Since his arrival in Memphis some 22 years ago, French-born Jose Gutierrez has been a tour de force on the local dining scene. Known primarily for the elegant Southern-accented French cuisine he created as executive chef at the Peabody's Chez Philippe, Gutierrez, the city's only Master Chef, left to open his own restaurant, Encore, in November 2005.
Compared with the pricey, often dazzling French-based cuisine at Chez Philippe, the fare at Encore is moderately priced (most entrees under $20) and tends toward homey French cooking. It's as though Gutierrez has traded lavish but tight party shoes for comfy slippers, and as a result, among Encore's best offerings are soothing, homemade soups.
But that doesn't mean Encore looks like the den on a Sunday morning. The place is polished and urbane, with a backlit curtain the entire length of the restaurant on one side, an open ceiling, and dark wood finishes. Two curtains of black chain mesh break the space into dining rooms while maintaining a sense of openness. Although the restaurant feels a bit fancy, diners are wearing everything from blue jeans to mink, and no one seems out of place.
It's no surprise, though, that the food is the main attraction.
We tried most of the appetizers, and two were outstanding. The homemade wild mushroom ravioli were large, green-striped discs of al dente pasta stuffed with a dense, rich mushroom mixture. It was served over a generous heap of cooked down tomato-and-vegetables that provided a light, acidic counterpoint to the ravioli.
The small pissaladiere, a provençal vari-ation on pizza, had a crisp, freshly baked crust, topped with wonderfully sweet caramelized onions accented with the flavors of slightly smoked salmon and a sprinkling of arugula leaves. The medallion of warm goat cheese, served over salad, was competently made but not particularly memorable.
The two salads we tried were beautifully presented, but not as dazzling in flavor. Shrimp Caesar salad was particularly at-tractive, with its elegantly stacked hearts of romaine, a handful of shrimp, and diced red bell pepper and Caesar dressing drizzled on top. The dressing was a fine take on the usual Caesar -- more balanced and smoother in flavor than most, while the just-cooked shrimp were a bit salty and bland. The salad niçoise looked modern and stylized, with cherry tomatoes, beautifully seared fresh tuna, lettuce wedges, and a scattering of tiny green beans and potato. The eggs were delicately cooked so that the yolk was still very soft, a nice touch.
The sublime soups at Encore included a beautiful vegetable version made fragrant and green with pistou, a French version of pesto. The delectable black lentil soup was thick with carrots and bits of fennel from the Italian sausage. Complex and satisfying in flavor, it was easily the standout of our first visit.
We ordered the sirloin cheeseburger with aged cheddar quartered as an appetizer for four, and were rewarded with hamburger heaven on a homemade bun. Just as fabu-lous were the french fries, perfect, crisp, greaseless, and served with a turbo-garlic aioli sauce.
As for the entrees, the cassoulet was superb, served in a small cast-iron pot with plenty of fennel and garlic pheasant sausage, a leg quarter of confit duck, slices of pork loin, and al dente white beans. While not overly heavy or greasy, it was entirely too salty.
The roasted grouper, firm and fresh, came served on a bed of edamame, baby sugar snap pea pods and other vegetables, with a subtle creamy basil sauce. The crispy ahi tuna was crusted with just enough wasabi to complement the fish without overwhelming its flavor. The spicy caramelized salmon, though perfectly cooked, was easily outshone by the accompanying cau-liflower risotto, bits of the vegetable cooked risotto-style to a buttery consistency.
The prime New York strip au poivre was wonderfully juicy and flavorful, served with a green-peppercorn-spiked pan sauce and more of the excellent french fries. Finally, we had the braised short ribs with a savory Beaujolais sauce, served with caramelized pearl onions and bits of bacon.
For dessert, the creamy roasted hazelnut ice cream seamlessly meshed with a chocolate ganache to add a dreamy finish to our meal. The lemon cheesecake with raspberry puree was light and delectable, and not overly sweet. The custard bread pudding was fairly light as bread puddings go, the accompanying poached pear lovely and spicy.
A new menu will be in place by spring, but the standout pissaladiere, ravioli, sirloin cheeseburger, and steak, we're happy to report, will likely remain on the menu. We also hope that the fresh, authentic skinny French bread (ficelle) will remain a fixture as well.
The wine list at Encore is very approachable. The first part is a listing of 36 wines by the glass, most priced around $8 a glass, or less than $35 for a bottle, in descriptive categories, while the second part lists bottles only, most less than $60.
As for the service, we were well taken care of, but the experience was different each time. At our first visit, the waiter was chatty and a bit opinionated. While that was off-putting at the beginning, we had to admit that without his prompting, we would never have tried the bizarrely intriguing blue martini in the wasabi-rimmed glass, or the French aperitif Lillet. He knew the menu and wine list well, and answered all our questions, although there was a lag in getting our drinks and check.
The second visit, our server's style was minimalist. After making sure we weren't rush-ing to make the opening curtain for a nearby opera performance, he was very respectful of our leisurely pace. Yet somehow whenever we needed something, he was right there. He, too, answered all of our questions knowledgeably.
At Encore, Gutierrez says au revoir to the more extravagant style favored at Chez Phil-ippe in favor of basic, bistro-style comfort food, and does so with style, competence, and affordability. While several entrees are standouts, Gutierrez doesn't neglect the details either; several side dishes are as delectable as the main course.
Sure, you could argue that since leaving Chez Philippe a layer of artistry has been removed from Gutierrez's cooking. But that still leaves plenty on the plate.