Having read the recent rumors about the coming demise of Wally Joe, Papa Squirrel and I decided to make Wally Joe our December dining splurge. We’d been wanting to go to Wally Joe for a long time, but something else always seemed to come up. With the prospect of having a one-and-only chance to try some of Memphis’s most innovative cuisine, we knew we couldn’t let this opportunity slip by.
The space is unique. The tables act as the seats at a culinary theatre where the kitchen staff perform as virtuosos of their trade. A thoroughly modern space, the black and chrome kitchen is completely open to the dining room. Surprisingly, the noise levels are handled very well. The staff have obviously become accustomed to keeping the banging of pots and pans at a minimum. That clear view into the kitchen was like dining in an Anthony Bourdain story (thankfully, without the drama), but the cuisine was more reminiscent of that from the kitchens described by Poppy Z. Brite (with all the culinary drama).
After perusing the menu for our entree choices, we settled down into the extensive wine list. We decided on a white wine to carry through the entire meal. We chose the 2002 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay (the Wally Joe Cuvee — a cute marketing gimmick). It turned out to be a light wine with a slightly sweet overtone that balanced well with our entrees and complemented many of the delicate flavors.
We started our meal with what was quite possibly the best bread basket we’ve ever had at a restaurant outside of San Francisco. Wally Joe serves fresh-from-the-oven parmesan ciabatta rolls. They were soft, well-textured and absolutely delicious. The big surprise was in the little butter flowers they brought out with the bread. It was fennel butter! When it melted on the bread, a delicate licorice flavor wafted to the roof of my mouth. Unexpected and perfect.
Our appetizers were no less enticing. I had the Ahi tuna tartar. It was ball of fresh minced tuna perched on a round of creamy avocado surrounded by a pool of spicy, tangy ponzu sauce. It didn’t just melt in my mouth; it absolutely evaporated. Papa Squirrel had the Maine dayboat sea scallop. Two golden pan-seared sea scallops nestled on a puree of applewood smoked bacon with shreds of daikon radish. We will admit to being skeptical about bacon puree, and our first tastes of it didn’t alleviate that. But then Papa put all the elements of the dish together and found out that it worked beautifully together. The smoky, creamy bacon flavor emphasized the rich smoothness of the scallops, and the daikon shreds provided great texture. We were more than a little bit pleased.
We also couldn’t resist the soup of the day, cream of wild mushroom with crumbled goat cheese. How to describe this soup? It was decandently rich and creamy without allowing the creaminess to overwhelm the woody wild flavor of the mushrooms. The smoothness of the soup was enhanced by the crumbles of sharp goat cheese that melted into strings of flavor that integrated perfectly with the soup.
We moved on to our entrees. I chose the roasted Gulf red snapper with gingered jasmine rice, snow peas and sake-black bean butter. The snapper was pan seared to crispness on the outside and was flaky and juicy on the inside. The rice was sweet with a light ginger spiciness. The snow peas were sweet and crisp. But the butter sauce was the star. As delicious as the snapper was, I would have been perfectly content with just the rice and peas and that sauce. That dish would make some fabulous modern comfort food. Papa chose the grilled Colorado quail with braised white beans, haricots verts, and a foie gras-date emulsion. The quail was perfectly cooked and the seasoned crust was accented wonderfully by the sauce. The beans were tender and flavorful. We were both pleased and stuffed after those entrees.
But there was no way we would be too stuffed for dessert. I chose a combination of cinnamon ice cream and coconut sorbet. The sorbet was fresh and flavorful without being too sweet. The ice cream was wonderfully rich and perfect for winter. Papa chose the crème brûlée. The creme was rich and cool and perfectly set. The “brûlée” was the best either of us could remember having anywhere. Light and crisp with the perfect ratio of burnt sugar flavor without being overpowering.
We finished our meal with fresh coffee brewed in a French press at our table. I never wanted to leave after that. Fortunately, we don’t have to leave Wally Joe behind. When we asked about the recent closing rumors, we were assured that they intended to be around for a long time to come. Good news for the Memphis culinary scene and good news for us. Squirrelly, Jr., is about to kill us for going without him.
Wally Joe — Closed
5040 Sanderlin Ave
Memphis, TN 38117