Going for Gold
When it comes to the BEST OF MEMPHIS, the people have spoken.
Our readers are an opinionated bunch, and we love you for it.
Each year, you dutifully fill out your picks for the best of the best in the Memphis restaurant scene. We tally up the votes, and dish out the results. Sure, we' can usually guess who's going to win, say, Best Burger, but there are always a few surprises, and this year was no exception. Change is good, we say. It keeps things exciting.
Here are more details on a few of this year's winners from the January 2007 edition. (For a full listing of the results, go here.)
India Palace remains a favorite with readers, winning first-place in the "Best Indian" category of the reader's poll for the past seven years. Their success is well-deserved. India Palace dishes up not only delicious food, but a cool setting. The large, exotic murals on the walls create the perfect atmosphere to accompany the authentic cuisine -- vegetable samosas, tandoori chicken, and the popular chicken tikka masala -- all served on subtly elegant table settings. Vegetable lovers will devour the palak paneer, a spinach dish with homemade cheese. A meal is not complete without a basket of bread cooked in the large tandoori oven. For starters, try the garlic naan as you check out the Indian music videos on the restaurant's televisions. To complement your meal and complete the experience, India Palace offers a nice selection of Indian beers. The entire menu is delicious, so you get the real bargain during lunch. For only $7.95, visitors can sample a variety of dishes from their buffet -- a great way for newcomers to try the ethnic cuisine and for regulars to enjoy their favorite dishes at half the price. What's not to love?
Best Restaurant and Best New Restaurant -- Food and Wine Panel Picks
Sure, River Oaks got off to a rocky start, what with the original chef leaving under murky circumstances a mere four months after the place opened, but you have to give it to them for making a seamless transition. The space that once held the Cockeyed Camel now bears not one iota of the karaoke-circuit hangout, with stained glass, a custom mahogany bar, and local artwork all but erasing the Camel's memory. But let's get to the food. In cold winter weather, the French onion soup is a must, as are the crawfish beignets and the goat cheese crepes, so good they almost made me cry. For those of you, like me, who have trouble deciding if a salad will suffice as a meal, then the lobster cobb is for you. It comes bursting with lobster, with avocado and bacon (which seems to make almost everything better). Though it certainly handles "fancy" well, River Oaks was my go-to spot of choice when it came time to take my steak-and-potatoes dad out for a meal. With this much buzz from the food and wine panel, it's a safe bet that they've got the chops, so to speak, to back up the hype.
It may not be New Orleans, but it's a heck of a lot closer for those who need a NOLA food fix, fast. For the last 16 years, Owen Brennan's has dished out one of the most decadent Sunday brunches in town. Sunday mornings at 10 a.m., doors to the elegant eatery are opened, and patrons clamoring for their fill of endless Cajun cuisine tuck into its brunch buffet. But this is no scrambled-eggs-and-bacon buffet, folks. We're talking about chilled boiled shrimp, oysters on the half shell, and smoked trout and salmon offered up at the seafood station (where buffet-lovers should go first to get their money's worth. Bread stations are for suckers!). Head over to the carving station and choose a tender piece of perfectly-pink-in-the-center roast beef, then surround it with pasta jambalaya and crawfish etouffee. For those opposed to buffets (see Point /Counter-point), get the best of both worlds at the cook-to-order station, where the chef will happily make a custom omelet, eggs Benedict, Hussarde, or Sardou, and even Belgian waffles so fluffy you could nap on 'em just for you, on the spot. Throw in champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, and live jazz, and you've got the perfect weekend wind-down. Mardi Gras may have Fat Tuesday, but thanks to Owen Brennan's, every Sunday is Fat Sunday around here.
Best Burger, Best Late-Night
Considering the institution's longevity (first opened in 1970) and current prevalence (seven locations), it's no longer a stretch to describe the relationship between Huey's and Memphis as a love affair. And if there is a metaphorical rose that sealed this bond between pub and city, it's most certainly the juicy, yet sublime Huey Burger.
Served thick (but not heavy) with the freshest of lettuce, tomato, onion (whatever your taste buds desire), a Huey Burger is delivered on that fine line between excess and moderation. It's more than you should have on a daily basis, but just what you deserve for a casual lunch or dinner.
Among a Huey Burger's charms is the basket it rides to your table. There's nothing formal, nothing fancy about this beef-and-bun. (Though the frill pick it carries is destined for launch through your straw into the most-loved ceiling in the city.) Nonetheless, it's the star of the show. Huey's fries are fine, and their onion rings (order them extra crispy) are a treat. But it's all about the burger.
Reputations are earned, and a Huey Burger's perennial victories in our "Best Burger" category reflect the kind of loyalty and consistency all too rare in the service industry. Yep, it's true love.
