Hey, Good Lookin’

Small plates have it all: taste, personality, and pretty as a picture.

Earling Jensen: Chefs Karen Roth and Erling Jensen with some of the featured attractions at their newly constructed bar.

Justin Fox Burks

For those who follow food trends, the proliferation of small plates at upscale restaurants has been hard to miss. I’ve watched this development with interest, but not envy. I prefer a single plate of food where taste and plating blend together into a thoughtful whole. Small plates offer the opposite: divergent flavors and many different choices ranging from marinated olives to crab cakes.

Still, the bar menus beckoned, and I found it hard to resist suggestions like smoked salmon with crème fraiche, especially on my way to a second cocktail. So faced with the assignment of reviewing fancy bar food, I put on a happy face and sampled plates and drinks at four of the city’s best restaurants. (Tough work, I know.)

The discoveries I made surprised and delighted me. First, small plates are fun, especially when shared with friends. They encourage socializing, experimenting, and savoring every bite. They also are delicious. After each restaurant visit, I added at least one plate to my “top-10 dish” list for 2011, and I expect several of them to still be there for the year-end tally.


Bar None Chef’s Pub

The “best food in a pub bar none” is the marketing slogan for downtown’s newest lounge, and chef Antony Field is doing a fine job keeping that promise. Located in the space formerly occupied by Circa, which moved east to the Regalia Center, Bar None retains a sophisticated setting, but the menu has been retrofitted to complement cocktail concoctions like Dark & Stormy (a combination of Goslings rum and ginger beer) and an impressive list of bottle and draft beers, including Strongbow, the most popular cider in England.

“I think we are the only place in Memphis that carries Strongbow,” Field says, pouring a glass for us to try. The cider’s crisp, dry taste reminded me of good champagne and was a nice match for a steaming, hot bowl of mussels cooked with white wine, shallots, tomatoes, and chorizo. Even more impressive was Field’s brie en croute, which means “wrapped in pastry.” When I cut into the dough, the warm baked brie settled into a pool of berry compote with the ease and comfort of an old friend. I loved this dish so much, I was speechless — a rare occurrence, indeed.

We also tried Bar None’s beef burger slider, one of five different sliders on the menu. The slider’s slice of morbier — an aromatic French cheese perfect for melting — was a nice touch, but we finished off the slider in several bites. Perhaps a better choice would have been Bar None’s beef one-pounder, served with cheddar, smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, and pickled onions. Plus, if you can eat the entire burger, it’s free.

Favorite Plates: Hummus with Warm Pita Bread ($7), Baked Brie en Croute with Forest Berry Compote ($11), Mussels with Chorizo ($9), Beer-Battered Onion Rings with Secret Sauce ($7)

Address: 119 South Main (522-1488)


Bari Ristorante

On Valentine’s Day, a couple who are regular customers stopped by Bari for dinner. When they heard the special menu didn’t include crab orzo, they left.

We laughed when bartender Mark Light recounted this story, but when we tasted the dish, we understood. Like a long, unexpected kiss, this plate turned orzo from a ho-hum side dish to a memorable treat. I was convinced the dish had an exotic secret ingredient (my friend guessed saffron), but along with lump crab meat, the orzo is sautéed with only these ingredients: slow-roasted tomatoes, fresh oregano, and garlic.

Under the expert direction of chef Jason Severs, whose regional Italian cuisine hails from Puglia, the small plates at Bari prove that simple is best. Along with the orzo, we also tried Severs’ handmade cavatelli, a pasta with a rolled edge that looks a little like gnocchi. Served in a light, not-too-sweet tomato sauce, the cavatelli were satisfying partners for a seafood combo of fish, mussels, and calamari.

The pastas followed our cheese, which was plated alongside Calabrese salami rolled into the shape of a rose. They were friendly companions for a flight of red and white wines, thanks to Light, who suggested his three current favorites: Bra Tenero, a soft, creamy cow’s milk; Formaio Ciok al Vino Rosso, a semi-hard cow’s milk aged in red wine; and Pecorino Sfizio, a hard sheep’s milk that was so flavorful we ate the rind.

