- by Macrae Schaffler
Five of us went to Erling Jensen’s on a Sunday night to check out the new chef, Karen Noriega, and see how the restaurant is doing. We left about two and a half hours later, stomachs full but slightly disappointed. We expected more from the supposed finest restaurant in Memphis.
The evening started well: we were seated quickly and immediately received water in our glasses and a wine list from the maître d’. The atmosphere was satisfactory - very old fashioned and homey, but elegant. We sat at our table for around five minutes before our waiter acknowledged us and inquired as to whether or not we would like to order wine, and we began with a bottle of Rustico Prosecco.
We had called ahead and warned the staff that we had a strict vegetarian in our party, so we were pleased when the amuse-bouche arrived and the kitchen had remembered our special needs. When asked what we were being served, the waitress who delivered the amuse bouche explained that the small round bite on our plates was stuffed squid in a sweet corn sauce. Our vegetarian diner received a leaf of endive topped with a sort of pico de gallo, also served with a sweet corn sauce. We were not given a description of the vegetarian entrée, so I am sure I have not called it by its proper name.
Despite the fact that we had called ahead about our vegetarian friend, there were very few options on the menu that she could enjoy. When we asked our waiter about this problem, he stated that the soup was vegetarian, as were all of the salads (they were not), and he stated that the chef usually just makes something special for vegetarian guests, and that it typically consists of pasta or risotto. Our waiter asked our vegetarian diner which she would prefer, the pasta or the risotto, neither of which had been described any further. As our friend has an excellent sense of humor, she chose the risotto. A few moments later, our waiter returned to advise that there was no risotto, but that the chef had made a special dish tonight for our vegetarian. He then asked if she wanted to know what it would be or if she would prefer to be surprised. With her sense of humor still intact, our friend chose to be surprised, knowing she had no other option than to accept what the chef had prepared (there were no vegetarian dishes on the menu).
Appetizers for the rest of the table: sweetbreads with diver scallops and fingerling potatoes, curried cornmeal-crusted oysters with Tennessee field greens, baby romaine salad with black pepper ceasar aioli, pancetta crisp, and shaved pecorino romano, escargots en croute with mushrooms in a blue cheese mornay sauce, curried lentil soup, and a green salad with sun-dried tomato-truffle tapenade and gruyere beignets.
Sound like a lot of food for five people? It was. Not only did we over-order, but the portions were enormous! The sweetbreads, which were the best I have ever had, looked like an entrèe: two huge slabs garnished with three whole diver scallops and a little pile of fingerling potatoes. The escargots en croute were served in a puff pastry square that was as big as a set of fuzzy dice. The green salad with truffle tapenade was served with four gruyere beignets. The baby romaine salad was sized appropriately, but was served in a hollowed out roll, a take on the typical Caesar salad crouton, that, although beautiful, caused the salad to be difficult to eat: it first had to be disassembled and the whole leaves cut up prior to eating. The curried lentil soup was delicious, if slightly rough in texture.
For entrees, we ordered seared ahi tuna with sticky rice, curry, and coconut oil; lemongrass steamed halibut with spicy teriyaki sauce (not spicy) and stir-fried baby bok choy; elk chop with balsamic green peppercorn sauce; pan fried cornmeal crusted pompano; and the vegetarian dish, which turned out to be wild mushroom ravioli. All entrees were good with the exception of the overly dry pompano, which our waiter later told us he knew to be poor and considered warning us, and then told us that it would be taken off the menu due to complaints from others. The elk chop was an excellent piece of meat, cooked to a tender medium rare, and served with a subtle sauce of balsamic vinegar with a perfume of green peppercorn. The tuna was good as well, seared rare and garnished with a spoon of picked ginger and wasabi and served with rice, but not the sticky rice that was described on the menu.
For dessert, (we were full, but had ordered dessert early in the meal) we had the chocolate soufflé with grand marnier milk chocolate crème anglaise and a peach tart. The soufflé was delicious. The crème anglaise tasted like melted milk chocolate and also resembled it in texture and appearance: very thick, and slow to pour out of the little pitcher in which it was served. The peach tart was mediocre: dry and poorly presented.
Entrees at EJ’s range from $21 to $46. The good news about the high prices is that the portions are so large, two people can split most of the entrees.
Rating: 3/5 spoons
Macrae Schaffler writes the food blog Edible Therapy.