Bragging Rights

Chef John Bragg's River Oaks fares well in East Memphis.

River Oaks opened in February in East Memphis amid the cluster of hotels at Poplar and I-240. It's the handiwork of John Bragg, a Memphis native and Cordon Bleu graduate who once cooked at Erling Jensen The Restaurant and La Tourelle.

We last reviewed Bragg's work when he reopened La Montagne in 2004 with a new menu and fresh look. Updating the décor at La Montagne meant better lighting, artwork, and brighter paint, but the interior of River Oaks has undergone an overhaul so complete that it's hard to believe the building once housed the Cockeyed Camel bar-and-grill. River Oaks" décor handily leaves La Montagne (which closed in 2005) in the dust.

No expense has been spared on this beautiful restaurant, designed by Nancy Mah, a Memphis-born designer whose work can be seen in New York restaurants including Ruby Foo's, Michael Jordan's steakhouse, and Lutece. With its custom-built mahogany bar, tables and cabinetry, stained glass, and lively artwork, River Oaks is amber-toned and handsome, modern without being cold.

Our first visit was for dinner, where we be-gan our meal with two appetizers, one of them the wild mushroom and goat-cheese crêpes with raspberry-fig marmalade. The goat-cheese filling of the crêpe mingled nicely with the tart fruit flavors, although the mushroom was hardly detectable. The crab cakes -- grilled, topped with lumps of crabmeat and gussied up with squiggles of mustard lemon basil aioli -- were light, made from barely breaded shredded crab meat and jazzed up with lots of diced red bell pepper, celery, and onion. The most intriguing of the eight salads, artichoke "barigoule," did not disappoint: The dish of fresh artichoke hearts, hearts of palm slices, grape tomatoes, and olives was dressed in a wonderfully complementary aged balsamic reduction with sprinkles of feta cheese.

Similarly well-matched was the filet of grouper with its crabmeat and champagne sabayon and butter-rich mashed potatoes, a lovely combination. The juicy filet was on the small side, but, with such rich accompaniments, it was plenty filling. The whole roasted baby pheasant was delectably tender with its robust, fruity morel mushroom and dried plum au jus. The mashed potatoes were fine with this, but not as perfect a match. (Note: This dish is absent from the summer menu, and some fish preparations have changed too.)

At lunch we found familiar dishes as well as new ones, most notably the sublime lobster cobb salad. This lovely, lightly dressed salad combined a generous amount of lobster meat with avocado, tomato, hardboiled egg and, importantly, bacon, which infused the salad with a subtle smoky flavor. We ordered the lobster cobb as a sandwich, served on a fresh, crusty ciabatta roll, but it was available as a salad plate, too.

Another standout was the grilled fish of the day with lemon-caper sauce. The juicy, notably fresh mahi was served with a lemony butter sauce and sprinkling of chopped tomato -- simple and delicious.

The grilled-salmon sandwich combined fresh, tenderly cooked salmon with a Dijon aioli (which had the same effect as old-fashioned tartar sauce) and fresh ciabatta roll, well prepared but somehow not as special as the others.

From among the signature entrees we chose the hangar steak with bordelaise, a French bistro classic prepared from the flavorful cut of beef prized by butchers. While incredibly tender, the meat's flavor was so gamy it was hard to believe it was commercial beef. The flavor might be a bit strong for some tastes, though. It was served very rare instead of medium rare as ordered, an uncharacteristic lapse for this professionally run restaurant.

Other items we sampled included the French onion soup, delectable, loaded with Gruyere and scaldingly hot. Fans of this classic should not miss River Oaks" version. The soup du jour was a creamy, mellow mushroom soup. We enjoyed the crawfish beignet appetizer as well, which consisted of tasty nuggets that were more like fluffy, crawfish-and-bell-pepper-spiked hush puppies than beignets.

Among the sides we sampled was sautéed spinach with basil, which was lovely, peppery and light rather than heavy with cheese and egg like Italian spinach. The sweet-potato shiitake flan was more fluffy than custardy, spiked with cinnamon and small mushroom slices. The skinny pommes frites tasted wonderfully of real potatoes, but were regrettably tepid and past their prime. Only the bland risotto Milanese was forgettable. As for other details, the bread served at dinner consisted of warm, crusty fresh rolls with excellent European-style butter.

The kitchen takes its house-made desserts seriously, with nine selections that include soufflés and a pineapple baked Alaska. My favorite was the Meyer lemon tart. It combined the tart (if you will) lemon custard in its cake crust with a generous portion of light, sweet coconut panna cotta. The sorbets were brightly flavored and not too sweet, the raspberry sorbet the best of the trio. The gâteau basque was delicious with black cherries and crème anglaise, while the more opulent gâteau opera layered chocolate with a sweet hazelnut paste.

River Oaks serves the excellent Seattle's Best Coffee brand, and offers a large selection of scotch, bourbon, cognacs, and ports.

The wine list, too, is extensive, with 11 sparkling wines, 46 whites, and 85 reds. Nearly 60 of them are available by the glass, too. While most bottles are $80 or less, with many under $40, there's also a reserve list, with such items as 1990 Krug champagne for $450 a bottle, Mondavi Opus One for $305, and Stag's Leap Cellars Cask 23 for $185 to $435 a bottle (depending on the year). The restaurant also serves Sunday brunch, and has a back dining room that's available for special events.

We found the service at River Oaks to be very good, the servers efficient, personable, and appropriately knowledgeable about the food (our server at dinner wasn"t much help with the wine list, though). There's also plenty of staff, so water glasses stay filled, and at lunch our server was incredibly nice about our rather confused ordering, and mindful of our need to eat and get back to work.

River Oaks is a polished and attractive addition to the local restaurant scene that manages to avoid being stuffy. Plenty of money makes a difference, and clearly, its owners have spent lavishly but wisely on careful design, beautiful furnishings, and sufficient staffing. The food definitely holds up its end, as Bragg improves upon what he was doing at La Montagne without straying too far. Standouts include simple fish preparations, lobster cobb salad, and French onion soup. Details are not ignored, so the appetizers, side dishes and desserts are just as worthy, and the wide-ranging wine list includes some dazzlers. It's a step up from the revived La Montagne, and Bragg makes the transition with style.

River Oaks
5871 Poplar

For other details, go to Memphis Magazine's searchable restaurant listings entry for River Oaks.

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