European Fixation

Hearty, comfort-based cuisine from all over Europe finds a home in the East.

During a trip to Europe years ago, I ate plain tuna fish sandwiches from the same tiny shop every single day in London, and in Paris, I subsisted on croissants hiding slivers of bitter chocolate. There was also the regrettable Olde English-style dinner — at a castle in the countryside, believe it or not — where servers in period costume joked without end about mead and wenches while I fervently wished that a normal salad would materialize in front of me. How unfortunate that mealtime experimentation was something to be avoided at all costs during that early phase of my life! 

Dining at The Kitchen on Brookhaven, Angie Kirkpatrick's new restaurant in East Memphis, helped me see how far I've progressed in developing a love for different cuisines. Chef Sabrina Ball's cooking redeemed the foods I steadfastly avoided during my time in Europe; in addition, the relaxed atmosphere and attentive service at The Kitchen made for three memorable and experimental meals.

On a recent Saturday night, The Kitchen was hopping. Nestled in Brookhaven Circle, the restaurant's moody outside lighting and freshly painted earth-tone facade gave it the feel of an intimate and well-appointed gathering place. During my visits, I noticed that large groups of families and friends claimed many of the tables, and this made sense; the menu is a lively jumble of food from across Europe, with Ireland, Italy, England, Germany, Hungary, Greece, and France included. It was clear that everyone's unique appetites could be satisfied. Not knowing what I wanted most, or at which country to start, I took a long time deciding what to order for dinner.

For an appetizer, I ordered the moules mariniere, steamed mussels in a lemony, buttery white wine sauce. Their glossy black shells contrasted dramatically against the white bowl, and there was a good mix of large and small mussels. What tasted like a grain or two of sand made me pause, but I chalked it up to authenticity and enjoyed the dish's sea-tinged taste. We also tried the colcannon cakes, which were a combination of creamy mashed potatoes and cabbage. The cakes were pan-fried but not heavy or oily at all. The thing that really made them special was the sweet horseradish and citrus garnish, which was a surprise with its forward, bright, and spicy flavor. The contrasts in this dish were well-planned, with the crunchiness of the outside of the cakes playing off the creaminess in the middle.

Next, we selected two salads. The goat cheese salad featured disks of breaded cheese along with spinach, lentils, chopped oregano, and a house balsamic dressing; the other, a nicoise salad, boasted large chunks of seared tuna, roasted red pepper slices, quartered new potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, green beans, swiss chard, baby lettuce, and a light lemon vinaigrette. The latter easily could be ordered as an entrée since it was such a generous portion. At this point in our meal, we picked up on a theme: Earthy flavors are the key at The Kitchen.

For our entrees, I played it safe because I noticed that the deconstructed chicken pot pie had been moved from the kids' menu to the one for the grown-ups due to high demand. I had been to The Kitchen when it first opened with my family, and I remembered a slight twinge of jealousy when a certain towheaded 3-year-old sitting with us was enjoying it . . . I figured now was my chance to do the same! A tall, dramatic crown of puff pastry topped a creamy, thick base with potatoes, carrots, and green peas along with many choice pieces of chicken. We also tried the southern Italian ratatouille, roasted vegetables served with marinara sauce, herbed polenta, and Asiago cheese. Overall, the portions were quite generous, so it would be a good idea to coordinate your table's orders in order to share an array of dishes.

Even though we labored over our choices for dinner, choosing dessert was simple. If there's bread pudding on the menu — especially if the chef has modernized it in some way — I'm going to have to try it. This seasonal version was unusual and apparently very popular since our server told me I had snagged the very last serving. Custard-like and topped with whipped cream, it was an autumn version of bread pudding, dotted with cranberries and candied walnuts and veined with cinnamon. Tiramisu was a special that evening, and it was served in a martini glass. Mild, fluffy, and surprisingly light, the tiramisu's amaretto, coffee, and chocolate flavors just clicked.

I found the décor at The Kitchen warm and inviting. The walls boast a faux finish that reminded me of an aged terra-cotta pot, and bright, exuberant paintings enliven the space. Even during the day, the lighting is low, and two intricate, oversize metal-cutout pendant lights add to the drama of the main dining room. An updated bistro feel permeates the space. Attention's been paid to the acoustics; even when the restaurant was packed and diners were talking and laughing loudly, the noise remained suspended in the background, and we still felt secluded and able to carry on a quiet conversation. It's also nice that The Kitchen has a straightforward, egalitarian approach to wine. White, red, sparkling, and rosé are priced at $6.50 a glass (or $4.50 for those under the "plonk" section) and bottles range from $25 to $42.

I stopped by again during the week to try a couple of sandwiches; eight are available during lunch on weekdays and also at dinner. Both the portobello burger and the Sayo schnitzel were excellent; they were hearty with layered and concentrated flavors. I was unfamiliar with schnitzel, which in this case was a pork cutlet pounded flat and breaded; it was accompanied by red onion relish and aioli. The portobello burger actually tasted meaty, and its huge grilled mushroom smothered in provolone overlapped the kaiser roll. Our server was enthusiastic about the menu and happy to tell us which sandwiches were his favorites. We chose roasted root vegetables and braised red cabbage as our sides and also could not resist a cup of the garlic soup featured that day. The soup, pungent and sweet, was so unusual. Made up of a roasted garlic broth with quartered artichoke hearts, green onions, and mushrooms, it was unlike any soup I have ever encountered, and this was a good thing.

I'd noticed that The Kitchen's Sunday brunch menu offered some completely different options that weren't available on the lunch and dinner menu. Sunday brunch at The Kitchen is served from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and during my visit, I noticed that whether it's Saturday night or Sunday morning, big groups seem to flock to this restaurant. To start, we ordered a Mediterranean platter with smoky-eggplant baba ghanoush, tabouleh, tzatziki salad with cucumbers and yogurt, and dolmas (rice and meat wrapped up in oiled leaves). Next, I selected the lox and scrambles along with a side of fruit. Housemade gravlox was interspersed with scrambled eggs and green onions, and this was atop English muffins that must have been buttered once and then buttered again. The fruit was a bit limp, but there was a good mix of berries and melon. I also tried the frittata, which included tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, and sautéed onions. The side of hash browns, also very buttery, were the richest I've had in a long time. Brunch was low-key; I never felt rushed, and now I am dying to go back and try the cinnamon mascarpone-stuffed French toast.

I'll admit that at first glance, I did find The Kitchen's menu to be unusual since the theme is all sorts of dishes from all over Europe. However, as I enjoyed my meals there, I came to think that this variety is the beauty of the experience. I advise going with a group; everyone will be happy because there are so many options. With a sandwich and a side starting at $7 and entrées ranging from $8 to $15, it's refreshing to see that dining at a new restaurant can be affordable. It's novel to have this tribute to the cuisines of Europe tucked away in a beautiful jewel-box setting in East Memphis. As we start to crave hearty comfort food this fall, be open to trying all that The Kitchen on Brookhaven has to offer.

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