Highway 51 Revisited

Christopher's offers upscale dining-- with a few glitches-- in nearby Millington.

Christopher's restaurant in Millington (not to be confused with the original name of Garland's restaurant in East Memphis) opened for business in December, with the mission of bringing fine dining to Millington. Judging from all the Tipton County tags in the parking lot, the restaurant also is attracting patrons from Atoka, Munford, and other areas to the north. News of Christopher's has been spreading to Memphis proper, and bringing them in from the south as well.

Jim Williams, who owns the restaurant with his mother, Anna Lou Williams, and a partner, Daryl Barger, named the restaurant after his 2-year-old grandson. The executive chef is Greg Kernodle, who worked for the Hermitage Hotel's Capitol Grille in Nashville before moving in 2001 to a sister property, the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. His hometown is Milan, Tennessee.

The restaurant itself was recently built on the site of a former florist/nursery on Highway 51, and has a pleasant atmosphere, with wood trim, walls the color of Dijon mustard, glass, brick, and diamond-shaped windows. A deck opened in the spring, where customers can order drinks, dinner, or nibbles from a tapas menu. Jim Williams is very much a welcoming presence at the restaurant, greeting diners and pitching in as needed.

The menu includes steaks, fresh seafood, and specialty items such as chicken Wellington. When we sampled the food, we were struck with the diversity of quality: Some items were excellent, others were so mediocre it was hard to believe they were from the same menu. We soon found that careful ordering is key.

Our first trip, for example, we ordered their popular jumbo shrimp tempura and the bacon and caramelized onion tart for appetizers. The former was a basic fast-food battered shrimp, not even close to an authentic, light tempura. Yet the tart was heavenly: pizza-flat with a flaky crust (think old-fashioned pie crust), the topping a scrumptious combination of sweet, complex, cooked onions, asiago cheese, and incredibly good bacon. Our second trip, both appetizers were so good we were tempted to make a meal by sopping up the sauces with bread. The generous bowlful of fresh, sweet Prince Edward Island mussels were served in a marvelous wine-infused broth. The escargots were served (without the shells) in a delicious, subtly flavored cream reduction that might be even better with fish or scallops. Both dishes illustrate Kernodle's philosophy of keeping the seasonings in the background so you can really taste the main ingredient. Roasted red pepper bisque was intense, teeming with cheese, and as thick as a sauce. From among the salads we tried the poached pear salad, a delectable combination of gorgonzola, toasted pecans, and a pear infused with wine and sweet spices, all served over mixed greens.

For entrees, we chose the waiter's recommendation, the bone-in ribeye, from among the steaks, all of which were show-cased as Creekstone Farms private reserve brand. The steak was tender and flavorful enough, cooked medium rare as ordered, but not outstanding enough to merit such a spotlight. The accompanying mashed potatoes were nicely spiked with caramelized onions. The diver scallops were cooked just right, simply seasoned with herb butter.

On our second visit we tried the veal and lobster Christopher, which was heavy on the veal and light on the lobster. Scaloppine was fried a la Southern fried chicken, and topped with a few small lumps of lobster and bacon slices. The brown sauce was flavorful, but my favorite part of the meal was the potato gratin, made from ultra-thin slices of potato and tenderly baked. The cioppino was an unusual version of this traditional Italian seafood stew, prepared with a thick sauce of tomato reduction over mussels, fish, shrimp, and scallops.

We tried two desserts. The crème brûlée was more thick than creamy under its sugar crust, and the "Oowey Gooey Chocolate Love" dessert was hardly our idea of true love. The brownie had the flavor and texture of wet fudge cake, its frosting an unpleasant chemical taste. At least the accompanying chocolate ice cream was good.

Not to be missed after dinner is the caramel-infused coffee. I don't usually like flavored coffee, but this one is exceptional and perfect for dessert.

The coffee was not the only noteworthy detail. The focaccia served at one meal was heavenly, mercifully lacking those bitter bits of dried herbs that sometimes ruin perfectly good bread. The French bread we had at the other meal was fine, but not nearly as good. It's also worth noting that the applewood bacon here, which Kernodle dusts with powdered brown sugar and pecans while it's cooking, is to-die-for.

The restaurant is now serving its spring/summer menu, which was not in place when we visited. It includes soft-shell crabs, "stoplight salad" (red, green, and yellow tomatoes with fresh mozzarella), and house-made sorbet, as well as many items from the winter menu.

The wine list is short and sweet, 20 reds (of which five are available by the glass) and 19 whites including sparkling wines (of which seven are available by the glass). Most bottles are in the $20 to $40 range. Williams knows the list, and when our first choice wasn't available, he recommended a pinot noir that went well with our meal.

The service was minimal but cordial our first visit, with everything arriving in a timely fashion and details such as glass refills taken care of. We were sorry that we asked for our server's recommendations, since otherwise we would not have ordered the mediocre shrimp.

On our second visit, during busy weekend dinner hours, a number of lapses occurred in our service, some of them rather odd. For example, the server placed our appetizers to the side as if plates were on the way. But when the plates never arrived, we weren't sure why the dishes weren't placed right in front of us. When we ordered a dessert to go, the server could have mentioned that our choice included ice cream (we had to eat it in the car, before the ice cream melted).

Christopher's has a lot going for it: A pleasant atmosphere, an engaging proprietor, and some memorable food items including the caramelized onion tart, mussels, and the veal with its luscious potatoes. And, certainly, its owners are to be applauded for bringing fine dining to a new audience. Still, the place needs some improvements, especially the service and the weak spots on the menu. With such talent in the kitchen, the shrimp shouldn't taste like fast food and the chocolate dessert shouldn't be so far off the mark.

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