Had occasion to spend three evenings in Memphis recently and relied on the posts of local hounds for my dining choices, so I thought I should report back. These are single data points only, so take them for what they’re worth. Also note that, by design, I did not stray from downtown. I know there are other fine options elsewhere.
First stop was Encore, which turned out to be the least satisfactory of my three stops. One reason was the wine list, which pushed the limits of what I consider reasonable markups, i.e., >3x retail. I ordered a bottle of the Finca El Peral Reserva 2006, which was fine, but not really a $45 wine. Started with the croquette au fromage (camembert beignets with ratatouille) – nice idea but extremely bland. Main course was good, pork tenderloin with sweet potato flan and haricot verts. I concluded with a cheese plate, a choice of three from a longer list scrawled on the server’s notepad. My choices were bucheron, camembert, and the Vintage Van Gogh aged Gouda, which were fine, except that they were still chilled when they came out. Service was workmanlike and the room OK but not memorable.
Second stop was Circa, which was the most impressive of the three rooms, spacious and relaxed. I ordered a bottle of the 2001 Las Gravas from the Spanish Jumilla region which, it turned out, was the oldest bottle on the list and was therefore decanted with great ceremony. Probably not necessary, but the wine was good. I started with the crawfish beignets, which were packed with crawfish and very tasty. Continued with the sorghum cured rack of lamb, which was done nicely. Finished with the bananas foster soufflé, which was excellent. The only problem with the evening was the overbearing server, who was way too in our face, discoursing, for example, on the three possible ways of eating a soufflé. There is a fine line between helpfulness and intrusiveness and, believe me, he crossed it.
Final stop was at McEwen’s, which was a more crowded and boisterous room. I ordered a bottle of the 2003 Pesquier Gigondas, which was yummy. I started with the red Tasmanian sweet crab fritters with spicy chili aioli – definitely the most heat I experienced on the trip, but very tasty. Then it was on to the oven roasted rib-eye, which was large and wonderful, served with Peruvian purple potato au gratin. Ended with the pineapple upside-down cake, which was good but nothing to write home about. Service was friendly and efficient.
Overall I thought I did pretty well. Food-wise I would consider Circa and McEwen’s to be on a par, with Encore an also-ran. I liked the wine list at McEwen’s best, but none of the three lists was terribly imaginative. The evening at Circa was distorted by the weird server, so I would like to try it again sometime with someone more mainstream. So thanks to the Memphis hounds for pointing me in the right direction.