In the Beginning
When I moved from Los Angeles to Memphis 20 years ago, I knew I'd miss the weather, but I was unprepared for how much I would miss L.A. food: fried plantains and roast chicken at Versailles Restaurant; gourmet sausages smothered in onions at Jody Maroni; and the late-great Killer Shrimp, where the shrimp were served in steaming-hot bowls of savory lemon-butter broth with slices of crusty French bread for dipping.
My husband, who had lived in Memphis since 1978, tried to console me with the local fare: world-class Memphis barbecue. I was charmed by the pulled pork sandwiches at a little dive near Lamar and I-240, across the street from the Big Shoe, and an early visit to Payne's, where
I loved the funky restaurant's smoky barbecue smell. Still, I craved more sophisticated fare, and I happily ate once or twice a week at California Café, Rick Farmer's short-lived but memorable spin on West Coast fusion, located in southeast Memphis near the intersection of Winchester and Kirby.
These days, Farmer is still earning accolades, but now he's in the classroom at L'Ecole Culinaire in Cordova, teaching the next generation of professional chefs. The school, which also offers cooking classes to benefit local nonprofits, is one of many exciting developments on the Memphis food scene, along with the explosion of interest in locally grown food, community vegetable gardens, and regional farmers markets. Even during the winter months, a small cadre of vendors gather every Saturday in the parking lot of Tsunami restaurant, selling farm-fresh eggs, responsibly raised meat, and a changing mix of root vegetables, arugula, and winter greens.
At the market recently, I was chatting with Mark Newman, who, along with his wife Rita, raises heritage Berkshire pork in Myrtle, Missouri. "I'm having dinner with David Chang," he said, matter-of-factly.
"The David Chang?" I asked, impressed that Newman is hobnobbing with the celebrated chef of Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City. "Yeah, he loves our pork bellies," Newman answered, pulling a frozen pork belly from a cooler and explaining how to stuff and roast it at home.
Thinking later about Newman's trip to New York, where he supplied one of the five pigs used for the cooking competition Cochon 555, I couldn't help but appreciate how Memphis has grown since Karen Carrier's gutsy move in 1991 to re-energize downtown with Automatic Slim's, a hybrid Caribbean restaurant on South Second Street. And the readers of Memphis magazine are noticing too. This year's award results are a mixed bag of perennial favorites and new upstarts, including locally sourced Sweet Grass, a low-country bistro in the Cooper-Young neighborhood voted best new restaurant, and Restaurant Iris, where Kelly English and his expert staff reeled in six awards, including best chef, best restaurant, and best service.
In addition to our restaurant poll and profiles, we celebrate the old and the new with a feature story on the move of Jim's Place East from its longtime home on Shelby Oaks Drive to a hip-and-happening location at Poplar and Perkins. Paulette's, whose scrumptious K-pie is pictured on our cover this month, also has a move in the works. After almost four decades in Overton Square, it will reopen early next month in the River Inn on Mud Island. (Paulette's popovers and strawberry jam will be relocating, too!)
Elsewhere in our dining issue, Marilyn Sadler compiles do's and don'ts from experienced servers on what makes desirable (and difficult) customers. (Hint: Don't ask a server to take your kids to the bathroom.) She also interviews Jason Dallas, the energetic new chef at Chez Philippe who plans to freshen up the restaurant's traditional French cuisine. Hannah Sayle showcases a fun and eclectic assortment of vintage kitchenware, and Jane Schneider recounts her trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where a handful of innovative chefs are turning the storied home of the blues into a foodie destination. Is it worth an hour-and-a-half drive to Madidi for crispy frog legs garnished with sweet and spicy chili sauce? Absolutely!
Pamela Denney is the food editor of Memphis magazine.