Ihave to admit something rather silly. Im one of those people who likes to spot and meet celebrities. Not because Im starstruck or in awe of them or anything like that (Elizabeth Taylor excluded, of course). Theres just something strange about seeing someone in person whom Ive seen for years on the screen; it makes me want to know the person behind the persona. And I must say I havent had much luck. The last star encounter was at a party at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. The crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder and someone bumped into me and spilled my drink. When I realized that it was Geraldo Rivera, I decided to get out of the place as fast as possible and go take a shower.
So years ago, when editor of this prestigious magazine, I assigned someone to write a profile of Morgan Freeman, a native Memphian and one of my favorite actors, and I felt sure that I would meet him. I wanted to sit down and chat with him because I knew from other people that he was a very down-to-earth, lovable guy who would rather talk about his horses than pontificate about being a movie star. Well, it never happened.
More recently, when beginning this story, I was sure again that we would meet. Never happened. But I feel certain it will, because Freeman and Clarksdale, Mississippi, attorney Bill Luckett (who also practices in Memphis) have opened a restaurant in Clarksdale -- Madidi, named after a Bolivian nature park -- that fits perfectly into the world of colors and textures and characters that make up this gem of the Delta. And I feel sure Ill be going back.
Although the meeting never took place, I am, however, on the telephone with Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett, and even though its a little past noon, Freeman sounds a bit sleepy. It seems he had quite a late and exciting night the evening before. He was honored by the Mississippi legislature, which passed a resolution commending his wide body of work, not just in film but in his local philanthropic efforts since moving back to Mississippi in the early 1990s. In his typically modest way of talking about himself, Freeman says, Oh, yes, it was exciting, a very exciting day.
Luckett steps in and explains it a little further: Morgan got the longest standing ovation ever offered anyone in the Mississippi House of Representatives, and it was 100 percent attendance. Everyone was in this very elegant place and Morgan was presented with a resolution honoring him and citing his many accomplishments and basically thanking him for making Mississippi his home. The whole house stood up at least three or four times in what was really about a 10-minute presentation, and they clapped for eight minutes after that. It was a tribute of the highest proportions.
And while Morgan Freeman is indeed a man of many accomplishments, Madidi should be considered right up there with the rest of them. While Clarksdale has long been an international tourist destination for blues aficionados (its the closest thing to the real home of the blues, touting the Crossroads, where legend has it bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become a great musician), others around the world are talking about Madidi. The restaurant and other area attractions were featured in the March 26, 2001, issue of New York magazine as one of the best 52 weekend getaways in America. Food & Wine magazine gave it the thumbs-up in its February 2001 issue. Many daily newspapers have given it high praise. And theres more national press on the way.
Housed in a turn-of-the-century red brick building downtown -- a former bank Luckett remodeled -- Madidis exterior is nice but understated, with a small sign and tiny gaslights at the doorway. Once inside, however, youre in a world unto itself -- a world where the food and atmosphere are just about perfect, but, as important, a world where love seems to flow even more so than the wine.
Luckett met Freeman back in the mid-1990s, while doing some legal work for him and his wife Myrna when they were building a house on Freemans nearby family farm. Freeman, Myrna, Bill, and Bills wife Francine became friends and began going out to dinner, both in the area and in Memphis, but the fine-dining choices were limited close to home. Luckett had been toying with the idea of opening a restaurant, and during one of Morgans short respites from his breathlessly busy acting career, the two began talking about a restaurant partnership. They began talking in the spring of 2000, and in November, Madidi became a reality. And an instant hit. And no wonder.
Its obvious that the attention to detail at Madidi is one of its secrets. From the carefully chosen collection of regional and national artwork that hangs on the exposed brick walls in the main dining room, to the long mahogany and black granite bar, to the white linen tablecloths, fresh flowers, even the terra-cotta glazed bowl perched on a black granite counter that serves as the sink in the restroom, every nook and cranny of the place is executed with an eye for perfection -- due in no small way to Myrna, a film set and costume designer who helped with the interior design.
