photographs by Justin Fox Burks
Tsunami owner and chef Ben Smith
Tsunami, at 7:30 on the night before Thanksgiving, was somewhat empty. Mid-way through our meal, however, despite the luster (and valet parking) of nearby newcomer restaurants, this cozy, corner eatery in Cooper-Young had filled up and was humming with eager diners: large parties, couples, families.
Our table nestled in one of the charming bay windows looking out on a vibrant restaurant community — a far cry from the Cooper-Young that Ben Smith moved into in 1998. Tsunami’s owner and head chef describes the community then as being “an outpost, off the beaten path.” Since that time, the eatery has been a slow and steady flame in a burgeoning restaurant district that has seen many flashes in the pan.
“You have to recognize what is a trend and what is trendiness,” Smith said as we sat down a few days later on a blustery Monday afternoon. Over the last 13 years, Smith has seen his fair share of trendiness, and stayed leagues ahead of the trends. Tsunami was one of the first in Memphis to introduce small plates, and it was also the first restaurant to be Project Green Fork certified. Its parking lot became an incubator for the farm-to-table concept in 2009, when local farmer Van Cheeseman set up a winter farmers market there.
But for all the talk of staying ahead of the curve, Smith established an identity for Tsunami at the outset and hasn’t strayed. His vision of a fresh seafood restaurant unlike any other in Memphis is still exactly that.
Tsunami was one of the first in Memphis to introduce small plates, and it was also the first restaurant to be Project Green Fork certified.
In the last two years, Tsunami’s menu has settled on its current arrangement of small plates (a list of about six or seven dishes that changes daily according to what’s available), appetizers, soups and salads, entrée portions, and the most recent addition, a sort of Japanese-inspired tapas called izakaya.
We planned our wine selection for a three-course dinner, opting for a medium-bodied pinot, La Crema Pinot Noir, 2009. Our waitress, Scarlet, a familiar face in Tsunami for years, let us slip in an order of calamari with our wine order as well.
Years of experience have gone into making the calamari exactly as it should be: crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, never rubbery. Smith exchanges smoky chipotle aioli for the played-out marinara, keeping this dish light and introductory.
We rounded out our opening taste of the menu with bacon-wrapped dates from the izakaya section — an effortless crowd-pleaser — and a Neola Farms beef carpaccio appetizer, with mustard soy sauce, shaved parmesan, and arugula. The carpaccio was so thin and tender, almost melting on contact, and the small salad of arugula and delicate pickled onions added a tart, refreshing profile.
Having thus set a communal tone, we chose entrée items we would all be interested in tasting. Someone immediately suggested curry-dusted scallops over butternut squash puree with locally raised Gracious Garden greens, apples, and walnuts. In line with the late November season, the rich sweetness of the curry and squash mingled with tart fall apples and buttery scallops.
We also selected the sautéed mahi mahi topped with chimichurri and served with fingerling potatoes, arugula, and goat cheese. The chimichurri — a spicy and fresh blend of herbs — more or less stole the show, which is perfect if you lust after this Argentinian specialty the way I do, but less appealing if you were holding out for the sweet, mild taste of the fish.
Testing Tsunami’s culinary range, we added the vegetarian option, an eggplant Napoleon, and also ordered the roasted sea bass to size up their most famous dish.
A word about the plating: Tsunami attends to the presentation of each dish with an eye for how the food sits most naturally on the plate. The result is always interesting, often sculptural, but never fussy. No one was faced with the task of sorting out “How do I eat this?”
Ordering the eggplant was a sort of two-fold test: not only checking on Tsunami’s vegetarian chops, but also defying them to make an eggplant lover of me. The result exceeded my expectations. The eggplant was meaty, not mushy, the soft white cheese melted into the crunchy breading and held together nicely on the fork.
But the true darling of the meal was the roasted sea bass on black Thai rice with soy beurre blanc. With a beautiful brown sear on top, and tender throughout, the sea bass is poised neatly atop a mound of sticky black rice, accompanied by a delicate beurre blanc sauce.
Smith attributes the perfect searing to years of practice and patience: “It’s not something you can rush. It’s a balance of heat and timing. Sea bass likes to stick, so you have to let it sit and build up a nice caramelization, then we throw the whole pan in the oven so it cooks evenly.”
Smith says he never intended for this to become his signature dish, the cover image on the front of his Tsunami cookbook. He took the beurre blanc from his time at the now-defunct Three Oaks Grill in Germantown, mixed in a shiitake mushroom-flavored soy sauce, repurposed a sticky black dessert rice, and after toying with the fish selection, settled on the mild-flavored sea bass.
“It got to the point where it was all people would order, so I decided to take it off the menu to give people a chance to try other things,” he said. “It was a big mistake. My business partner at the time, the late, great Thomas Boggs, said, ‘What were you thinking?’ People would make reservations and then ask ‘Do you have the sea bass? No? Cancel my reservation.’ They’d show up at the door. ‘Do you have the sea bass? No, well we’re going somewhere else.’ So Thomas finally said, ‘Put it back on the menu or I’m out.’ And so I did.”
Tsunami doesn’t serve lunch, so for a smaller taste of their dinner menu, you might consider popping in after work for cocktails and izakaya. We tried some of their Asian nachos, crispy wontons with tataki tuna, cool crema, sriracha, and jalapenos; sampled wasabi deviled eggs, with a pop of horseradish cream and topped with smoky, sweet furikake flakes; and the jalapeno hushpuppies, fried crispy on the outside with a light, spicy corn bread inside.
Smith says Tsunami was the last chance for him to stay in Memphis: If it all fell through he would leave for good. In a way, Cooper-Young was just as desperate for a fine-dining anchor. Lucky for both, Tsunami has stuck around.