Thoughtful fine dining has come to Mud Island, in the form of Currents. This is the restaurant (as opposed to Tugs, the hotel's bar and grill) that's part of the luxury boutique hotel River Inn. Both restaurant and hotel opened in October 2007.
Like its surrounding Harbor Town neighborhood, Currents is downtown yet away from the hubbub, in what feels like a riverside suburb. That gives the restaurant a sense of calm, even before you walk in the door.
Once inside, the restful taupe of the walls, white tablecloths, and simply curtained large windows help to extend that feeling. This makes the colorful flowers, bordello-red upholstered chairs, and bright red chargers on the tables all the more vivid. >>>
As for the food, it is in the capable hands of Executive Chef David Schrier, a Memphian who honed his skills at Equestria, the University Club, and most recently, the Blytheville (Arkansas) Country Club. He oversees both of the hotel's restaurants.
Dinner at Currents begins with an amuse bouchee, which for us was carpaccio over frisée lettuce one visit, lobster salad with caviar the next.
From there we chose, from the appetizer menu, portobello mushroom carpaccio; these delectable chilled slices came in a mellow balsamic shallot jam. The corn bisque was a refreshing departure from the cream-laden chowder you often encounter. The bisque had a coarse ground-cornmeal texture while the cornmeal dumpling in the middle was a bit chewy. It all had a deep, intense roasted corn flavor, perfumed with truffle oil. The foie gras appetizer was pretty as a picture, with a melt-in-your-mouth slice of foie gras on a plate with toasted brioche, sundried cherries, and pistachios. Too bad the portion was so sparing.
The frisée and cress salad featured strips of sweet poached pear over the greens, which were subtly dressed with honey lavender vinaigrette. However, the kitchen apparently forgot the blue cheese, which would have been a welcome accent.
On our second visit we had jumbo lump crab au gratin, and found it to be a superb dish that at other places can be so rich and bland that it's tasteless. Not this version: The sharp Gruyere cheese, judicious shot of sherry, and extreme freshness of the crab gave it a clean flavor yet plenty of personality. The large escargot were festive, served in the shells with wonderfully savory minced bacon, wild mushrooms, and caramelized shallots.
Our main courses were first-rate. The prime New York "striploin" was of excellent quality, cooked medium rare to order and well-trimmed. The crusted exterior was flavored with — but not overpowered by — an intriguing ground porcini mushroom and cumin rub. The pork trio consisted first of simple lean subtly smoked pork loin topped with green beans, then a meltingly tender portion of rich braised pork belly with aged balsamic vinegar. The third preparation of the trio was the most unusual: Slow-cooked pork cheeks served with a garnish of mustard greens and candied with honey-curry vinaigrette, in which the curry was very subtle. It was a nice plateful of culinary wizardry.
A standout among the seafood entrees was the pan-seared sea bass, caramelized giant scallop, and a whole prawn. The sea bass was cooked just to a minimal point of doneness so that it was meltingly tender. The dish included puréed parsnips, a sharply flavored side dish for this seafood and perhaps a nuance too earthy.
The double rib lamb rack consisted of three very thick lamb chops, cooked medium rare as ordered and served with a rich, complex, and very compatible elderberry sauce. The dish also included fondant potatoes, diver scallop-sized disks of potato braised in butter, and marinated eggplant carpaccio, which provided a nice pickle-y accent. The combination was hearty, elegant, and wonderfully flavorful.
With our meals we had lovely, crusty, hot-from-the-oven rolls, some of the best I've had in a restaurant.
For dessert we tried the lavender honey crème brûlée, perfectly creamy and crusted with sugar, the lavender and honey shining through lusciously. The smooth Valrhona chocolate-hazelnut terrine was dreamy and intensely chocolate, with a heavenly raspberry Godiva chocolate sauce. The baked-to-order pecan tart was luscious and buttery, while the accompanying sweet potato ice cream tasted fine, but had an odd potatoey texture. The molten chocolate cake was reminiscent of a donut in its texture and flavor, and the molten part consisted of velvety warm chocolate sauce poured at the table. Though the accompanying brown butter ice cream had a cakey coarseness, its flavor, with a touch of cappuccino, was delicious.
We should mention that the menu changes frequently, and a spring menu will likely be in place by now. The restaurant also offers a tasting menu, with or without wine matches, that changes weekly. Speaking of wine, the restaurant has an extensive list, with plenty of choices by the glass, as well as a sommelier on staff, although we did not meet him on our visits.
The service at Currents was attentive, with everything arriving and departing at appropriate times, glasses kept full, and thoughtful timing. There is no shortage of front-of-the-house staff, which made a difference in the quality of the service we had.
We found Currents to be a gem of a fine-dining restaurant, with polish in décor and cuisine reminiscent of a well-run New Orleans establishment. Schrier's clean, balanced, perfectly executed food puts Currents above the average fine dining restaurants, and places him in league with the city's best. Many dishes were memorable, including the lamb, pork trio, corn bisque, and the chocolate hazelnut terrine. A commitment to quality shines through, in a way that suggests Currents will only get better. M