Southern Sophistication

Acclaimed chef José Gutierrez gives fine French dining a comfortable bistro feel.



Justin Fox Burks

The last time I ate at River Oaks was memorable not for the excellent food, but for my friend’s obnoxious behavior. He threw back one too many cocktails, and I was so embarrassed by his off-color humor that I didn’t return until after chef José Gutierrez brought his estimable talent to this popular East Memphis location.                  

It’s been two years since Gutierrez moved to River Oaks after closing his restaurant Encore, and his culinary finesse is as polished as ever. In June, Gutierrez was named Chef of the Year by the Maitres Cuisiniers de France, an honor he now shares with luminary French chefs Daniel Boulud and Jacques Pepin.

The trophy is displayed at River Oaks, a restaurant with its own impressive pedigree. Still, the restaurant is tucked in an asphalt island near the interstate, and I asked Gutierrez if he missed Encore’s downtown location.

“It was a beautiful place,” he agreed. “But many of Encore’s customers lived in East Memphis, so now our customers are also our neighbors.”

While sophisticated, the menu at River Oaks includes such friendly choices as free-range fried chicken, a Southern nod to the traditional roast chicken dinners cooked by French families every Sunday.

When my husband and I came for dinner, we were tempted by the Wednesday-night chicken special for two served family-style with green beans and mashed potatoes. We thought about it over drinks. I ordered a lemonade martini, light on the sugar. My husband tried the restaurant’s regular mojito, one of three (there’s also pineapple and mango) made with freshly squeezed juices as fragrant as a summer bouquet.

Still undecided on entrees, we focused on appetizers: Camembert Cheese Beignets, Jicama Lobster Tacos, and a large Caesar salad to share. All three dishes were plated with flair. The beignets were a pâté à choux dough with Camembert, Gruyere, and a little lemon zest. The tacos were stuffed with lobster, sliced jicama, chopped apples, and sprouts, tightly rolled, and dusted with pine nuts for a flavorful finish. Think Caribbean egg rolls without the deep-fry.

One look at our Caesar, and I decided we would be taking our entrées home. The Caesar at River Oaks — a carryover from Encore’s menu — was unique in every way. Its Romaine heart was topped with shaved Parmesan, chopped chives, roasted red pepper aioli and two large garlic shrimp. Slice into the salad, and the toppings mingled with the lettuce layers, giving equal play to each crunchy bite. 

When our entrees arrived, I wish someone had given us this piece of advice: The food at River Oaks starts out French, so spread dinner over several hours or order lightly. We had no choice but to slow down and admire the food on our plates. My Duck Two Ways was a bookend in taste and texture. The breast was sautéed, rolled, and served on a blanket of mixed greens. The confit, cooked overnight in duck fat in a 200-degree oven, was a rich and crispy companion to an undercoat of haricot vert, potatoes, mushrooms, and red onions. 

My husband’s Rib-eye with Pomme Gratin looked like a fat and happy mini-roast garnished with a broccoli plume. The steak had a hint of marble made even more flavorful by truffle sauce that drapes the meat like an elegant veil.

While the service was top-notch, it’s a tight squeeze at River Oaks when the restaurant is busy. I couldn’t help but hear every word from the next table (payback, I guess, for my rude friend) but when we returned for lunch, the restaurant was quieter. In fact, we had the front room to ourselves, and our server’s friendly and professional attention made us feel like a well-heeled couple with a personal staff. 

A quick look at the menu, and I knew what I wanted: the Chef’s TV Dinner. Inspired by a pristine four-square plate, my dish (it changes every day) included slightly pink pork tenderloin with a bordelaise sauce, seasonal vegetable medley, arugula salad with shaved Parmesan, and an absolutely adorable chocolate fondant cake nestled inside a parasol of quartered strawberries. The TV dinner also was fun to eat. Do I spin the plate around and eat dessert first or be healthy and start with the zucchini?

My husband took a different direction, starting lunch with a carrot ginger soup topped with whipped cream and a sirloin burger he rated as “good, but not great.” He was effusive, however, about his side of Pommel Frits, served in a cone of wax paper with dipping sauce, and the Peach Melba he ordered for dessert. I agreed wholeheartedly about the peaches, poached in citrus syrup and plated with house-made vanilla ice cream, crème fraîche, and toasted almonds.

On my drive back to work, I thought about my meals at River Oaks and decided a few things for my next visit: Don’t over-order. Think about where to sit. And speak up about the menu, because the chef is ready to listen. “This restaurant is not about me,” Gutierrez said to me later. “It’s about what the people who come to River Oaks want to eat.” 

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