Justin Fox Burks
Early on in his lovely remembrance of his great-aunt, the groundbreaking food writer M.F.K. Fisher, author Luke Barr explains her like this: “She was a connoisseur of tastes and small bites, of tidbits and flavors, an oyster here, a touch of pate there, and a glass of wine.” After compiling this year’s list of favorite dishes — selections steered by simplicity — I found myself hunting through the book to reread the passage, and I couldn’t help but wonder: Do even complex dishes inevitably loop back to singular tastes shaped by comfort, season, and memory? Whatever the explanation, I’m sure Fisher would likely slurp down another oyster and peel a plump tangerine. Memphis readers, however, should venture past their own kitchens to discover our city’s culinary delights, which for me this year included morning buns made with fennel pollen, a Mexican dessert aptly named the Tornado, and barbecue turkey shank layered with coleslaw in a Mason jar.
Sformato (or Fallen Soufflé) at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen
I think of Chef de cuisine Ryan Jenniges’ spring-inspired sformato as food for the angels. Less airy than a traditional soufflé, the dish looks at first like a pretty molded flan. Don’t be fooled. Jenniges starts with a little spinach and green tops from Vidalia onions, blanched and pureed. Next, he combines the puree with eggs, cream, salt, freshly grated Parmesan, and a pinch of white pepper. After the sformato is baked and unmolded on a puddle of pureed almonds and more Vidalia tops, Jenniges dusts it with dehydrated porcini mushrooms. Finally, he garnishes the plate with radish slices, toasted almonds, and a trio of peas tossed with charred lemon and mulberry vinaigrette for a dish that is best described with one word: Bellissimo!
712 W. Brookhaven cir. (901-347-3569)
Grits with Pickled Ramps at Bounty on Broad
Sunday brunch at Bounty on Broad is a virtuous coming together of flavor, taste, and texture with dishes like avocado deviled eggs with country ham and potato hash (a colorful trio of spuds!) topped with a fried duck egg. So why do I fixate instead on a humble bowl of grits? Let’s start with the corn, an heirloom variety first favored by moonshiners but now grown, harvested, and ground in a stone mill at nearby Hanna Farm to meet Chef Jackson Kramer’s specific requirements. Next comes the preparation, creamy but not too thick with red chili and pickled ramps. And finally, there is the soul of a dish that trumpets ingredients, not showmanship, the essence of Kramer’s sublimely satisfying cooking.
2519 Broad Ave. (901-410-8131)
Jumbo Scallopswith Oxtail Dumplings at Napa Café
Along with a refurbished bar and dining room, the addition of Chef Ken Lumpkin to Napa Café completes an impressive upgrade to this popular East Memphis restaurant. While Napa continues to serve rustic fare, Lumpkin’s culinary world view shines across the menu. The jumbo scallops, plated on swirls of sweet potato puree infused with cumin, showcase his prodigious talents. Oxtail dumplings and charred mango chunks perch nearby, ready to slip into a sea of umami broth made with shitakes and ginger and poured ceremoniously at the table from a brick-red ceramic pot. Owner Glenda Hastings texted that she LOVES this dish — the capital letters emphasizing her enthusiasm — and I couldn’t agree more.
5101 Sanderlin, Suite 122. (901-683-0441)
Bar Burger on Wednesday Night at Erling Jensen
At $15, the gourmet bison burger with a generous side of skin-on fries sprinkled with chopped parsley is well worth the price, especially since most people have leftovers to box up and carry home. But on Wednesday nights, when a bar special cuts the price in half, the burger turns into a guilty pleasure, much like an amorous rendezvous. Sometimes, my husband and I consider splitting a burger, but the thought is fleeting once we nibble on complimentary pork rinds, sip icy martinis, and remember the burger’s statuesque tease: bison patty seared with blackened spices, caramelized onions, crispy Benton bacon, and Stilton blue cheese aioli anchored together with a bamboo pick.
1044 S. Yates (901-763-3700)
Morning Bunand Cappuccino at Porcellino’s
As perfectly paired as steak and cabernet, the croissant dough and sugar mixture that bakes into Porcellino’s morning bun is a miracle marriage. Baker Kayla Palmer starts with croissant dough — called laminated dough because it’s layered with butter — then folds in a floral combination of sugar, vanilla beans, lemon zest, and fennel pollen. Next, Palmer rolls the dough into a tube shape, slices it, and bakes each bun in muffin tins coated with butter and more of her yummy sugar mix. The bun’s delicate layers and sweet glossy exterior make another delicious match with cappuccino, especially if you request the restaurant’s specialty cream steeped with dates, vanilla, nutmeg, and a stick of cinnamon.
