First, there's the understated ease of the restaurant's décor: sofa by the window, bamboo bar, walls painted a color called "celery ice." Next is the well-tuned staff: friendly greeting, water poured, wine chilled. Then comes the melt-in-your-mouth surprise: perfect brioche, served with extra butter.
Are we having fun yet? You bet, and all this happens before ordering dinner at Ben Vaughn's new restaurant Grace, which opened September 18th next to Burke's Book Store in Cooper-Young.
Vaughn, the former chef at River Oaks in East Memphis, named Grace after his daughter, but the ambience is uniquely his own.
"I wanted the kind of restaurant where I would go for lunch or dinner to eat and chill: laid-back Southern charm, a fun place with good food that is seasonal and locally sourced," Vaughn said.
Building menus around local food is a mission Vaughn takes seriously. Seafood comes from the Alabama gulf coast, by way of Paradise Seafood (spiny lobsters one weekend, snapper and Apalachicola oysters the next) and produce and cheese are purchased from local farmers.
"I talk to Lori Greene [Downing Hollow Farm] in the morning, see what she's got, and go from there," Vaughn said. "The first week, I changed the menu three times."
So how does Vaughn's culinary flexibility translate into lunch (served weekdays) and dinner (served Monday through Saturday)? On a recent Friday evening, the menu offered six small plates, priced from $8 to $11. We ordered a B.L.T. salad (local greens, applewood smoked bacon, heirloom tomatoes, blue cheese) and fried green tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese. (Confession: The tomatoes were so memorable, I dreamed about them that night.)
For entrées, we went with seared big-eye tuna ($26) and the pan crisp scallops ($23). We were tempted to order a poached pear with pecan baklava for dessert, but we couldn't eat another bite. Blame the brioche.
"It takes two days to make them," Vaughn said, crediting pastry chef Chris Burbeck. "There's so much butter that it has to rest at a cold temperature for an entire day to set the dough."
For now, there is no cork fee to bring wine because the restaurant is waiting on its liquor license. Once in place, the wine list will include about 50 choices — mostly small production labels — including half-bottles and wines poured by the glass.
With only 16 tables, reservations are recommended. Or stop by spontaneously and sit at the bar, where you can watch the kitchen at work through a large glass door.
Grace, 938 S. Cooper (274-8511)
Need an impressive Saturday-night date without breaking the bank? Try a lobster dinner at Sole Restaurant & Raw Bar, where boiled Maine lobster comes with corn fritters, almond slaw, and lobster bisque for under $30. The special, offered only on Saturday nights, runs through the month of October.
"We had an amazing turnout last week and sold every lobster we had," executive chef Matthew Crone said. "We try to accommodate everyone, but we can only order so many."
If the lobsters sell out, the restaurant serves lots of other seafood, including nine different types of oysters and entrées like striped bass with roasted baby turnips, watercress, fried capers, and saffron aioli.
Sole Restaurant & Raw Bar, 221 S. Third (334-5950), memphissole.com
Lucchesi's Ravioli and Pasta Company, the popular Italian deli and market in East Memphis, has added two organic pasta sauces to their list of take-home foods in response to customer requests.
"The recipes are the same as our regular sauces, but they are made with all organic ingredients," Alyce Mantia said. "Even the olive oil is organic. If this works, we're going to try using organic meat and produce for some of our filled pastas."
Priced at $4.99, the organic marinara sauce is only 50 cents more than the original variety. Organic tomato basil sauce also is available for $6.99.
"The tomato-basil sauce is made with eggplant and zucchini," Mantia said. "It's a nice chunky sauce. It's my favorite."