A name has been selected for the cafe at Crosstown Arts. It's Today and Always. The official explanation is that it is a reflection of the cafe's menus. There's the set "always" menu, and the "today" specials menu. Well, sure, but I would posit that the name serves as a signpost to its fun but incongruent approach to design and food and drink.
Let's start with the menu, which is plant-based. The dishes are named after hit songs from the '70s and '80s (mostly '80s). There's the "Every Breath You Steak," which is seitan and cheese; "Everybody Was Tofu Fighting," a great, hearty dish with chicken fried tofu atop collards and grits; "Going Back to Cauli" is a cauliflower steak. Let's not forget the "Sweet Dreams Are Made of Greens" salad and the "If I Could Turn Back Thai" curry bowl.
The design borrows its aesthetic from the '50s and '60s — tables topped in boomerang patterns, the dishes dotted in starbursts in complementary colors. That color is a pleasing light aqua.
The coffee bar is back to the present with such standard coffee drinks as Americanos, lattes, mochas, as well as a nice selection of teas and assorted pastries from Ali Rohrbacher formerly of the Liquor Store.
The wait staff all wear denim aprons airbrushed with fake '80s-era names — Jordan, Destiny, Nikki, for example. Why? Who knows?
You see, time doesn't really exist in the standard sense, and the cafe doesn't either. For Crosstown Arts co-founder Chris Miner, the cafe is not actually a cafe. It's a place where ideas and creativity flow, where Chef Raymond Jackson creates his dishes and artists and guests from all walks gather and share and break bread. All artist residents eat for free. Money from the cafe goes to Crosstown Arts programs.
Jackson is a Memphian who has lived and cooked all over. He ditched his job as an accountant to pursue a gig that intrigued him since he watched Three's Company and Jack Tripper (a chef) on TV as a kid. He says he doesn't miss cooking meat — in fact, he says the job "has reinvigorated my interest in cooking."
The coffee bar is Nicole Dorsey's turf. She says she knows Memphians' taste in coffee, and that leans toward the sweeter drinks. "I wanted to offer things that vegans don't get a chance to get," she says.
One dish Jackson recently cracked the code on was the vegan pimento cheese. (Vegan!) It's creamy with large hunks of pimento, savory with garlic oil. It is absolutely irresistible.
Jackson is confident in his cooking, relying on his training concentrated in French techniques. If it's something to eat, he says, "You'll love it."
Like Jackson, Bart Mallard is a born-and-bred Memphian, who lit out for new adventures but found his way back to town. His interest in filmmaking/acting led him to New York and the usually filmmaking/acting adjacent gigs, including bartending at the prestigious Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Mallard says it was that job that served as a key to a lot of other jobs at high-falutin restaurants. In Memphis, he's worked at Acre, Catherine & Mary's, and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen.
Mallard knew Miner through his acting at Hattiloo. He had also served him cocktails at various restaurants. Miner offered the Art Bar to him. "He let me know it would be my baby," remembers Mallard. He recalls thinking, "Oh, really?"
Oh, really. Art Bar would be completely his. At his other jobs, at those high-falutin restaurants, he made the restaurant's cocktails. Rarely, was he let loose to do his own thing, create his own drinks.
The bar itself is set in a small hallway. The bar top is used for a monthly art installation. In the back, there is a small lounge, and to the back and side of that are two larger lounges made for lounging with vintage couches and fixtures. Mallard says he wasn't convinced at first of the configuration, but now he approves.
Mallard describes himself as a country boy. He lives out near Shelby Forest. He likes to forage for ingredients for drinks out there — like bark for his drink Cherry Bark in the Spice Bush Rye. He likes unusual ingredients, such as vegetables, for his cocktails.
One drink he created is the Caught in a Maize of Silk and Paradise, a beautiful confection that looks, while it's being made, like a delicate, thready golden haystack made for faeries. And, yes, it's a cocktail made with corn — one vegetable that Mallard always wanted to incorporate into his menu. It was Chris Cosby, who's in charge of the plants at Crosstown, who suggested using the corn silk rather than the kernels.
The Meditation of Copulating Lizards is made with cactus pear, Hornitos reposado tequila, damiana, jalapeño honey, and eucalyptus. Damiana is a leaf often used in medicinal teas. It's believed to increase the blood flow where it counts and to act as an aphrodisiac. The lizards in the name were inspired by the lizards in Mallard's front yard. "It's sort of beautiful," he says of copulating lizards.
Also on the menu is La Vielle Ferme wines, starting at $3 a glass. It's also known popularly as "chicken wine" for the chicken on the label. It's well known among the restaurant industry because it's cheap and good.
Mallard notes that folks can get their $2 beer or their $14 cocktail at Art Bar. "What do you want?" he says. "We've got it." Crosstown Arts, 1350 Concourse, crosstownarts.org