But atmosphere is not the only thing going for Madidi. The service is impeccable. Call it Southern hospitality, good manners, or just good business sense, but the staff at Madidi is a special group of people.
Not the least of which is chef David Krog. I could have written this entire article, or, say, a book, about Krog, one of the nicest, funniest people Ive ever had the pleasure to meet. Krog is goateed, tattooed, pierced, sometimes hyper, and generally looking a bit untraditional for a setting like this. But dont let any of that fool you. He is such a fine chef that Freeman says, One of my hopes is to get David out to California and introduce him as a chef to a couple of people I know out there so he can get some idea of how good he is. I dont think he really knows it yet.
Krog is a graduate of the Memphis Culinary Academy, and had worked his kitchen magic at a couple of Memphis finer dining establishments before being lured to Madidi by Luckett and Freeman. And he knows how to run a kitchen. Its fairly amazing to see him serve the amount of food he does, and food of the highest quality, basically with the help of two people: his sous chef David McNeal and salad and pastry chef Anden Hamilton.
I promised my editor this wouldnt be a food review, as that is already a monthly feature in these pages, but I must say that Krogs French technique cuisine is remarkable, both in taste and presentation. Just to give you a quick idea, at one dinner, we started with pan-seared sea scallops with basil-habanero cream sauce (sweet, sweet scallops; subtly spicy sauce) and seared black pepper-encrusted yellow fin tuna with leek-smashed potatoes and a cognac cream sauce (all perfect, the tuna like luscious red velvet). The oven-roasted hybrid bass with caramelized shallot risotto, creamy black- bean puree, and chive oil was not available that night, and was substituted with a special of spice-encrusted grouper on a bed of saffron rice with black-bean salsa and tomato relish. I was leery of the grouper, because Ive never had it not cooked to death. Silly me. Krogs was white, sweet, flaky, and the best Ive ever had. The peppered veal chop with grilled succotash and black-currant vermouth demi-glace wasnt too shabby either. Lets just say the food is worth the hour-and-ten-minute drive through the Delta.
And speaking of flavors and the Delta, as if owning a large, chic restaurant isnt enough for a busy attorney and an even busier actor (on his way to Poland after our phone conversation to promote a movie from his new film company, Revelations Entertainment), the pair have added another hot spot to the town known as ground zero to blues enthusiasts. Its a juke joint just down the street in the area known as Blues Alley, next door to the Delta Blues Museum. Luckett and Freeman, both music fans, have gone to great lengths to make the place as authentic as possible, down to having scraps of plywood scattered over original hardwood flooring underneath old tables and chairs in the center of the room. There are holes in the ceiling, beat-up tin light fixtures, and a long plywood whitewashed bar, which, as their preliminary advertising says, serves beer, whiskey, and wine. There are pool tables, shuffleboard, and live music on weekends complete with a colorful bandstand and a state-of-the-art sound system. The clubs name is, appropriately, Ground Zero.
Why, many people have asked me, would Morgan Freeman move to Mississippi? Its pretty simple. He loves it. Having lived most recently on a boat in the Caribbean and prior to that in an apartment in New York City, he explains, I was raised here in the 1940s and 50s, and I left with the intention of going away as far as I could get and never coming back. But as I was out traveling around and experiencing other places, I realized that this country is pretty much the same anywhere you go in terms of relationships, and they seem to be what you make them. So when my father died, someone had to come back and take care of the farm. We had been visiting a lot in the springtime when we lived in New York, and it was always so good to come home. To get away from the crush. It was so lush and lovely and green. I finally realized that I belong here. There is something truly magical about it.
Or as Freeman told Food & Wine, This is the place where I let my breath out and relax. And its a good thing. He, along with Luckett, has certainly breathed some wonderful, fresh new air into Clarksdale, Mississippi.
For more information or to make reservations at Madidi, call 662-627-7770 or visit www.madidires.com.
[This story was first published in Memphis magazine.]