photography by Justin Fox Burks
Bleu began with a bang last October: A splashy marketing campaign left strategically placed “cleus” about a “neu” restaurant taking over the former location of Sole at the Westin Hotel downtown.
The marketing was gimmicky; the food isn’t. Chef Robert Cirillo has the culinary know-how to back up Bleu’s flashy arrival on the restaurant scene — and the sense to change things up when they aren’t working.
One item that wisely met the chopping block was the Grand Finale, a form of dessert artistry performed by Cirillo directly at the table that required too much time and equipment to sustain.
“It was too demanding,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I was doing it the best that I could, and I didn’t want to bastardize it.”
Other dishes have been more adaptable. As Cirillo transitioned from his former home in Providence, Rhode Island, to the Mid-South, he found that the lobster roll, a staple of every menu in the Northeast, was not capturing the attention of Memphis diners.
“It does very well on the East Coast,” he says. “But no one really grasped onto that. So I did a thin-sliced brioche with lobster salad, rolled up and toasted almost like a hot dog, but people didn’t take to it. So I tried the spicy lobster tempura roll, and that was it. We’re making those every night now.”
Still other dishes change seasonally (twice a year), such as winter’s pork and grits with a poached egg, which recently gave way to shrimp and grits for summer. Upon arriving in Memphis last year, Cirillo wasted no time cultivating an interest in local farmers markets and seasonal produce. Bleu recently kicked off the Memphis Farmers Market Farm to Fork Series (a fundraising dinner and brunch series for the market) with a locally sourced brunch fit for the most cultivated locavore palate.
Only one of the items on this special brunch menu made it to the restaurant’s main menu. The Memphis Farmers Market Salad is the perfect mix of fresh seasonal vegetables and a light, not-too-acidic avocado lime vinaigrette. (Cirillo understands when to let the ingredients speak for themselves, as only fresh, in-season vegetables can do.)
Other stars of the brunch were the roasted squash soup with goat cheese crème, toasted pecans, and truffle oil; and a New York Strip country-fried steak served with creamy grits, sweet and tart collards, Newman Farms’ sausage gravy, and a poached egg. (Country-fried steak is good, but this was exceptional.)
Cirillo riffs on Southern traditions in a way that suggests he’s made himself at home in his first year in the South. But his affinity for bringing together a variety of culinary styles and influences underlines another truth about Cirillo: He is culinary fusion personified — as a Korean-born American, adopted into a first-generation Italian-Irish home in Herkimer, New York.
The mixed seafood papardelle pasta, for instance, begins with Cirillo’s experience making pasta with his Italian grandmother (he keeps a photo documenting this in his office), adds the fresh seafood from his time on the East Coast, and blends in a red curry cream sauce, a nod to his Asian heritage.
His salmon roulade takes traditional Rhode Island seafood stuffing and adds edamame and Chinese black rice, capping the dish off with an exquisite beurre blanc. The Point Judith calamari tosses a traditional Italian appetizer with sweet and tart peppers, pepperoncini, and South African peppadews. The pan-seared halibut mixes distinctly Asian flavors — carrot and ginger beurre blanc, coconut green tea rice, melon chutney — with a flavor every Southerner loves: Bacon.
Seafood is certainly the star of Cirillo’s Bleu, and makes for some of the best-executed dishes on the menu. But even an item as simple as steak frites gets a thoughtful treatment, with a rich chimi-churri butter and herb fries you will be sorry to see go.
If dinner is out of your price range, Bleu’s lunch menu is a more modest version of its dinner menu. Be sure to check out the build-your-own sandwich menu, which is surprisingly fun to take on and offers more sophisticated flavor profiles than your average deli. Think seared ahi tuna, arugula, local goat cheese, avocado, and fried egg.
The service at Bleu is kind and attentive, albeit a touch inexperienced at times. When I called to make my reservation for the Farm to Fork Brunch, the hostess seemed a bit confused, apparently unaware of the heavily advertised event. And the menus, both online and at the restaurant, don’t always reflect what the restaurant offers. (The aforementioned Grand Finale, for instance, is still on the restaurant’s dessert menu, despite being removed from Cirillo’s repertoire many months ago). But with hospitality — and complimentary valet parking — a number of service sins can be forgiven.
As hotel restaurants go, Bleu is sleek and sophisticated, deserving of its spot across the street from FedExForum. One could imagine a guest popping down to the bar for the signature “Bleu Steel” cocktail — made with vodka, simple syrup, muddled blueberries, thyme, and lemon juice — and seeing Memphis as more than a barbecue, Beale, and Elvis town.