Justin Fox Burks
The first time I spot Mac Edwards at the Wednesday afternoon farmers market, he is loading dozens of bags of vegetables into the back of his Volvo wagon. Over the next month, I see Edwards almost every week shopping for The Elegant Farmer, his popular farm-to-table restaurant on Highland in East Memphis. Curious about how a bushel of zucchini picked in the morning turns into squash medley at his restaurant the next day, I decide to trail along.
“No list?” I ask Edwards when we meet at Memphis Botanic Garden. “Sometimes, I write things down,” he says. “Today, I’m just going with it.”
A relaxed market style for Edwards is still serious shopping. He buys an oversized bag of sweet basil, along with boxes of okra, peppers, beef brisket, minute steaks, yellow squash, and big fat tomatoes he calls slicers. Wearing a Shelby Farms T-shirt, Edwards reminds me of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain: charming and in charge.
When a young market worker asks what kind of food Edwards serves at his restaurant, she gets a grin and a two-word answer: “Home cooking.”
Home cooking, indeed. At The Elegant Farmer, portions are generous, and dishes are familiar. But in this kitchen, protein plays a support role to produce, shifting comfort food such as country-fried steak in a more sophisticated and healthy direction. From appetizers to dessert, a seasonal approach extends across the menu, thanks to chef de cuisine Gannon Hamilton and to Edwards, the former owner of McEwen’s on Monroe.
Be forewarned: The restaurant is popular. On two different weekends last month, my husband and I stopped by spontaneously and couldn’t get a table. We finally made a reservation for dinner and joined two friends on a Thursday night.
For starters, I ordered the first item on the menu: deviled eggs prepared according to the whims of the chef. I think this free-form approach is a bold move in Memphis where mayo-rich deviled eggs are as sacrosanct as a church potluck. When the eggs were served, I smelled curry and mustard and downed an egg in two delicious bites. My friend was less impressed with the filling’s “too dry” texture.
Along with the eggs, we decided on a chicken quesadilla for the table. Two tortillas were stacked like pancakes with chicken and queso fresco layered in between. Fresh field peas and tomato salsa made from Edwards’ market haul were scooped on top and garnished with a zigzag drizzle of chili-lime sour cream. For salads, we settled on the same one, a little boring, I know, but no one can resist the combination of field greens, oven-roasted peaches, caramelized pecans, and warm gorgonzola.
When selecting my entree, I was drawn to the restaurant’s side dishes, a different orientation for me. Maybe it was the enticing descriptions (wild mushroom, sweet potato, sweet pepper hash!), but I decided on my sides first: poblano peppers (another market buy) and okra, corn, and cherry tomato sauté. The sides led me to the pan-seared catfish of the day, which for our visit had a Mediterranean twist with a bed of currant-flavored couscous. I polished off the vegetable sauté as soon as it arrived. The cherry tomatoes were cooked ever so slightly, giving a warm pop of sweetness to every bite.
My husband’s boneless, center-cut pork chop was a filling meal, and according to our server, one of The Elegant Farmer’s most popular dishes. The chop was brined in pork stock, oven-roasted, and topped with a crown of spring onion marmalade. He decided to take some home so he could enjoy dessert guilt-free. It was a good decision. We ordered a luscious slice of chocolate cake frosted with freshly whipped cream, and a two-inch wedge of pound cake topped with an army of blueberries dressed in tiny white caps of powdered sugar.
During dinner, my friend decided that The Elegant Farmer was her new favorite restaurant. While it earned such praise, the restaurant, open since March, has some drawbacks, depending on your point of view. Dishes are seasoned with a light hand, so this is not a restaurant for big, bold flavors. The place also gets noisy when packed for dinner, which it frequently is.
Lunch was a more kicked-back meal, especially if you sit in the restaurant’s patio, a cozy spot for five tables (yes, there are umbrellas) edged by roses, lantana, trumpet vine, and Shasta daisies.
We started with a light curry sweet potato soup that is fun to eat because a dollop of crème fraîche turns the soup bowl into a groovy piece of Spin Art. A salmon burger came next, a hearty two-hand sandwich in a bun with house-made pickles and a side dish of mac ’n’ cheese. Made with Béchamel sauce, Creole mustard, and a little hot sauce, the dish is cheesy enough to please a youngster and ample enough for two adults to share.
Since our weekend lunch, I’ve eaten at The Elegant Farmer two more times, and I am still impressed with its seasonal focus, affordable prices, and affable vibe. That’s why I’m not surprised with his answer when I ask Edwards to define his cooking philosophy. “Take what God makes,” he says, “and don’t screw it up.”