When Jimmy Ishii opened his first Sekisui in East Memphis in 1989, the Japanese restaurateur took a big chance here in the barbecue capital of the world. Bluff City noshers were used to a regular intake of all things 'cued, fried, or at least American. But that gamble paid off, and now Ishii owns five Sekisuis spanning from Downtown to Cordova, as well as Pacific Rim and a handful of other restaurants of varying cuisines. And we love him for it -- Sekisui has earned the gold in the Best Japanese category for years.
I'm a Midtowner, so my Sekisui of choice is at the corner of Belvedere and Monroe, where you can find me at least once a week. The joy begins with the ceremonial mixing of the wasabi and soy sauce, pulling the chopsticks apart, and diving in. The sushi and sashimi offered there is absolutely addictive, so it's a good thing the stuff is pretty good for you. For my money, nothing beats the soft-shell crab or spicy crawfish roll, the delicate gyoza dumplings stuffed with fragrant pork, and of course, salty edamame with a hint of lemon juice squeezed atop for added zing. There's also something incredibly comforting about wrapping your hands around a steaming cup of miso soup or dainty cup of green tea on a cold day. The icing on the cake? The best happy hour in town, where sushi rolls run a mere $2.50.
Best Chef, Best Restaurant
>>> This east Memphis bistro has been a city favorite since its opening in 1994, when it was named Best New Restaurant by Memphis magazine. Chef Rick Farmer and his wife Barbara have created an elegant dining spot in an unassuming strip mall. The walls are covered with art from local painters, and the warm and intimate bar is a popular gathering place for an eclectic group of regulars.
Farmer has won several "best chef" awards from this magazine and other local publications. The chef specializes in seafood, which he buys whole and flies in from around the globe. Most nights, there will be at least seven or eight seafood choices available. (Don't miss the red snapper with warm gazpacho sauce and wilted spinach if it's on the menu.)
A good starter is Jarrett's smoked Tennessee trout ravioli with Arkansas caviar, but it's hard to go wrong here. Another favorite? The crab spring rolls in scallion oil with plum wine.
And desserts, made in-house, are well worth saving room for -- particularly the lascivious molten chocolate lava cake. It's so bad for you it's perfect.
Jarrett's is a little off the beaten path, but it's well worth beating a path to the door.
Best New Restaurant
The downtown space formerly occupied by the now-defunct Cafe Samovar has been reinvented in a big way.
Ben and Colleen Smith, the culinary duo behind Tsunami, along with Thomas Boggs, no slouch in the restaurant biz either, team up to bring the flavors of the Mediterranean to downtown Memphis. Add the talented Dimitri Phillips in the kitchen, and you've got a recipe for a great restaurant.
The colorful interior, with its bright yellow hues, manages to be somehow both cheerful during lunch and cozy at dinner, and the service is fabulous day and night. Now, the food. Meditrina specializes in "small plates," which are more generous than typical tapas plates (like those offered at dish) but smaller than entrees, and are perfect for sharing. Lunch patrons will find daily Coca (thin crust Spanish-style pizza), soup, pasta, and fish specials, as well as the Meditrina Meze, a hodgepodge of olives, hummus, and smoked almonds dusted with paprika, all of which are of the absolute finest quality. Don't miss the bourride, a rich, fragrant saffron soup with generous offerings of mussels, scallops, and shrimp. The lamb chop offered at dinner is out of this world, as are the salads, which are tossed in a simple dressing with the perfect amount of zip. Forgo the diet and order dessert (saffron cinnamon ice cream sounds bizarre but is delicious). With lunch prices topping out at $13 and dinner at around $24, it's fine dining without the price tag.
The Bayou Bar & Grill
Best Bloody Mary
>>> Sure, you could dump some plain tomato juice into a glass and add a splash or two of vodka, but don't expect me to drink it, and don't expect to win any reader's choice awards from this magazine either. Tomato juice and vodka do not a Bloody Mary make, and the bartenders at Overton Square's Bayou know it. A good Bloody Mary starts with a decent mix (I don't know what they use, but for my money, Major Peter's is out of sight), then build from that foundation. Worcestershire sauce. Salt and pepper. Lime juice. Celery seed, a dash of Louisiana hot sauce. Perhaps a hint of horseradish. Two fat, jumbo olives skewered and awaiting consumption. All of these things work to create much more than a tried-and-true brunch companion (or hangover remedy), they create a cocktail worthy of the title Bloody Mary. Think you'll get the recipe out of anyone over at the Bayou? Good luck, they guard it like the Holy Grail. No worries though. Since they're open seven days a week, anytime you have a yen for the good stuff, it'll be there waiting.