Justin Fox Burks
Tucked next to the sugar bowls on the tables at the Presentation Room are small laminated cards edged in blue. The cards don't list drink or dessert specials. Instead, they are a disclaimer of sorts, explaining that the restaurant's chefs, servers, and managers are students from L'Ecole Culinaire.
"Please be patient with us during your visit and enjoy," the cards read, along with a thank you for "support during our learning experience." A nice touch, I thought, lingering over a luscious panna cotta, but the thanks should be coming from me.
Open since April, the student-run Presentation Room — located inside the cooking school — has been somewhat of a Cordova secret. After visiting for lunch and dinner, I can't understand why.
Certainly, the restaurant's exterior belies its stylish interior decor: slate tile, warm accent walls, and oversized floral arrangements framed by each window. The service, although awkward at times, is sincere and attentive. Iced tea glasses stay full, and used utensils are replaced in a jiffy. Even more important is the food: a creative mash-up of cooking techniques and seasonal ingredients that changes every 10 weeks with each new senior class.
Here's how the Presentation Room works: Culinary students in their final phase of training spend five weeks running the front of the restaurant and another five weeks in the kitchen before starting internships at area restaurants. (Our server, Marlon, was headed for a stint as sous chef at Marley's, the new Caribbean restaurant on Beale Street.) Because the Presentation Room doubles as a classroom, it's only open four days a week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students prepare and serve lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and dinner from 7 to 9 p.m. On Mondays and Wednesdays, other groups handle breakfast from 7:30 to 9 a.m.
Instructors supervise, critique students, and help develop recipes, but otherwise, it's hands off. "That's probably the hardest part of my job, watching them go down in flames," says chef Rick Farmer, the school's instructor for lunch. "But that hasn't really happened yet."
Farmer started teaching at the school fulltime after Jarrett's, his popular East Memphis restaurant, closed earlier this year, and his influence shows up in the dishes his students prepare and serve. Typically, I can scan a menu and decide quickly what to order, but at the Presentation Room, I wanted it all. The bread basket filled with hard rolls (walnut and raisin) and slices of Kalamata olive sourdough (made with a 10-year-old starter) prolonged my indecision. I didn't mind a bit.
Eventually, I settled on orange beef and basil spring rolls with sweet chili garlic sauce. When the crispy rolls arrived at our table, they looked like four little smokestacks in a sea of plum wine reduction. A generous sprinkle of chopped green onions kissed them with color.
My friend's appetizer — artichoke and ricotta fritters — was another delight to see, smell, and taste. We paused for a second to admire the fritters' fragrance and then dived in. Who could wait? Each fritter was a two-bite wonder: lush artichoke hearts wrapped in a ricotta-infused batter, fried golden brown, and dusted with Parmesan. A zesty lemon aioli for dipping came alongside.
We skipped salads for sandwiches, which were more complex and priced from $8 to $9. I ordered hot crab: jumbo lump crab, bell peppers, red onion, herbs, honey, Asiago cheese, and a little Creole mustard served with sprouts, avocado, and Monterrey Jack on a grilled Bialy bun. Lucky for me, the half sandwich I couldn't eat held up fine for the next day.
My friend opted for the veggie burger, a mundane name for one of the best burgers I've ever tasted — meat or meatless. The success of the burger followed plenty of experimenting by student chefs, who settled on an inventive combination of oatmeal, brown rice, cracked wheat, caramelized onions, and three types of mushrooms (button, shiitake, and portobello).
Both sandwiches were hearty and served with hand-cut fries, Mediterranean potato salad, or spicy gaufrette potato chips. (Gaufrette is a trendy word for lattice-cut, potato wafers.) We liked the sides, but the stack of pickled garnishes added our favorite gourmet zing. The idea came from Farmer, who shared with his students a traditional recipe for cornichons — pickled gherkin cucumbers — from his cooking days in France. They enthusiastically adopted the recipe as their own, pickling all sorts of vegetables including carrots, parsnips, shallots, garlic, and pearl onions.
When I returned to the Presentation Room for dinner, I was happy to find the same creativity on the evening menu of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
I wanted a salad to start, but only had one choice: romaine with a warm combination of small red-skin potatoes, goat cheese, caramelized onion, and smoked maple vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was just right, but the salad was too rich for my three-course meal. My husband ordered New England clam chowder, a traditional mix of ingredients with a novel twist: The chowder — served piping hot — was pureed and garnished with pork fat cracklins and oyster-cracker tuile. It was our favorite dish of the meal.
Chef John Ferraro, who supervises dinner, wasn't surprised. "I'm from Boston, and I know my clam chowder," says Ferraro, who worked as sous chef at Sole Restaurant and executive chef of Canal Bar & Bistro before teaching at L'Ecole Culinaire. "We went with the puree, because we were looking for a more refined swing."
For my entrée, I ordered salmon blackened with Panko crumbs and herb butter. The fish was topped with wilted Swiss chard and finished with blue-cheese cream sauce, an unusual combination. Created by the student chef of the day, it was seared on the outside, but pink and succulent in the middle. My husband, who never eats salmon, liked the sauce so much that I had to smack his hand away to stop too much tasting.
He was, after all, happy with his own plate. He had waffled between the mustard-herbcrusted steak or the braised beef short ribs with parsnip puree. He went with the short ribs, swayed, I think, by the ribs' au jus. His opinion? "Wonderful! Like tender, amped-up pot roast."
His enthusiasm for the short ribs (he cleaned his plate) didn't keep him from dessert: a chocolate toffee torte served with caramel gelato and plated with a swirl of raspberry sauce. This time, he had to keep me from sneaking in an extra taste.
Like the menu, the wine list for dinner was comprehensive: five reds, five whites, and one sparkling with glasses priced at $5 or $6 and bottles in the $20 to $25 range. Our server suggested glasses of Chilensis Carmenere, and the ample pours lasted throughout our dinner.
While the cost of lunch was moderate, dinner for two topped $80. You could easily lower the tab by sticking with starters or skipping a course. Either way, be sure to tip liberally. All gratuities go to the L'Ecole Culinaire scholarship fund, so your generosity could end up helping the city's next celebrity chef. And isn't that a novel way to end a meal?