Top Ten Dishes of 2014

Lobster tails, breakfast from Ethiopia, and a remarkable slice of carrot cake all earn spots on our top-10 list of favorites.

Photographs by Justin Fox Burks

People often ask how I compile the top-10 list of favorite dishes, an annual feature for City Guide. I never have a sensible answer. Some years, I find Post-It Notes in discarded notebooks with comments such as “Sublime, just perfect!” or, if I’m lucky, a scribble that proclaims “MUST include on top-10 list.” More typically, while riding my bike I reflect on meals at restaurants or a friend’s table and then rush home to write them down before I forget.

Despite my ramshackle approach, each annual list is somewhat cohesive, reflecting a food writer who flits every year or so from one thing to the next: seasonal cooking, artisanal foods, hand-crafted cocktails, or a relentless Southern sweet tooth. So what proclivities emerge from this year’s picks? See for yourself, but here’s a hint: Many of my favorites are decidedly sea-soaked with a healthy showing for beans prepared in simple but delicious ways and one classic mid-century dish that first won my heart on a picnic in Paris.

1. Fried Oyster Salad at The Second Line

The genesis for the fried oyster salad at The Second Line came from the first menu of her sister restaurant: Oysters Three Ways at Restaurant Iris. The crispy mollusks were so popular, in fact, that many customers requested the dish one way instead of three. So when Chef Kelly English opened his New Orleans-style pub next door, the fried oyster salad, lightly tossed with blue cheese and buttermilk dressing and a handful of mixed greens, seemed like a perfect fit. Indeed. The salad’s texture and salty tang sing together in a sensual duet that makes me happy to be alive with every toothsome bite. 2144 Monroe Avenue (901-590-2829)

2. Citrus Smoked Salmon on an everything bagel at Elwood’s Shack

Bagels in Memphis are a hard sell for someone like me, whose New York in-laws used to stuff their suitcases with the city’s signature food whenever they came to visit. Still, I keep trying, which is why I settled on the everything bagel at Elwood’s Shack, an average bookend made extraordinary by the food layered inside. The thick salmon slice, smoked for three hours and finished with the trio of lemon, lime, and orange juices, may be the sandwich’s leading lady, but don’t tell that to the bagel’s other co-stars: tomato, capers, cream cheese, sliced red onions, and a soft-poached egg. 4523 Summer Avenue (901-761-9898)

3. Tuscan Bean Salad at Ecco on Overton Park

The simplest of salads can seem almost magical when our appetites melt with the heat, especially Mediterranean mixes redolent with the flavors of summer. At Ecco, the Tuscan bean salad and a crisp Sauvignon Blanc promise a long lazy meal of good eating. Scooped on forest green arugula and sprinkled with micro-greens, Ecco’s swell of white northern beans are tossed with sage, red onion, diced pancetta, and lemon vinaigrette. Served in a white ceramic bowl with thin slices of toast, the salad works as a light stand-alone meal, a prelude to pasta, or an easy transition to the restaurant’s excellent tiramisu. 1585 Overton Park (901-410-8200)

4. Meatballs at Frank Grisanti Italian Restaurant

For three Fridays in a row, I returned to Frank Grisanti’s in the Embassy Suites for the restaurant’s meatballs, which I reluctantly shared with my friends at the table. Even now, several months later, I can still smell the Parmesan, garlic, basil, parsley, capers, chopped onion, and ground pork rolled into those glorious meatballs served with equally fragrant marinara. Available as a three-piece appetizer or a four-piece entrée, each hefty meatball weighs four ounces, so plan accordingly, especially since Grisanti’s soft Italian bread adds irresistible extras for sopping up the sauce. 1022 S. Shady Grove Road (901-761-9462)

5. Fuul with Enjera at Derae Restaurant

Typically, my husband gets dinner-to-go from Derae, because the family-run restaurant closes at 6 p.m., and my household is never ready to eat before 7. The only glitch in the plan is keeping me out of the fuul, a traditional breakfast dish in Ethiopia but irresistible to me any time of day. Although a paper bag of enjera, the spongy bread used to scoop up the slow-simmered fava beans, sits nearby, I leave the bread for later. Instead, I grab a tablespoon, so I can swirl tiny bits of yogurt, chili powder, and serrano peppers into each bite until I finally slow down, relieved that a second order of fuul is on the counter unopened. 923 S. Highland Street (901-552-3992)

6. Steak Tartare at Capital Grille

Yes, the 24-ounce Porterhouse at Capital Grille is classic and full-flavored, but the restaurant’s steak tartare is a far more elegant choice at a fraction of the cost, especially when paired with a glass of Honig Cabernet from Napa Valley. A signature interpretation of the archetypal French dish, the Grille adds flourish to the plate with a truffle deviled egg, a garnish of pickled red onion, and two slices of grilled sourdough. But the pretty additions don’t steal the thunder from the impressive tower of chopped (and raw) filet mignon and hard-cooked eggs that build from a base of capers and minced onions. 6065 Poplar Avenue (901-683-9291)

7. A perfect plate at the Grove Grill

After a long layover in Atlanta, my husband scooped me up at the Memphis airport and asked, “Where do you want to eat?” I answered immediately: “Oysters and a martini at Grove Grill.” But when we settled into the bar and heard the evening’s entrée special, I changed course, because I couldn’t imagine a better match between a lovely plate of food and a tired and hungry me: two pieces of expertly seared tuna with a thick swirl of Creole and mustard remoulade, a mound of chilled orzo salad topped with olive tapenade, and an arugula salad with cherry heirloom tomatoes sliced in half to accentuate their yellow and purple hues. 4550 Poplar Avenue (901-818-9951)

8. Scallops + Lobster Tails at Chez Philippe

One of the many reasons I was so enchanted with the scallops and lobster tails at Chez Philippe is that the majesty of the dish reflects the restaurant’s opulent décor. In fact, I was a bit flustered by its beauty when our server placed the stunning plate on the table. The trio of crispy fried lobster tails, the plump scallops, and the off-center crown of micro-greens looked like a Calder sculpture rising from a sea of carrot-ginger jus. Even better, the flavors in the dish matched its lovely plating: succulent scallops braised in brown butter, lobster meat with a bit of crunch, and a sauce that reminded me of a crisp fall day spent picking ripe pumpkins. 149 Union Avenue (901-529-4188)

9. Los Empanadas at Havana’s Pilon

While most Southerners are well-acquainted with the wonders of deep-fried pies, I’d never eaten anything that came close until I bit into a flakey fried empanada filled with cream cheese and guava. Intended, I suppose, as a dessert, I ate mine at the start of our meal, breaking the stuffed pastry in half so the filling warmed my fingers before hitting its paper wrapping. One of many traditional foods served at Havana’s Pilon, the only Cuban restaurant in Memphis, the hand-held pastries swing savory as well as sweet. Priced at $2.50, each variety is worth trying, especially the empanadas stuffed with seasoned chicken or beef. 143 Madison Avenue (901-527-2878)

10. Carrot Cake at Strano Sicilian Restaurant & Bar

Although the cannoli and crème brûlée at Strano are both excellent, it is the restaurant’s carrot cake that wins my heart. With a stately city girl presentation that outshines the dessert’s traditional hippie cousins, the three-layer cake serves several once you dig in. But first, take a minute to admire the cake’s style: julienne carrots flutter on the plate and a cinnamon-infused mix of cream cheese and classic buttercream gift-wraps the amber slice with pretty wisps of icing. Equally impressive is the cake’s light texture, a quality ensured by folding in the carrots as the final step before baking. 948 S. Cooper Street (901-275-8986)

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