next we thought about food, scanning three different menus for entrees starring elk, escargot, or wild salmon; memorable bar specials like duck confit pizza or a lobster sandwich; and smaller bar plates introduced three years ago when the restaurant remodeled. Still, despite the bravura we could use to mix and match dishes, we settled quickly on two choices. For me, beef bourguignon on risotto, so thick and scrumptious it was served on a plate instead of in a bowl. For the others, dinner had a singular purpose: half-price bison burgers served with a cascade of skinny, skin-on fries. In a restaurant where lemon-lime sorbet comes between courses, the idea of a gourmet burger for $7.50 on Wednesday nights made us a little giddy. Seasoned with blackened spices, the burger’s preparation was thoughtful and satisfying, anchoring a tower of Benton bacon, caramelized onions, and Stilton aioli held together with a skinny bamboo pick. “Most people can’t finish it,” our server said.
The next day, debating whether to warm up leftovers for breakfast or lunch, I thought about the fine meals I had eaten at Erling Jensen more than a decade ago and how my culinary affections had wandered to the city’s more visible farm-to-table chefs. Why did I stray, especially when Erling Jensen’s additional menus break the implicit rule that links classical fine dining to sticker shock?
Certainly, Jensen’s accomplishments give him free rein. A native of Denmark, he has been part of the city’s culinary elite since 1989, when he arrived in Memphis to helm the former La Tourelle, Glenn Hayes’ touted French restaurant located in the Midtown bungalow where Kelly English now operates Restaurant Iris. In 1996, he opened the restaurant on Yates, earning a “Best Restaurant” win from Memphis magazine readers the following year. For the next decade, readers continued to name Erling Jensen the best restaurant in Memphis.
Jensen describes his food as “old school cooking that is not old school” and attributes his longevity to consistency, persistence, and vigilance in the kitchen. “I’m here every day,” he says, cooking alongside Justin Young and Keith Clinton, the restaurant’s other chefs. “I know you can’t be complacent. You have got to be awake.”
In keeping with his energy, Jensen orchestrates new weekly menus for three-course Sunday dinners that are hugely popular, especially on the first Sunday of the month when there are no corkage fees. On a recent visit, we found a fun and bustling crowd, toting in bottles of wine and chatting between tables. Little wonder the mood was festive. For $38 each, we reveled in elegant service and memorable small touches, like a tuna tartare amuse bouche to start, and to finish, an adorable pair of pistachio cookies capped with chocolate.
In between, each course was refined and stylishly plated: sweetbreads breaded, fried, and then lightened up with olive tapenade and arugula; roasted carrot coriander soup with a fragrance that lingers like the memory of a favorite perfume; Wagyu strip loin, flattened, seared, and sliced and served with golden potato puree; and Loup de Mer, another name for Bronzini, cooked only on its skin side and plated with basil ricotta risotto (flawless!), lemon butter, and a frond of fennel.
Next year, the restaurant will celebrate its 20th anniversary, and Jensen is planning a refurbished dining room and a second expansion for the restaurant’s bar, adding space for customers who like more casual dining. The menu and bar specials are already in place, and on subsequent visits, we tried a half-dozen different dishes and were impressed with each one. Some smaller plates, like the truffle mac and cheese made with old-fashioned macaroni, were both fun and decadent, layering in flavor and texture with two cheeses (Beemster and Parmesan) and chunks of lump crab.
Other dishes incorporated traditional Danish recipes, like the marzipan blueberry cobbler served in a skillet sizzling hot, or made friendly companions for drinks after work. One of three cheese plates on the bar menu, the Barely Buzzed Cheese rubbed with espresso and lavender, stood out. With its floral taste and delectable rind, the cheese was so good that we skipped bread and mustard for the candied walnuts and miniscule cornichons marching around the plate.
Erling Jensen1044 S. Yates 901.763.3700
Food: Seasonal ingredients update fine dining and small plates.Prices: Menus offer bar plates ($8 to $18), bar specials ($16 to $19), appetizers and salads ($9 to $19), and entrees ($37-$48).Drinks: Bartenders shake expert martinis, or you can try one of 36 wines by the glass from an exceptional list.Extras: Don’t miss the three-course Sunday night special ($38) or the Friday night dinner and wine pairing ($75).Atmosphere: The restaurant is grown-up but not stuffy, and dinner guests still get a little dressed up.Service: Expert staff gets it all right.Noise level: The dining rooms hum along nicely, so conversations from nearby tables fade away.Reservations: Reservations are recommended for the dining room. Reserve special dinners well ahead.Open: Serving nightly from 5 to 10 p.m.
Crispy cornmeal dusted oysters: Long live the marriage of cornmeal and plump oysters that are fried crispy, plated on a boat of arugula, and dipped into lemon caper remoulade served in a petite bowl.
Bronzini: With its crudo of pastel vegetables spinning like a pinwheel in spring, Bronzini, America’s new favorite fish, gets the star treatment; seared to perfection, plated on creamy risotto the color of new moss, and topped with lemon butter.
Chai tea crème brûlée: A sublime touchstone of French desserts, this spin gets its flavor from steeped chai tea. Held in place by a crunchy sugar top hat, the brûlée is still creamy enough to wiggle a little in the center of its plate.