A New Course 

Equestria: a horse of a different color.

Equestria may be the best unknown restaurant in Memphis. There's a lingering perception about this restaurant - that of dark interiors and a menu heavily weighted toward game - which was carried over from the days of the Saddles Steak House and the first two years after Equestria opened in 2001.

While the location in Germantown and the name remain the same, there have been dramatic changes. Dennis Scott, who owned the building, proved to be a patient investor. In 2003, when he assumed complete control of Equestria, he set out to create an environment he, his friends, and clients would frequent. Spaces were opened up, private function rooms were added, the color scheme was modernized, and an outside patio was installed for live music and al fresco cocktails. A garden was built to provide seasonal herbs, vegetables, and heirloom tomatoes. Most importantly, a new chef was hired. Kevin Rains, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Colorado, was brought over from the now defunct E.J.'s Brasserie. Together, Scott and Rains decided to purchase the very best ingredients available and let the food change people's perceptions about the restaurant.

Chef Rains creates seasonal menus, with a nod to fusion cuisine, that are influenced by availability of ingredients and his interpretation of balance. In a cooler season, for example, I had an excellent calf's liver and onions in a veal demi-glace. The liver was thick enough to have a crispy, charred exterior but retain a creamy, warm middle.

On another, more recent visit, our options were of a lighter fare. We started our evening with a scallop dish that featured three preparations. The pan-fried, seared, and grilled scallops were matched with a smoky tomato butter, a curry soy vinaigrette, and a lemon caper aioli. Each scallop was delicious and perfectly prepared. The Thai beef egg roll was cut on the bias and served in a pool of hoisin mustard sauce. Inside, a filling of beef tenderloin, Asian noodles, and vegetables was terrific. "Carlos' Relleno" was a batter-dipped, crispy fried chili pepper stuffed with black beans, roasted corn, and andouille sausage. The red curry cream-cheese sauce completed this Cajun-Thai-Mex marriage, which was good enough to order as a main course.

All our salads were well-napped and extremely fresh. The blackberry arugula salad was a standout. Peppery arugula leaves were drizzled with a blackberry balsamic dressing and crowned with Maytag bleu cheese, bacon, blackberries, and pistachios. Who would have thought to have put so many of my favorite flavors in one salad? I was grateful for the experience.

For entrées, we were drawn to the exotic seafood preparations described on the menu, but we decided to balance our samplings with two meat choices. Although the "Three Peppercorn-crusted Rib-eye" enticed, our waiter encouraged us to order the filet mignon. The filet was well-prepared but proved to be pedestrian compared to our other dishes. The Australian lamb chops were served with the loin filleted and the herb-crusted ribs propped up like a mini-rack. The chops were well-seasoned and medium-rare in the center and came with a mint syrup that enhanced but did not overwhelm. The riblets were also very tasty.

The "Black and White Salmon" was sweetened by a honey Dijon glaze, made more complex by red curry and a grapefruit beurre blanc. Baby bok choy and black Thai rice added to this very satisfying dish. A Southwest-influenced cumin-encrusted ahi tuna was fragrant and spicy with its accompanying cracked pepper and corn sauce. It was perched on a bed of black bean risotto that was tasty and chewy but perhaps too dense for the delicate tuna. Micro greens from a specialty farm in Ohio decorated many of our dishes.

Desserts came in generous portions and reflected the same attention to flavor as the rest of our meal. The "Sorbet Trio" was bright and tart with seasonal fruit. Particularly refreshing was the pink grapefruit. A blueberry and almond turnover was flaky, warm, and comforting. The bittersweet chocolate torte had fabulous cocoa flavor, and a Grand Marnier poppy-seed cake had us begging for the recipe.

Our dinner was served by a very well-trained and attentive staff. Dressed in white chef coats with an Equestria logo, they displayed a professional decorum often lacking in Memphis restaurants. Meals are plated on a variety of interesting chinaware. A Wine Spectator award-winning wine list accompanies the dinner menu.

Judging from our experience and those of friends, perceptions about Equestria will soon change. This restaurant is hitting its stride. n

Equestria is located at 3165 Forest Hill-Irene Road in Germantown. Reservations are strongly encouraged (869-2663). The dinner, dessert, and wine menu, as well as information about live music, can be found at EquestriaCuisine.com.

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