Oh, yeah. This is cheating.
After a week and a half of our pantry cleaning experiment, and with Squirrelly, Jr., out in the country visiting his squirrelly grandparents, Mama Squirrel and I decided that we deserved a romantic night out. Deciding where to go wasn’t difficult at all. We were all for trying Encore, Chef Jose Gutierrez’s new, more accessible restaurant.
For over 22 years, Chef Gutierrez was Chef de Cuisine at Chez Philippe at the Peabody Hotel, both the pinnacles of Memphis. Late last year, the chef decided to open his own place. Independent, but not far from home, the chef opened Encore in Peabody Place, the entertainment and retail center next to the Peabody Hotel downtown.
Encore is Provençal dining, but the single large space is not what I think of as Provencal. Mama pegged it as modern Japanese. While it wasn’t the rustic inn that I guess I was expecting, it is still a welcoming space. Entering from the mall, one immediately sees the sweep of the curving bar. The dark wood is contrasted by the back-lit rear wall with shelves reaching to the ceiling holding a tremendous collection of carefully arrayed bottles. The dining area is comfortable. Nicely spaced tables with white tablecloths and a sheet of butcher paper to give a sense of a relaxed, casual space.
The Peabody Hotel is famous for its ducks. The ducks live on the roof of the hotel in a special “Duck Palace” of their own. The Peabody employs a Duckmaster to care for the ducks, including escorting them on their daily duck entrance to the hotel lobby where they spend a few hours lounging in the ornate marble duck fountain before marching out again to a Sousa march for their private duck elevator ride back to the roof.
The point of that digression is that I have never known any of the Peabody’s restaurants to serve duck. Clearly, the Chef is spreading his wings because his menu features a duck carpaccio appetizer. How could we not choose that one? And we were glad we did. The dish is beautiful strips of paper thin duck breast with a small pile of frisée and a drizzle of excellent balsamic vinegar ringing the plate. The carpaccio is rich with the fat of the duck breast, smoky and tender. The frisée and slices of fresh-baked bread to sop up the balsamic (Come on, I’m a Southerner.) were a perfect compliment to the duck.
Next we shared a salad. A crisp half-head of Bibb lettuce rested on a half avocado that rested on a slice of grapefruit that rested on four slices of watermelon radish. Add four elephants and a giant turtle and we would have had all of creation before us. As it was, we had a daunting looking salad. Our server rightly called it culinary Jenga. In truth, the salad wasn’t difficult at all to deal with. We slid off the lettuce and cut it in half and dug in. Topped with spicy sweet shredded watermelon radish and a creamy apple cider vinaigrette, the salad was light and subtly sweet, perfect for a humid Memphis evening. Our only regret was that we got away from our practice of having our salad after our entree.
Our delightful evening kept going with our entrees. Mama chose roasted halibut. The halibut was perfectly brown and crispy outside, and the inside was meltingly succulent. The generous portion of fish was served on a bed of fried potato slices, green beans, edamame, capers, and olives all with a drizzle of lemon olive oil. Mama was very pleased.
I chose the NY strip aux poivre with pommes frites. Again the portion was generous and perfectly medium rare as I had requested. The sauce aux poivre was luxurious. The frites are full french-fry sized which allows them an interior that is actually creamy. Steak and frites on a plate might be a challenge to make interesting visually, but Encore has things well in hand. The frites come in a ceramic bowl that looks like a styrofoam cup. The look is completed with wax paper decorated with kitschy cute newsprint, definitely a fun touch. The best part, however, was the red pepper aioli that was provided for dipping the frites. I may never eat ketchup again.
Although we were already well fed, we couldn’t say no to a cheese plate then dessert. The only service flub of the night happened when the runner brought our dessert before our cheese. We weren’t too concerned though. We were too distracted by our dessert which was en fuego. No, no, seriously, our dessert was on fire. We had chosen the orange zest creme brulee, and it came to the table with its sugar top carmelizing en route. We didn’t think to ask what alcohol was used, but I would assume Grand Marinier. The topping was thicker than the normal top of a creme brulee, and it was a delight. The creme was wonderful, soft and redolent of orange.
Next our cheese plate came. Since our courses had gotten out of order, our server took an extra moment to ensure that we received our cheese plate with bread still warm from the oven. We had a creamy young Gorgonzola that was much less sharp that I had expected and, really, than I had wanted. Mama loved the nice ashy overtone that filled the mouth and then mellowed with the creaminess of the cheese to leave no harsh aftertaste. The manchego was beautifully dry and nutty, and the baby Peccorino Romano was light and creamy with a delicate sharpness. Mama will be looking for that one for paninis.
Service was delightful at Encore. Our server, Shaddow, a Katrina refugee, was professional, knowledgeable, and warm. Mama and I like to choose wines by the glass so we can do our own food pairings and so we can usually try multiple wines for the price of a single bottle. When Encore was out of the Spanish Las Brisas white that Mama wanted to try, Shaddow not only suggested a Hanna Sauvignon blanc from California as an excellent alternative, but he provided a sample as well. I chose a Viognier from France’s LePin. Both wines were perfect with our appetizer and salad.
I asked for a Cabernet from Terrazas of Argentina to accompany my steak. Shaddow recommended that I might prefer Artesa Elements from California instead. He brought samples of both and I was glad that he did. The Terrazas was helpful to us in our continuing wine education, but in the “Don’t let this happen to you” chapter. The Terrazas provided us an unfortunate lesson in the understanding of the concept of wet dog aroma, and it had a large amount of sediment as well. The Elements is a blend of primarily red Bordeaux. It was hearty enough to stand up to the steak but smooth enough to not clash.
With dessert and cheese, Mama chose a Bonny Doon muscat that nearly rivaled dessert on sweetness in my opinion, but Mama loved it.
We will definitely be going back to Encore. We want to, but we have to too. Squirrelly, Jr., is about to kill us for going without him.
Encore Restaurant and Bar — Closed
150 Peabody Place, Suite 111
Memphis, Tennessee 38103