Chef Kelly Hartman adds New American cooking to signature standouts at Paulette’s downtown.
photographs by Justin Fox Burks
Although Paulette’s left its longtime home in Overton Square for downtown’s River Inn at Harbor Town in the spring of 2011, I hadn’t visited the restaurant’s new location until a cold evening in early January, when sleet tangled traffic on the Hernando de Soto Bridge. I watched the stalled line of taillights before heading inside to a cheerful fire in the hotel lobby and Audie Smith’s melodious piano playing. Once seated, I could still hear the music.
Chef de Cuisine Kelly Hartman, who took over Paulette’s in mid-December, remembers the night’s weather all too well. Toward the end of the evening, he stepped outside to take a call, slipped on an icy sidewalk, and broke his right arm. Fortunately, his wife Liza Johnson, who is a pediatric oncologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, had stopped by Paulette’s for dinner.
“She splinted my arm with a spatula from the kitchen and drove me to the emergency room,” Hartman says later, explaining his cast. “It was like something right off the Iron Chef.”
Fortunately, Hartman’s unexpected mishap isn’t diluting his enthusiasm for Memphis, a city he sees on a culinary upswing. “I love it here,” Hartman says. “And what’s going on in Memphis restaurants is extraordinary.”
Hartman’s own experience adds an impressive résumé to the city’s cache of talented chefs. A native of Berkeley, California, he has cooked for some of the country’s best restaurants, including Mojo in Palo Alto, Herbsaint and Cochon in New Orleans, and Franklin Café in Boston, where he and Johnson lived before moving to Memphis.
At Paulette’s, Hartman jumped right in to update the restaurant’s longstanding Continental menu with eclectic American cooking and elevated comfort food such as corned beef and chicken noodle soup. “I have a background cooking in very expensive restaurants,” he says. “It’s good to break out.”
Hartman’s refined Americana food flits across lunch, brunch, and dinner, but the dishes showcase particularly well on Monday’s prix fixe dinner menu, when a scrumptious three-course meal costs a reasonable $19.95. I had a snappy mint and arugula salad with sherry vinaigrette and a fragrant bowl of cioppino, a seafood stew redolent with Mediterranean flavors.
My friend ordered curried sugar pumpkin soup with a dollop of crème fraiche and Yankee pot roast served with smashed red potatoes. The roast was succulent and flavorful. Together, we ate every bite, along with white chocolate bread pudding and a lovely apple tart tatin. Even with a $32 bottle of St. Jean Germaine and a generous tip for excellent service, the bill was under $100.
While Hartman is recalibrating Paulette’s with dishes like grilled hangar steak and spiced pear sorbet, he isn’t dismissing longtime customer favorites. Many are still on the menu, including Hungarian gulyas and Paulette’s bottomless basket of popovers garnished with twin scoops of strawberry butter. In fact, Hartman is finalizing more permanent menus that will feature Paulette’s signature classics on the right side and his seasonal cooking on the other.
I gravitated toward Hartman’s special daily dinner menus on my next visit. Saltimbocca, an Italian word meaning “jump in the mouth,” was a sumptuous blend of pounded chicken cutlets, sage leaves, and prosciutto.
Stuffed, rolled, and sautéed, the saltimbocca was sliced into thick colorful rounds and plated with farfalle, cherry tomatoes, asparagus tips, and parmesan cream. Paulette’s changing selection of house-made soups (try the beef, vegetable, and barley) also married sustenance and sophistication.
For brunch the menu was far-flung, offering salads, sandwiches, entrees, eggs Benedict, create-your-own omelets, four different crepes, and daily specials such as trout Amandine. This deep reach may explain why the brunch dishes we tried were hit and miss. Basil pesto mayonnaise overwhelmed a straightforward salmon BLT, and the restaurant’s popular palacsinta was overly fried with a disappointing (and too wet) ground ham stuffing.
By comparison, Paulette’s freshly baked brioche French toast was perfectly sautéed in butter for a satisfying and delicious midday meal. The corn and pepper frittata was a precocious surprise of flavors topped with crabmeat salad and a crisscross of arugula.
Cocktails also were expertly mixed in the restaurant’s “Little Bar.” Wedged between three comfortable dining rooms, the charming space is a prelude to Paulette’s exciting reinvention. It is hip, intimate, and a welcome promise of what’s to come.