711 W. Brookhaven Cir. (901-762-6656)
BBQ Salad in a Mason Jar at Capriccio Grill
Three romaine leaves fan the Mason jar, reminding guests that this dish is indeed a salad. Dump the jar’s contents on a plate, and the salad seems more like a barbecue sandwich without a bun. But does it even matter when the tender turkey shank — the color of rosé wine — mingles with deep red kidney beans and shredded cabbage, carrot, and radicchio coleslaw lightly mixed with mayonnaise, a hint of whole grain mustard, and a pinch of sugar and salt? A second surprise is that the shank’s smoky taste comes from seasonings, not smoke. The shanks are wrapped, baked in the oven, and hand-pulled off the bone so the meat stays moist and flavorful.
149 Union Ave. (901-529-4000)
Cajun Seasoned Chicken Pot Pie at Rizzo’s Diner
On most menus, classy and comforting don’t typically walk hand-in-hand. But at Rizzo’s new location on downtown’s South Main Street, Chef Michael Patrick breaks the rules, updating Southern favorites with hip and flavorful local ingredients. He deconstructs his chicken pot pie, for example, just enough to be sophisticated without sacrificing the pie’s enduring appeal. Instead of a crust, the pie wears a square hat of puff pastry, delicate and layered on the inside, but nicely scored and browned on top. Underneath, andouille sausage and seasonal veggies, including heirloom cherry tomatoes, purple potatoes, and seared Brussels sprouts sliced in half, perk up the pot pie’s expected carrots and peas.
492 S. Main St. (901-304-6985)
Monday MorningTasting at Pyramid Vodka
Why was my first taste of Pyramid Vodka, hand-crafted in small batches, seared into my memory in such a vibrant way? Was it the company’s north Memphis distillery, a former adhesive factory that now smells like Wonder Bread? The vodka’s local ingredients: water from the Memphis aquifer and locally sourced corn? The copper and stainless steel still, towering 22 feet? The vodka’s clean smooth taste with its pleasant burn at the back of my throat? Or was the best part of the tasting simply the giddy pleasure of sipping a hometown label at 9 in the morning with the company’s charming proprietors, Winston and Alexander Folk, and their adorable labs, Cosmo and Mash? See for yourself at the distillery’s new tasting room, open Wednesday through Friday from 2 to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
802 Royal Ave. (901-576-8844)
Spicy Shrimp and Squid Yum at The Emerald
Almost two years have slipped by since the Praseuth family moved The Emerald from its longtime location on Mt. Moriah to the suburbs of Lakeland, but still I wonder why I waited so long to re-embrace my favorite Thai salad. Served on a large oval plate, the salad contains no greens or noodles, but offers instead a cacophony of raw vegetables (sliced red onions, quartered tomatoes, julienned carrots, cucumber slices with fluted edges, and sprays of fresh cilantro) tossed with steamed shrimp and squid. The tangy dressing — so good I drink it with a spoon — starts with the liquid used to pickle the salad’s garlic then builds its tangy flavor with lemongrass, chili powder, and freshly squeezed lime.
8950 Highway 64 in Lakeland (901-384-0540)
The Tornado with Spicy Straw at Los Jarochos Ice Cream
Is it possible for a vegetarian and fat-free dessert to taste so good? Yep, thanks to Los Jarochos Ice Cream shop and a Mexican favorite called the Tornado. Cheery and colorful like a toddler’s birthday cake, the dessert’s cute accessories (paper umbrella, orange slice, and crunchy Japanese peanuts) camoflauge its grown-up combination of pineapple, mango, cucumber, jicama, strawberries, and kiwi in grapefruit juice spiked to customer preference with two different chili powders: Tajin for mild; chile Piquin for super spicy. For an encore, the chili coating on the dessert’s thick yellow straw swirls slowly into the juice, turning the last chunks of fruit into flavorful hidden treasures.
4900 Summer Ave. (901-827-9261)