Downtown Memphis continues to be a hotbed of new restaurants, and among them is Sauces. Opened in December 2006 and tagged "our plate, your canvas," this attractive restaurant has a gimmick: Choose your food, choose your sauce. The décor is modern and polished, especially the stunning ground floor, with its Jetsons-style hostess desk, groovy sky-blue bar, lime-green accents, and exposed brick. The larger dining room is downstairs, where the exposed brick, lively colors, and artwork provide the lift needed to disguise the basement location. Its owners, Andrea Deeb and Kevin Sheaffer, spent 18 years and 12 years, respectively, with the Chili's restaurant chain, which helps explain the restaurant's corporate polish. They wanted to be downtown with a fun restaurant priced low enough and with enough variety to encourage locals to eat there a lot.
As for the menu, the choose-your-own bit is limited to a small area, where for your entrée you can pair one of six types of fish with one of six sauces, including lobster cream, orange teriyaki, and smoked salmon with gouda.
Our first visit was for dinner, where we dutifully tried a mojito, the rum-and-mint cocktail that's the house specialty. Not the best beginning: It was watery, too sweet (even though we ordered the least sweet of the bunch), and did not live up to its hype or its $8.75 price tag.
But Sauces quickly redeemed itself with a delectable array of appetizers. The spicy pork lettuce wraps, reminiscent of (but tamer than) the searingly hot Thai dish l orb , were addictive: Zesty ground meat flavored with an intense peanut sauce, which you wrapped in pieces of Bibb lettuce. The mushrooms Chesapeake consisted of crabcake-stuffed mushroom caps finished with a creamy dill-infused sauce. The fried mozzarella caprese consisted of thin disks of fresh mozzarella coated in panko crumbs, fried crisp, then topped with roma tomato slices and refreshing fresh-basil-and-balsamic vinegar combination. The mildest of the bunch was the seafood martini, a generous ceviche cocktail of fish and shrimp bits in a clean lime marinade and served with a nondescript artichoke and avocado dipping sauce on the side.
Compared with the usual restaurant house salad, Sauces' chopped salad is a breath of fresh air: Chopped lettuce, bacon, blue cheese, pistachios, tomatoes, hearts of palm and more in a beautifully balanced Dijon vinaigrette. (You get a generous bowlful for $2.95 if you order it with an entrée.)
For our main course, we chose from the pick-your-own-sauce area of the menu: tuna with mango bruschetta sauce. The sauce was sweet but piquant, with chunks of mango and red bell pepper. The server didn't ask how we wanted the fish cooked, so our rare-tuna lover got a tuna steak that was fibrously well-done. The lemon caper sea bass, served on a generous bed of orzo and spinach, tasted a bit too charbroiled for its lemon butter sauce. It was just a bit overcooked, leaving the impression of a kitchen not skilled at cooking fish to its proper point of juicy doneness. Yet curiously, when we visited for lunch we had grouper that was beautifully juicy and cooked just right. Our server had talked up the crabcakes as the best on the planet, and we found them to be good but fairly standard. The seasoning of the cakes and the underlying remoulade were lively, but the cakes could have used more crab lumps or something from the plant kingdom to liven up the texture. We much preferred the crabcake tucked into mushroom caps as an appetizer. The lobster-stuffed ravioli looked beautiful, with the pasta's dark stripes and the orange sauce, but was bland in flavor.
The restaurant serves only three desserts, and the two we tried were fairly underwhelming. Chocolate explosion was a brownie-dough with ice cream concoction, while the sticky toffee was not sticky at all, but a dense cake with a strong burned sugar flavor.
Sauces' full menu is available at lunch, but we chose to stick with the sandwiches and flatbread. The hands-down winner was the fried grouper sandwich on toasted ciabatta roll. The fresh filet was juicy and perfectly cooked, with a shaggy crisp coating and not even a whisper of sogginess or greasiness. The finishing touch was spicy Creole sauce that really brought the sandwich to life. In contrast, the accompanying pasta salad was virtually tasteless.
The sandwich menu includes three flatbreads, which for some reason the servers were reluctant to describe as pizza. But they were like pizza on a fresh, relatively thin, flat crust. Our choice was the barbecue chicken flatbread, piled high with pretty respectable smoky barbecued chicken that was shredded, combined with bacon, melted Gouda, and a little onion. It seemed an uptown and much improved version of the barbecue nachos at AutoZone Park.
Before our visit, we had heard that Sauces has the best burger in town. I don't know about that, but the blue cheese mushroom burger we ordered was terrific. It combined a very lean, modestly thick Angus beef burger with homegrown fresh tomato, blue cheese, and yummy sautéed mushrooms on toasted ciabatta. Good ingredients added up to an excellent burger. The sour cream and chive fries, formed from mashed potatoes and fried to a crackly finish, were fast-food nirvana.
Speaking of nirvana, we also had the sinfully rich she-crab soup, packed with lumps of fresh crabmeat and the flavor a perfect balance of sherry, cream, and salt. (The soup, in fact, captured the top prize at Youth Villages' Soup Sunday fund-raiser in January.)
Service was prompt, but with eccentricities. At dinner our extremely knowledgeable server nearly exhausted us with his detailed tour of the menu, but without it we would not have known to try the crab soup or that the flatbreads were so different from the other sandwiches. Our only quibble was that the server overhyped some of the items, particularly the mojito.
At lunch we started off with a peppy, professional server but were soon handed over to a more average one who didn't know the specials, and whose timing was just off the mark. Nonetheless, glasses were kept full (with, by the way, excellent mint-spiked iced tea), and the pace was brisk enough to get us back to the office within lunch hour.
In general, we found a lot to like about Sauces, including good overall food quality and some outstanding dishes, namely, the lettuce wraps, the grouper sandwich, the she- crab soup and the chopped salad. But still, much of the food was merely standard, and the fish not always as expertly prepared as one would expect, given the fact that most of the menu is seafood. Service was competent despite a few oddities, and the restaurant has a certain polish, thanks to the extensive corporate dining background of its owners.
It's great dining for the money, which combined with the hip, colorful décor, definitely sets Sauces apart. It's a lively addition to downtown dining. M
Sauces 95 S. Main, Suite 106 473-9573
For more information, see our Dining Guide