It's not quite perfect, but The Inn at Hunt Phelan offers delectable fare in a fabulous setting.
The Hunt Phelan home, built in 1828, has had many incarnations: Plantation home, Yankee headquarters for Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, and in the 1990s, a museum. Today, it's The Inn at Hunt Phelan, an inn and restaurant that opened in 2006 and has become a popular spot for weddings and other catered events. >>>
It's a fabulous setting for a fine-dining restaurant. The lavish dining rooms in the front off the spacious main hall feature ceiling and wall murals, original chandeliers, and a few pretty antiques. The back of the restaurant is contemporary, with a bar, exposed brick walls, more tables, and large windows that overlook the patio and garden. (It includes an herb garden that supplies the restaurant and a pomegranate tree that's more than 100 years old.) Despite its Beale Street address, Hunt Phelan is well east of the club action, and feels like a world unto itself.
From the beginning its executive chef has been Stephen Hassinger, who cooked at Café Degas and Bayona in New Orleans (with a detour in Vancouver) before Hurricane Katrina brought him here. Recently, though, Hassinger has added new responsibilities. He was promoted to innkeeper, which makes him responsible for the entire front of the house, although he continues to do the menus.
We visited twice for dinner, which allowed us to sample much of the fare. The first time around, we tried the oysters salad with black-eyed peas, the oysters in a thick, crisp cornmeal coating and fresh black-eyed peas and chopped raw spinach topped with a tart pickled jalapeno vinaigrette. In a nod to Memphis' legendary Justine's restaurant, Hassinger makes a version of crab Justine that features crème fraîche, extra citrus, and a minimal topping of béarnaise. There's plenty of fresh lump crab meat, but it's a much lighter dish than the butter-and-hollandaise-laden original. The next time, we tried the prosciutto-wrapped quail, which was exactly that, roasted and served with sweet preserves on the side. Too bad the skin wasn't removed or crisped up, as it was unappetizing. The gratinée oysters consisted of three poached oysters served on the half shell, topped with diced bacon, chopped spinach, and bread crumbs. This was a refreshingly clean preparation, not gloppy or greasy as some gussied-up oysters can be. We also tried the seafood soup, a special offered in lieu of the usual Tennessee corn soup. It was a fresh-tasting lobster-broth soup, with oysters, shrimp, onion, and tomato.
The entrees we tried included the rack of lamb, cooked medium-rare-to-rare as ordered, but the exterior was pale rather than crusty and browned. It was a generous portion with eight small chops, coated with garlic, mustard, and parsley, and accompanied with zucchini slices and smoked fresh beans. The excellent redfish Clemenceau was nicely browned and crusted with bread crumbs on one side, tenderly cooked with peas, diced shiitake mushrooms, and potatoes. The sweet corn and okra risotto was a light dish with bits of shiitake mushroom, cherry tomato, and lots of asparagus, but the rice was undercooked to the point of crunchiness. The scallops were a nice caramel color on the outside, a bit overcooked on the inside. They came with a horseradish cream and a pair of smoked salmon rice galettes. These were like deliciously fluffy rice hushpuppies dotted with green onion. The duckling breast was cooked rare and sliced, flavorful in its Calvados sauce and served with sweet potato pudding and spinach. The oven-roasted salmon was moist and tender throughout, served with shrimp, garlicky wilted spinach, and pearl couscous in a rather bland preparation.
Among desserts we ordered, the chocolate versions were the most striking. The pave was a chunk of almond-flavored truffle, served with lots of whipped cream and chopped pistachios. The Godiva cheesecake was thick with chocolate, lighter than the pave and still very dense and delectable, garnished with caramel. The brioche bread pudding was well prepared, and not too sweet, while the ice cream cheesecake, a frozen pie with vanilla ice cream layered over vanilla cheesecake, was an unusual variation. When a diabetic guest expressed a longing for a cheese and fruit plate for dessert, the server procured one, complete with a choice of cheeses, spiced pecans, grapes, and sliced apple.
The menu has changed since our visit, but continues to include the redfish and a few other popular items. As for other details, the sliced French bread was warm and fresh, served with fresh herb butter. Beverages were reasonably well attended, and the wine list offered a selection of 28 reds and 24 whites ranging from $26 to $152 with most $30 to $70 per bottle. Of these, 15 are available by the glass.
Hunt Phelan also serves a reasonably priced brunch, with a menu that includes grits and grillades, turkey and tasso hash with poached eggs, and crabmeat omelet with Creole sauce. Also, the restaurant occasionally is closed for private events, so it's wise to phone ahead.
The service was personable, with plusses and minuses. Some serious lags occurred during the first meal: The entrées, then the coffee, took a long time to reach our table. But the server made up for it the next visit, being extraordinarily attentive to our guests, who had arrived early for drinks on the patio. More than once he saw that their cocktails were fine-tuned to their liking, their coffee was warmed up, and he even offered a fruit and cheese plate. He also warned us about getting our food orders in ahead of the large party that was being seated in another part of the restaurant. During both meals, he was affable, knowledgeable about the menu and wine list, and good about answering our questions. (We should mention the house wasn't full either visit.)
In general, we found The Inn at Hunt Phelan to be attractive and friendly, with lavish, traditional dining rooms in the front that recall the home's antebellum history and a pleasant bar area and patio in the back. Service was informed and extremely accommodating, mostly on point but with a few lags. The menu fit in well with the atmosphere, and had its share of toothsome dishes, such as the gratinée oysters, the redfish, the duckling, the galettes. In terms of execution, a few details were off, such as the unattractive skin on the quail, the crunchy risotto, and the overcooked scallops. However, these were the exception rather than the rule. The main attraction is certainly the unique, winsome atmosphere, but the food is fine, too.