King of the Delta

A Beale Street restaurant gets the royal treatment.

After Elvis Presley's Memphis, the nightclub created by Elvis Presley Enterprises, closed in 2003, a group of investors headed by restaurateur Jimmy Ishii announced it was creating a restaurant/club for the Beale Street location. They hired McEwen's on Monroe alumnus Michael Patrick as chef and reworked the interior. It reopened in late 2006 as EP Delta Kitchen & Bar, with an intriguing Louisiana-style menu.

Gone is the Elvis memorabilia, replaced with a sophisticated nightclub atmosphere and a high-tech-looking bar near the entrance. The round dance floor, open to the second-story ceiling so that the upstairs dining room doubles as a balcony, remains at the center of the restaurant, with a stage along the east wall. The dining tables are in a small, colorful room off to the side of the dance floor for nonsmokers, and upstairs for smoking customers. (The music generally starts around 9 p.m., which can make conversation a challenge for diners.)

The menu is equally colorful, with dishes that range from etouffee and Southern lasagna to alligator scaloppini with lemon buerre blanc

During our two dinner outings to Delta Kitchen, we tried most of the appetizers as well as the smoked duck gumbo. We enjoyed this dark, dense roux-based concoction that was more stew than soup, spiked with shredded duck and bits of liver, but would have preferred steamed rice to the crunchy, undercooked version piled in the middle of the bowl.

The crabmeat-stuffed frog legs piquant were delightful, the sauce spicy and chunky with various peppers over bite-sized pieces of meat (and yes, it tastes like chicken). The crawfish cakes and accompanying bell-pepper coulis were robust with heat, the cakes well seasoned, browned to form a nice crust, and not overly thick. The delectable portabella mushrooms were stuffed with garlicky spinach, shrimp, and a caramelized onion mixture.

A few of the starters are takes on other cuisines. The Southern-style bruschetta was a tasty combination of white beans, ham, and goat cheese over crispy cornbread, a playful version of the Italian appetizer. The barbecued duck spring roll -- a thick egg-roll wrap stuffed with pureed barbecue -- was refreshing in that it was not fried. It came with an aggressive prickly-pear jalapeño glaze: Sweet, spicy, and plenty of it, with a faint barbecue flavor. The spinach and andouille soufflé was a nice little bowlful of puffy, eggy spinach with spicy bits of sausage, more substantial than it sounded from its menu description.

We were not too crazy, though, about the boudin balls, a mysterious combination of rice and liver sausage coated a la pronto pup and fried. The zingy horseradish sauce and greens that came with the dish were much better than the boudin balls themselves.

As for entrees, the grilled catfish arrived with a generous ladleful of crawfish and duck-potato hash that tasted much better than it looked. On the side was a green-tomato casserole, the combination of penne pasta and crunchy green tomato adding a variety of textures. The filet, too, was dressed up with luscious lobster mashed potatoes on the side, though the spicy crawfish hollandaise sauce, while flavorful, was just too heavy, and suffocated the steak.

We thoroughly enjoyed the pork loin stuffed with housemade sausage, served with an agreeable sweet corn pudding and a dark, mustard-tinged demiglace.

We could not say no to the lobster etouffee, which arrived with a beautiful lobster tail on top. The dish was full of shrimp, crawfish, and crabmeat, and the Creole tomato sauce lent a surprisingly tart note to the overall flavor of the dish.

Although tempted by the notion of ordering alligator, we were persuaded by our waiter instead to try the black-eyed pea tempura-battered shrimp (the peas are pureed and worked into the batter). The shrimp were tender in their thick tempura coating, nicely matched with crisp potato pancakes and a mellow tomato vinaigrette.

For dessert we sampled the luscious, caramel-coated banana bread pudding with lovely crunchy candied walnuts and bananas cooked in brandy. It was a delectable cross between bananas foster and traditional bread pudding. The ginger-scented double-chocolate truffle cake was a refreshing departure from most intensely chocolate desserts in that the flavor was stern and only sparsely sweetened, the ginger barely detectable. A touch of Elvis was also on the dessert menu, in the form of fried peanut butter cheesecake encased in a tempura coating. The housemade ice cream -- vanilla with the truffle cake and the Belgian chocolate with the cheesecake -- was fabulous.

The wine list was larger and more varied than most downtown restaurants, 10 whites and 14 reds available by the glass or bottle and an additional 14 whites and 29 reds available by the bottle only. Nine sparkling wines are available as well.

Though the restaurant does not routinely serve bread, it offers a tiny "Lagniappe of the Day." Our favorite was the bacon- and scallion-spiked potato pancake.

Service was attentive, if cheerfully amateurish. For example, our server brought a bottle of wine one of us had ordered, opened it and poured it into all the glasses without a thought to letting the person who ordered it check it out first. We got some incorrect information at one point, and felt rushed at times to place our orders and give up our plates. It seemed that a restaurant of this caliber would train its waiters a bit more carefully. But the food arrived on schedule, recommendations were heartfelt, and our server very personable -- those were certainly redeeming qualities.

Delta Kitchen is a welcome and long overdue fine dining option for Beale Street -- but not so fine that it spoils the party spirit of the street. Michael Patrick's menu is solidly grounded in New Orleans cooking, yet innovative too. He brings freshness to the classics with his dark, authentic duck gumbo and lobster etouffee, for example, and his Southern spin on dishes such as the crispy cornbread bruschetta is right on the mark. It's fun to encounter adventurous dishes such as frog legs piquant and alligator scaloppini, too. These are well executed, for the most part. My only complaint was that some of the dishes were too heavily sauced, even for a stick-to-your-ribs winter menu, and a few items (the boudin balls, for example) just didn't work.

The restaurant's selections raise some bewildering questions, though: Since the menu introduction describes the Mississippi Delta, why is the food mainly characteristic of the geographical Mississippi River delta in Louisiana? (In fact, Louisiana Kitchen would be a more apt name for the place.) And if the owners have gone to the trouble to come up with an elaborate menu, why is dining shoved off to a side room while live music and a nightclub vibe dominate the place? It seems that the dining certainly deserves the spotlight.

Still, it's refreshing to see imaginative, Southern-accented cooking on Beale.

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