Smooth Transitions

From Bourbon to suburban, Louisiana-born chef "Shaggy" Duffee brings innovative, edgy cuisine to Germantown' Equestria.

Chef Brett "Shaggy" Duffee caused a minor sensation last year when he decamped from The Beauty Shop and Do in hustling bustling Cooper-Young to be executive chef at Equestria, which makes its home in the suburban still waters of Germantown. This attractive fine-dining restaurant has been home to a number of talented chefs over the years, including Valerie Morris and, most recently, Kevin Rains, who left to open Roustica restaurant in Midtown.

Duffee, a Louisiana native who grew up in the restaurant business, has gradually been making his mark on the meat-and-potatoes menu he inherited when he first arrived at Equestria in fall 2007. He describes his cooking as Southern but with more worldly ingredients and a strong element of fun. Another key element is the restaurant's half-acre garden and greenhouse, which supplies herbs and produce.

The menu may have a new personality, but the look of Equestria has not changed. That's good news, given the handsome honey-colored wood finishes, carefully chosen art, and spare fixtures. It's a cavernous place, so much so that the servers seem to really put in the miles walking between the kitchen and the tables. That also means the tables are generously spaced, which makes each table seem private.

We visited twice, and for our first meal, started with the creole Caesar salad, romaine tossed with a spicy creole-mustard dressing and topped with excellent fried oysters that were greaseless and beautifully crusted. The soup of the day was tomato-chipotle bisque, deliciously smoky and accented with earthy Spanish blue cheese crumbled on top. From the appetizer menu we tried the crab cakes, nice lumpy cakes with plenty of spice and served with a delicious andouille-spiked corn concoction. The roasted duck was flavorful and fork tender, served with a dense, luscious fig-and-wine reduction. (A second sauce, almond gazpacho, seemed to get lost in the shuffle.)

For the main course, the grilled swordfish was a small show of the chef's way with seafood. It consisted of a large cube of juicy, perfectly cooked fish accompanied with a giant clam casino and caramelized butternut squash. The ham-and-cheese croquettes we ordered as a side were well-crusted but otherwise not remarkable. The grilled lamb chops were cooked medium rare as ordered with delicious crisp fried artichokes and roasted Brussels sprouts on the side. It is no exaggeration to say the "hot toddy" sauce, with its bitter lemon peel and sweet boozy flavor, ruined the dish. One can appreciate a chef's desire to avoid doing the same old thing with grilled lamb chops, but this was too weird.

Our second visit we tried the beef carpaccio, a wide thicker-than-usual slice enhanced with the delectable crisp fried artichokes, green peppercorns, gargantuan caper berries, and cinnamon-dusted croutons. A lively combination. The seared tataki tuna was attractively served in a pool of red papaya-cucumber sauce. The tuna was tender, but a bit fishy.

The wild salmon entrée was divine, subtly crusted on the outside, and beautifully tender on the inside. It was served with a cherry-and-olive tapenade and artichokes cooked in their own juices (although we could certainly have eaten more of the crisp-fried version). A kobe beef special consisted of buttery, intensely marbled slices, served with an arugula salsa verde and crusty croquettes of cheese risotto.

Desserts here are housemade and exceptional. The rustic pecan torte was nirvana, with its candied top and buttery crust. A delicious lemon-zesty cheesecake was embellished with berries and a marvelous hazelnut crust. But the showstopper was the tiramisu. It had the usual elements of espresso-soaked ladyfingers and mascarpone cheese, but the unexpected addition of blackberries, pieces of amaretto cookies, and custard brought this predictable dessert to a fresh new level. Our first visit the server praised to the skies the specially procured Flametree coffee, which arrived in a French press pot with a lovely little dish of fluffy, chocolaty bread pudding with blackberry reduction. (Interestingly, the server didn't even mention the coffee during our second visit to the restaurant.)

As it turns out, you won't find many of these dishes still being served at Equestria. The winter menu we sampled has been replaced by the spring menu, which includes crispy black bass over vichyssoise, pork chops topped with mascarpone and pickled peach (designed to resemble breakfast chops and fried eggs), and blackened pork belly with watermelon Sazerac hot sauce.

As for the service, we found it to be professional and well-timed, despite the long walk from kitchen to table. The first night we had the sommelier as our server, who of course made excellent wine recommendations but also knew the food backward and forward. We were well tended, and our leisurely pace accommodated. Next we had an experienced server who nonetheless was new to Equestria. His recommendation of the salmon was right on the mark, and he was gracious about getting an answer from the kitchen to a trivial question we had about a dish.

Speaking of wine, Equestria's list of some 300 varieties includes high-quality, small-batch wines, as well as more familiar names. Diners can also order half bottles and about 20 wines by the glass.

In general, we found that Duffee has definitely made his mark on Equestria's menu. The food we had was for the most part interesting and well-prepared, with the creole Caesar, the grilled swordfish, and the desserts particularly good. A few of the preparations seemed unnecessarily complicated, so that some elements just got lost in the mix. In the case of the lamb chops, it would have been best to stop before introducing something as discordant as hot-toddy sauce.

Still, plenty of imagination and culinary know-how goes into the food, which results in lively menus backed with appropriate service and wine.

News Bites

Despite reports to the contrary, Benihana, the Japanese restaurant that burned in February, will reopen at the same East Memphis location, according to a company spokesman. The date for reopening has not yet been set.

In Chickasaw Oaks, Just for Lunch has returned to the restaurant scene. Farther east, in Sanderlin Centre, Muddy's Bake Shop has moved into the former Crema site, serving cupcakes, cookies, muffins and pies, and a lunch menu that changes daily.

In Midtown, Cafe Eclectic has opened near Overton Park at 603 N. McLean, serving breakfast and a light lunch/dinner in addition to specialty coffees, ice cream, donuts, and other treats.

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