The Mississippi Waltz

What's cooking in Oxford's Town Square.

The Waltz features Pan seared scallops with Mache choux risotto and smoked jalapeño-cilantro sambal

Justin Fox Burks

On a gorgeous Thursday afternoon, not long after the maple trees turned yellow, my husband and I shook up a ho-hum day with a trip to Oxford and dinner at Waltz on the Square.

Even though it's a favorite excursion for foodies, I've shied away from Oxford because of the drive. So how bad was it? An effortless 70 miles, especially with my husband behind the wheel so I could study chef Erika Lipe's seasonal menu.

My banter about Waltz went something like this: "The appetizers look fabulous, maybe better than the entrees, but there is a pork chop with black-bean ragout and chile-fried onions. Your dad would order that. Yes! Wontons! Stuffed with short rib, jicama, chile cream cheese, and sauce duo. What's sauce duo? Maybe we should order appetizers and entrees and skip the salads, but there's an iceberg wedge with bacon, blue cheese, and almonds, your three favorite things. How can we not get that?"

Little wonder the miles flew by until we parked on Van Buren Street, where Waltz is located in the same building as Square Books' first annex store. The restaurant — named after its original chef — opened three years ago. Waltz the chef has moved on, but Waltz the restaurant has stayed put, tweaking its original Southern concept with new American cuisine under Lipe's direction.

Dinner six days a week starts at 5 p.m. (The restaurant is closed Sundays and doesn't serve lunch.) When we arrived, it was too early to eat, so we wandered up the street to Square Books. I asked the clerk what he knew about Waltz. "People love it," he said, "but I've only been there to drink."

His endorsement sent us back to the restaurant's bar, a classy but comfortable enclave three steps up from the lobby and secluded from diners by a screen of bamboo cane. Happy hour at Waltz runs until 7 p.m. and offers lots of fun options: On Mondays and Tuesdays, mint juleps or mojitos are $3, and on Wednesdays, it's two drafts for the price of one. On Thursdays, the happy hour special is two-for-one house martinis, but we skipped the house gin (Tanqueray) for my new favorite: Hendrick's with a whiff of vermouth. The bartender mixed the drinks perfectly and served them ice cold with plump, juicy olives.

I like drinking Hendrick's with appetizers, because the gin's distinctive infusion of cucumber is a nice riff for spicy or salty foods. At the bartender's suggestion, we ordered a house favorite: Bistro Mussels with prosciutto, tomato, shallot, and Pernod cream.

When the mussels arrived, they were so fragrant I wanted to drape a napkin over my head and bury my face in the bowl. (I didn't.) I dove in with my fork instead, dipping each morsel in a rose-colored cream sauce that tasted, ever so slightly, like a piece of Good 'N Plenty.

At our table — a cozy seating for four nestled in a window alcove — we watched the passersby and shared a second appetizer: a pair of sweet corn crab cakes on a bed of mixed greens, served with a smooth and silky Peppadew coulis. A native Marylander, I'm a tough critic, so I was pleased that the crab cakes at Waltz were a dressed-up version of my mother's. In other words, the crab meat was the star.

Next came the salads, and we could have easily stopped eating after our second basket of ciabatta. But we were committed to a multicourse blowout, so on to the entrees: pan-seared scallops and Zolo Malbec for me; tenderloin tournedeaux and Lazy Magnolia's Reb Ale for my husband.

On a busy night, it's not uncommon for Waltz to go through 35 pounds of scallops, flown in overnight from New Bedford, Massachusetts, an old whaling port south of Boston. No wonder the dish is such a crowd-pleaser. The scallops were flawless: succulent on the inside with a crispy edge for dipping into a spicy, chili-based sambal. Lipe kicks up the condiment with smoked jalapeno and cilantro, but don't worry: The scallops are cradled in Mache choux risotto. Mache choux is a creamy, Cajun corn dish, so the risotto is a comforting and delicious way to tone down the heat.

My husband's tenderloin was downright decadent, thanks to a foie gras and brown butter sauce. A generous serving of haricot verts added color to the plating and a fresh, crisp buffer to the meat.

Later in the week, I spoke with Lipe and asked her to explain the sauce's nutty undertone. "It's the almonds," she said. "They are kind of magical, so warm and toasty."

Listening to Lipe explain her recipe (almonds, goose liver, and butter — lots of it — browned at a low boil and emulsified) helped me understand why I found her dishes so appealing: The flavors don't compete with one another. Instead of complicating food, Lipe trills American classics in simple, but distinctive, ways: a sweet burst of corn in the crab cake, Italian sopresata in the Caesar, prosciutto (from Stan's Country Market on Highway 6) in the mussel broth with cream.

Lipe also brings a youthful energy to Waltz, where, at age 25, she is the oldest chef in the kitchen. Born and raised in Batesville, 30 miles south of Oxford, she started cooking professionally in a local restaurant called Capers and later moved to New Orleans to cook in restaurants there.

"It's safe to say I have a broad spectrum of cooking influences," she says, crediting her family, who are German and Native American, and her sous chef, Michael Coleman, a native of Memphis. "At Waltz, we draw on our favorite foods. We also know what the locals like."

Menus change seasonally, which in Oxford, means football season, spring semester, and summer, Lipe said. She adds duck or lamb during the winter months, and desserts change with the whims of the chefs. "We don't keep a dessert menu," Lipe said. "We leave desserts up to the discretion of whoever is making desserts that day."

For the finish to our meal, we shared a warm brownie with Oreo cookie crumbles, pecan fudge icing, three scoops of vanilla ice cream, mint leaves, and a strawberry garnish. Our server described the brownie as "everything chocolate you can imagine." She was right. The dessert was rich and satisfying, but we couldn't enjoy it with a cup of coffee. Except for decaf, the restaurant was out.

"You are out of coffee?" my husband asked, incredulous. "How could a restaurant be out of coffee?" Answer: The restaurant's weekly delivery was due the next day.

Despite the coffee snafu, we left Waltz delighted and made it back to Memphis in an hour. (Blame it on the brownie.) No longer fazed by the drive, I spent a little time on the ride home planning my next visit. I knew I wanted to try the restaurant's lobster ravioli, so the only other decision to make was this: Do I settle in for another leisurely meal at Waltz or grab a small plate and cocktail after an afternoon of shopping? 

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