Bari’s cheese specials (three cheeses for $12) change every couple of days, which is a good thing, as the restaurant offers more than 40 varieties, all imported from Italy. The cheeses make a great start or finish for a small-plate meal, especially when paired with a flirty Pamatini, made with pomegranate liqueur, Absolut citron, and splash of prosecco.

Favorite Plates: Olive Misto ($4), Eggplant Verdure ($4), Cavatelli con Pesce di Mare ($9), Orzo con Pomodoro e Granchio ($9)

Address: 22 South Cooper (722-2244)


Erling Jensen

The simple exterior of Erling Jensen’s East Memphis restaurant has always belied the fine dining inside. Now, a renovation completed late last year adds another surprise: a bar and outside patio with its own small-plate menu.

“We’ve been talking about having a bar ever since we opened,” says Patti Jensen, who handles the front of the house while her husband runs the kitchen. “Plus, it was time for something new.”

We visited mid-week, and the bar’s warm color palette and sociable bartender made us feel happy and intimate. Although we were separated from the dining rooms, some servers still passed by, so it was fun to catch a glimpse of Erling’s gorgeous food from the perch of a comfortable bar stool.

While we studied the menu, we ordered drinks: a Carlsberg for my husband and a “sparkling libation” for me. The menu offered 10 choices, all mixed with various champagnes. I went with “French 75,” because I’m a sucker for both Bombay and freshly squeezed lemon juice. The drink was cold, effervescent, and dusted with powdered sugar.

Although the greeter who walked us inside suggested buffalo burgers, we went with lighter fare. First, a plate of blue cheese, coriander-infused grapes, and butter-toasted walnuts, and next, a wild mushroom and beef spring roll, with Teriyaki sauce on the side. While both earned high marks, our final plate made me want to shout out, “I just ate a crab cake better than my mother’s!” Plated with smoked red bell pepper sauce, the crab cakes were as perfect as a fresh tangerine in the cold, weary months of winter.

Favorite plates: Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes ($10), Erling’s Bar Burger ($15), Maytag Blue Cheese with Coriander Infused Grapes ($6), Wild Mushroom and Beef Spring Roll ($9)

Address: 1044 South Yates (763-3700)


The Grove Grill

The first time I studied the small plate menu at the Grove Grill, it was difficult to move past the bruschetta: dried fig and gorgonzola (two of my favorite foods) and olive tapenade and Parmesan (also great mates). I ordered the first choice and agreed to share, a promise I soon regretted. Slices of grilled sourdough were topped with a generous heap of gorgonzola, and fragrant figs were stewed with fresh herbs, marsala wine, and a touch of sugar. Garnished with  stems of fresh rosemary, the bruschetta were almost too pretty to eat.

A happy marriage of sweet and savory sums up the mood of the Grove Grill’s small plate menu, created by chef Joshua Perkins, who fine-tuned tapas at his top-rated restaurant in Atlanta called the Globe.

“Tapas are part of my DNA,” Perkins explains, laughing. “Even when I eat out, I always order from the left side of the menu.”

At the Grove Grill, Perkins’ small plates, served only in the bar from 3 p.m. to closing, are a work in progress, influenced by customer response and seasonal ingredients. (Look for spring tapas using local vegetables, such as asparagus and peas.) There are more than a dozen choices, and on a second visit, I experimented more, starting with marinated mushrooms and goat cheese — think rosemary, garlic, and sage — and moving on to crispy calamari. I’ve eaten plenty of calamari, but Perkins’ version is particularly good, thanks to a light, house-made batter that fries up nicely for dipping.

At my friend’s suggestion, I tried a glass of A to Z Pinot Noir, an Oregon wine whose dark red fruits were a refreshing balance with our food. For something more affordable, visit the Grove Grill Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 p.m., when 20 different wines are offered for $5.50 a glass.

Favorite Plates: Crispy Fried Calamari ($5), Braised Short Rib and Mashed Potatoes ($6), Gulf White Shrimp and Avocado Ceviche ($7), Dried Fig and Gorgonzola Bruschetta ($4.50)

Address: 4550 Poplar (818-9951)      

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