When Interim Restaurant & Bar opened last January in the gorgeous East Memphis location that originally housed Wally Joe, the name certainly did not suggest the restaurant would be around very long. In fact, it was originally planned as a stopgap until the owner could sell the place. But Jackson Kramer, who took over the kitchen, and the staff quickly proved their mettle, and now Interim is here to stay. Kramer, a Memphian who went to Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, worked for two years under Chef Wally Joe in the restaurant's previous incarnation.
The Interim folks, luckily, have left the beautiful décor alone, and made themselves at home in the space, sort of like those creatures who settle themselves into an abandoned nest built by some other animal.
The dining room features beautiful wood veneers and cool gray tones. One wall consists of a back-lit wine cooler and the back of the restaurant is given over to a sparkling open kitchen of black tile and stainless steel. (Some of the equipment is Viking, no surprise since Viking Range Corp. founder and president Fred Carl Jr. owns the restaurant.) The result is an atmosphere that's cool, sleek, and modern, and feels relaxing while it also immediately ratchets up your expectation that good things are on their way. It is, however, pretty noisy when the dining room fills up. The bar is a separate room, with more of an upscale nightclub vibe and its own menu.
While the décor is much the same, the menu and wine list, though, are completely different: Gone are Asian influences and the fabulous wine list Wally Joe maintained. As for the food, you could say it's more ordinary fine dining, even if the execution is well beyond ordinary.
We sampled a range of appetizers during our visits to Interim. Gulf Coast crabcakes, made from shredded crabmeat and a touch of cumin, were lightly crusted on each side, and served with a subtly spicy mango and wasabi vinaigrette. The macaroni and cheese casserole, served in a small just-out-of-the-oven covered Le Creuset pot, was rich and homemade with a fluffy topping of toasted breadcrumbs and just a few specks of country ham. The upbeat arugula and radicchio salad was lovely, crisp, and cold, consisting of peppery arugula greens paired with a spry balsamic vinaigrette and accented with radicchio, little nuggets of bacon, and grape tomatoes. The roasted quail promised the most potential, but actually did not come together as well as the other dishes. The quail had no crusty texture on the outside, and the meat was tender but bland as if boiled. The cornbread stuffing was ho-hum, and the pan juices watery. The best part was the bright- green braised greens underneath the quail.
For entrees, we tried the grilled pork chops, juicy, tender and just done, served with smoked tomato sauce that seemed like a lightweight barbecue sauce. The accompaniments: rich coarse-ground goat- cheese grits and, in extreme contrast, in-tensely bitter greens with a trace of bacon flavor. Fish of the day was ultra-fresh yellow fin tuna, seared and served in rare slices with lemony vinaigrette and a white-bean puree that was a refreshingly light alternative to mashed potatoes. Pan-seared scallops were perfectly cooked with a peppery surface and a butter sauce turbocharged with lemon. It was served with asparagus-spiked vegetable risotto. The sliced skirt steak, which was ordered medium rare and arrived rare, was flavorful but not dazzlingly so, served with roasted new potatoes, caramelized onions, mushrooms, and a mellow salsa verde.
Perciatelli pasta consisted of hollow thick spaghetti tossed with arugula pesto, roasted tomatoes, and parmesan, the bits of almond in the pesto adding a nice bit of texture.
Our runaway favorite among the desserts was the spiced rum bread pudding with cinnamon ice cream and banana brulée. The freshly baked bread pudding was crisp on the outside and inside, dense and moist without being heavy. The wonderful homemade cinnamon ice cream had only a whisper of cinnamon, and that was just enough. The warm chocolate cake was a good version of this ubiquitous confection, the center moist rather than molten, served with luscious homemade vanilla ice cream and a puddle of white chocolate ganache. The rhubarb and almond tart was very refined, with a crisp, tender-sweet crust, and the somewhat runny filling sweet and fruity without any trace of rhubarb fiber. It came with a scoop of sweet strawberry sorbet.
We found that Interim paid close attention to the details: For example, the excellent bread was served warm and promptly after we ordered, and the coffee was much better than your typical restaurant brew.
The wine list focuses mainly on California wines. (Don't look for Wally Joe's thoughtful and wide-ranging wine collection; this one is much more standard.) There are about 30 whites and 40 reds, mostly in the $25 to $60 range, plus eight sparkling wines. The restaurant's management plans to expand the list by adding bottles from other countries. There's a beer list as well.
As for service, it covered all bases. Courses arrived on time, glasses were kept full, and dishes taken away promptly. Both of the servers we had were pleasant enough, although on our second visit the server, getting pumped up for the approaching Saturday night rush, was a bit jumpy. All in all, service was competent and businesslike, not memorable in a good way or a bad way.
We should mention that although we focused our attention on the dinner menu, the restaurant has begun serving lunch as well. That menu consists of greatest hits from the dinner menu, such as macaroni and cheese casserole and crab cakes, as well as wild mushroom risotto, a white cheddar cheeseburger, a tuna melt with manchego cheese, and other fare.
Not every restaurant starts life by taking over one of the most beautiful fine-dining spaces in town, but Interim, in doing so, proves itself worthy. The food is consistently well-prepared, and the flavor combinations work well, notably the pork chop with grits and greens and the perciatelli pasta. Other favorites include the crisp and refreshing arugula salad and the light yet moist spiced rum bread pudding. The service keeps pace, and the restaurant just feels well-managed, in addition to looking good.
Interim clearly has earned the right to be far more than a flash in the pan.
Interim 5040 Sanderlin, Ste. 105, 818-0821
For more information, see our Dining Guide