As chefs go, Russell Casey may be one of the most undervalued properties in the city. Since 2013, he's been turning out top-notch pub grub at Local. Then, earlier this year, he started beating other area chefs to win cooking contests — first place for his bouillabaisse in February, second place for his ceviche in June.
All this from a guy who never went to culinary school.
"I started in kitchens when I was 14 years old," remembers Casey, now 35. "And I've been doing it ever since. I think the best school you can get is working for good chefs."
Now Casey is bringing his culinary brio to the menu at Agave Maria. It's a new Mexican restaurant near the corner of Union and Front, in the old Pa Pa Pia's space. And, folks, it's a winner. The combination of chic design and can't-put-it-down cuisine make it the kind of place that will quickly earn a spot on your regular restaurant rotation.
Take the Enchilada Tinga ($11). Taste a little different? Well it should. The mole is built from a base of toasted pumpkin seeds and soy sauce. It's the kind of flavor profile you'd never associate with Mexican food — until now. Rich and tangy, loaded with lime, chili paste, and shredded chicken, it's a dish you'll have to guard from fellow diners. Also recommended: the Seared Sea Scallops ($15) and the Salmon Sashimi Tostada ($12.50).
Agave Maria's other great virtue is its bar, which boasts the largest selection of tequila (100-plus varieties) in the city. To toast the warm weather, owner Jeff Johnson and I raised a snifter of Casa Noble Añejo ($15). Grown in the Mexican lowlands and aged in oak barrels, it was silky smooth with notes of butterscotch and pear.
"Of course, we're not above taking shots here," says Johnson, swirling the tequila in his snifter. "But if you want to, this is a place where you can come to learn and savor."
Johnson adds that he has plans for tequila pairing dinners and a tequila loyalty program.
Of course, the food tastes better for being served in such stylish surroundings. The interior — olive green with fuchsia accents — is by Graham Reese, whose inspiration was "Tijuana chic." In practice, that means tufted leather, jewel-tone pendant lamps, and, of course, an enormous taxidermied bull. La Furia ("The Fury") is said to have killed two matadors and injured 12 more between 1999 and 2001.
Tamp & Tap Triad inhabits the kind of sleek, industrial space you'd expect to find in downtown Chicago. For a color palette, think Oreo cookie: black and white with just a few pops of color. There's even an egg-shaped meeting pod, walled off from the main dining area by a translucent, white curtain.
Pretty cool, right? Only it's not in Chicago. It's not even downtown. Tamp & Tap Triad is in East Memphis, near Poplar and I-240.
When you think about it, it fits. East Memphis has been crying out for good coffee — as far as I can tell, there's nothing "craft" east of the interstate — and manager Maggie Swett says bringing artisanal third-wave coffee to an untapped market is a big part of her mission.
"There's so much energy behind this cup," Swett enthuses. "We're talking about fair-trade beans from a single origin, and they don't get roasted until I order them."
Tamp & Tap Triad — an offshoot of the original Tamp & Tap downtown — sources all its beans through Metropolis Coffee in Chicago. The shot I tasted, a Redline espresso, was spicy and well-constructed. Although its license is still pending, the shop plans to offer beer and a light lunch, as well as wine, which the other location does not have.
"When I joined the project," Swett remembers, "they didn't have a woman on board. I told them, when I wind down after work, I want a glass of wine."
As for the food, it's perfect for a business lunch. I especially liked the Stanley Sandwich ($10.50), stacked with smoked turkey, fontina cheese, candied bacon, pickled red onion, and roasted artichoke aioli. The brioche, which is baked in-house, seals the deal.