Italian Festival

Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen: This inventive, sophisticated cuisine deserves to be celebrated.

I strolled into Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen on a whim one recent Thursday night, and it led me to do something I'd never considered before in my life: springing for dinner at the same restaurant two nights in a row.

Nestled in a sweet little house on Brookhaven Circle in East Memphis, the restaurant has quickly garnered the kind of local buzz that must make its two young chefs proud. Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman's dream was to create this restaurant, and we are fortunate that they decided to stay in Memphis to do so. It opened in the autumn of 2008 and will be featured in a forthcoming reality show on the Food Network. Hearing all about this interesting development and the chefs' way with food from those who visited it early on made me unbearably curious. The second I had a free evening, I made a beeline to Andrew Michael's.

Immediately, the atmosphere there charmed me ten times to Sunday. I want my house to look exactly like this restaurant: neutral colors highlighted by immaculate white trim, bamboo window shades framed with lush, high curtains, white candles in hurricanes on every available surface. Rustic wood surfaces and very low light abound. And any place that hangs a huge, flashy, glittering chandelier in its restroom of all places is just fine by me. Music is unobtrusive and upbeat, with a 1940s flair. The thought behind the simple, comfortable décor is clear: All of the choices were made by someone who understood that creating an unassailable context is the key to letting the food shine.

That evening, my server recommended the sea scallops appetizer. Accompanied by a white risotto, the scallops were seared and buttery; a squash purée added warmth and sweetness. I was impressed with the portion I received. Often, Italian fare can be intimidating just because of the huge amount of food on the plate – and that's not very appetizing at all.

Everyone seated around me seemed to be going apoplectic over the braised pork shank, but I was interested to see the preparation of the pan-roasted duck breast, so I selected that for my entrée. The presentation was amazing. Arriving on an oversized rectangular plate, a sweet-tart fig reduction topped the tender slices of duck. Thoughtful touches brought the dish together beautifully: a few figs strewn about the plate, mustard greens sweetened by the fig reduction, and a rich polenta as the foil for all of the intense flavors.

Dessert was cannoli, which was impossible not to finish. I admit that I doubted the addition of chocolate shavings, raspberry sauce, and limoncello at first when I read the menu, but I hoped to be proven wrong. As soon as my spoon noisily cracked the thick outer shell and I tried a bite, I was. Creamy, light, and not overly sweet, the cannoli filling was a straightforward base for the additional flavors.

I found my way back the next night — a Friday. (Lunch is not an option as of yet, but I'm hoping it will be in the future.) This time, I called ahead to make a reservation, but the oddball times of 5 p.m. or 9 p.m. were the only ones available. I opted for 5, and found plenty of other tables were filling up even at this early hour. My companion and I were seated in a small front room beside a window and an artfully weathered faux fireplace with candles flickering atop the mantel.

A couple of unfortunate snags occurred during my second visit, but these weren't due to the service, which was informed and honest, but because of minor issues I had with two appetizers. First, the truffled chicken liver came with just a scarce few crunchy toast points. Second, although the rich, earthy truffle flavor complemented the dish, the liver was too salty — and I love salt so much that I get nervous when I do not see it on the table.

I had heard all the talk about Maw Maw's ravioli, and I was unreasonably excited — maybe that's because my own Italian grandmother identifies herself so completely as an American first and a Mississippian second that she refuses to cook anything except good Southern food. Was this ravioli the closest I was going to come to an Italian grandmother's take on her native cuisine? Did that build up my expectations too much? Possibly. Even though the pasta was ultra-fresh, the sauce bright, and the textures just right, to me, there wasn't enough flavor overall to make this a memorable dish.

However, things did pick up after that. The pasta fagioli soup was brought out in a Mason jar and poured into a bowl for me right at the table. I am a sucker for that kind of whimsy. Not only the theatrics impressed me; the soup contained pasta squares with crenellated edges, small, flavorful vegetables, and cannelloni beans in a complex, fragrant chicken broth. This would be a great counterpoint to a heavier-than-usual meal.

For my entrée, I chose the seasonal fish, which was mahi mahi that night, along with saffron pasta pearls, tomato sugo, calamari, and a jauntily placed baby squid as lagniappe — extra touches that made the perfectly cooked fish that much more of a treat. Two half-portions of pasta — the potato gnocchi and the whole-wheat fettuccine — were also a hit. We liked being able to try these as two half-portions combined to be a full entrée. Both were original takes on traditional pasta dishes; each was so carefully balanced that it was difficult to pick out individual flavors. The fettuccine featured porcini mushrooms, and the gnocchi had the unusual combination of corn, fennel, and tarragon in a cream sauce.

Visits to Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen stand out as the most memorable dining experiences I've had in some time.

The market granita wasn't available that night, but raspberry sorbet was, and for those who prefer a healthful dessert, this dish is true to the pure notes of the fruit without tasting like candy. For the rest of us, the chocolate hazelnut cake will just have to do; the amaretto gelato and "drunken" cherries soaked in port really set the dark, moist, molten cake apart.

Visits to Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen stand out as the most memorable dining experiences I've had in Memphis in quite some time. The chefs' thoughtful, imaginative interpretation of Italian cuisine is something worth going back for, yes, even two nights in a row. M

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