Justin Fox Burks
Don’t even try to sweet-talk Vickie Nethery into describing the dishes she serves on No Menu Monday, a monthly tradition at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen where each course remains a mystery until after the meal. “Just play along and try to guess,” Nethery suggests, and so we do, starting with the amuse-bouche, a half-dollar-size bite of spiny lobster beautifully plated with ingredients we later learn are hazelnuts, tarragon, and Serrano peppers. (My husband guesses the lobster, but I’m not even close.)
For our first course, we try again and listen for clues from wine director and general manager Ryan Radish, who pours Villa Matilde Falanghina, a white wine from Italy’s Campania region. We hear words like “chalkiness” and “minerality” and “no oak” as precursors for the next dish, which stacks textured and colorful layers.
On top, a mild fish with an elegant taste reminds me of scallops. In the middle, potatoes and pork shoulder rest on what I assume is a deep green bed of kale. Tangerine colored ’nduja also meanders across the plate. For the fish, I guess cod or maybe halibut. My husband, who never eats fish, has no idea. Still, he praises the dish (he ate it all) until I announce on the drive home that the kite-shaped bottom feeder on his plate was skate, a ray’s kissing cousin.
Our meal continues to play out with courses two, three, and four in a thoughtful progression of food, flawlessly executed and delicious to eat. Sometimes, clues emerge as we watch our flatware change. “Ah, a soup spoon,” I say with a knowing nod. But Miss Vickie, as she likes to be called, returns a few minutes later not with soup, but with stuffed gnocchi disguised as glistening, dimpled dumplings in brown butter pasta sauce.
Stuffed with dark mushrooms (this much I know), the gnocchi are earthy and sensual and burst open in my mouth, surprising me like tapioca pearls inside a glass of bubble tea. We eat silently, almost reverently, until I declare with joyful conviction: “This pasta is heaven-sent.”
A few weeks later, I talk to chef de cuisine Ryan Jenniges and sous chef Chad Harrison to learn how the pasta was made. Yes, the gnocchi were stuffed with black trumpet mushrooms cooked down with Taleggio cheese. And the gnocchi’s lovely emulsified sauce? Brown butter (Pam scores), black truffles, pasta water, and Parmesan cheese. And dessert served with florets of whipped cream? A Meyer lemon upside-down cake from Kayla Palmer, the pastry chef at Porcellino’s, a sister restaurant like Hog & Hominy located across the street.
As the chefs continue to talk about seasonal cooking and Southern food, I see they are simpatico, much like their mentors, chef/owners Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman. Certainly, Ticer and Hudman’s own story is one to embrace. Longtime friends, they come from big Italian families in Memphis and grew up celebrating food. They started talking about opening a restaurant as teenagers, and when they graduated from Christian Brothers High School in 1998, their trajectory together included culinary school, half a dozen years cooking at Chez Philippe and Encore under the tutelage of chef Jose Gutierrez, and a pivotal trip to Italy to cook and study.
In 2008, the chefs opened Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, converting a post-war rambler on Brookhaven Circle into the flagship for what will soon be a five-restaurant group with upcoming locations in New Orleans and downtown Memphis.
“Andrew Michael will always be our baby. We start every morning drinking coffee with our managers in this room,” Ticer says about the light-filled private dining room, part of the restaurant’s ambitious renovation last year to expand the bar, the kitchen, and the front of the house.
These days, many customers head intuitively for the bar, where the atmosphere is fun and boisterous but the restaurant’s menu and exemplary service are the same. Likewise, each dish is carefully conceptualized, with its own personality and flavors that build, like a well-told story, to a memorable finish. Some dishes are comforting, like the medley of parsnips, farro, bok choy, and Dijon cream sauce topped by a boneless chicken breast with the drumette attached. Others are more playful, like the menu’s tartare, a patty of cold-smoked swordfish, crème fraiche, paddlefish caviar, and fresh chives anchored by a tall stack of house-made chips.
For pasta lovers, half a dozen house-made options build the menu’s core. Pastas are Andrew Michael’s calling card, and for good reason. Potato gnocchi features short rib ragu, fresh basil, and a dusting of baby bread crumbs infused with fried chili and garlic. Mafalde with braised oxtail ruffles on the edges like Christmas ribbon candy. And Maw Maw’s ravioli is a house favorite, culled from the kitchen of Hudman’s grandmother, Catherine Chiozza.
While dishes are sized sufficiently to stand alone, I typically eat with such relish that I like to slip out back for some air, where I find a French door off the deck, a luminescent viewfinder into the inner workings of Andrew Michael’s kitchen. From my perch, I feel a little guilty, as if I’m eavesdropping on chef Jenniges, deeply focused on a single plate. Around him, half a dozen other chefs orbit, and in the nighttime quiet, the scene feels like a family, working together to build a better whole.
For Ticer and Hudman, the analogy is an apt one, a driving mantra for why they cook and why their business continues to grow. “We want our people to get to the highest level they can with our company and run one of our restaurants or open their own,” Hudman says. “It will be the biggest compliment to us when one of our people opens their own restaurant. We are waiting for that day.”
Justin Fox Burks
712 W. Brookhaven Circle
Food: Classically executed, the food at Andrew Michael is Italian fine dining with spirited Southern roots.
Drinks: Seasonal house cocktails range from classics, like a Pink Lady, to more inventive fare like the Gatherer, a mix of rum, brandy, toasted hazelnut syrup, and byrrh.
Atmosphere: The restaurant is tastefully appointed and divided into a series of smaller rooms for conversation and more leisurely meals.
Service: If you like white tablecloth service with no pretentious vibe, this is your place.
Extras: The patio is a secret treasure, especially with a wood-burning fire on chilly nights.
Reservations: You will need them for the dining room and for bar tables on Friday and Saturday nights.
Prices: Antipasti: $15-$18; Starters: $9-$14; Pasta: $10-$12; Entrees, $26-$30; Dessert: $7.
Open: Tuesday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to close.