On the Brink 

Felicia Suzanne's in downtown Memphis.

Pardon me if I sound like a cheesy advertisement, but, wow, has downtown changed -- the bright lights, the new buildings, the entrepreneurial spirit, and especially the new restaurants. One of the newest is Felicia Suzanne's, located in the Brinkley Plaza building. Owner/chef Felicia Willett (Suzanne is her mother) previously worked with super-celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, producing his cooking show and assisting with his books Every Day's a Party and Emeril's TV Dinners.

Felicia Suzanne's makes an awesome first impression. The 20-foot ceiling is smooth and lavender but interrupted by jagged flashes of the ceiling's original plaster. The walls are decorated with square cushions in various earth tones, patterns, and textures and do double-duty by controlling noise and maintaining intimacy. A large, cherry-wood bar divides the bar area from the main dining room -- a cozy setting with tables draped in white linen and punctuated by red velvet chairs and booths.

Though we had reservations, our table was not quite ready when we arrived, so we took the opportunity to sit in the bar and enjoy the ambiance. It was a short wait, and soon we were looking over the menu, a thoughtful bow to French cuisine with a Cajun/Southern twist.

For starters, we had the crispy oysters tossed in a flavorful New Orleans barbecue sauce and served over creamy grits. The duck terrine, prepared with shallots and thyme, was served chilled with a dried-cherry compote and whole-grain mustard with cornichons (tart pickles).

The Kentucky Limestone Bibb salad, with extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and shaved Parmesan, was simple and straightforward. The baby spinach salad, by comparison, was a heap of greens tossed in a Maytag-blue-cheese vinaigrette and adorned with delectable morsels of apple-smoked bacon, crispy red onions, spiced pecans, and homemade cheese straws. Next, the crab salad -- chunks of sweet white crabmeat mixed in Creole mustard sandwiched between two crispy and tart fried green tomatoes, which were topped with mixed greens and Creole mustard vinaigrette.

(The crab salad was such a delight we thought about ordering more, but the decision was made for us due to our missing waiter. This neglect turned out to be an unfortunate theme of the evening, though we appreciated Willett visiting each table.)

For entrées, we had a perfectly prepared filet of salmon served over creamy grits and crowned with freshly steamed asparagus and oven-roasted tomatoes with a light Creole mustard sauce. This dish made one of my dining companions very quiet and very happy. The filet of beef tenderloin was prepared to order and presented with haricot verts, roasted potatoes, apple-smoked bacon, and red-wine-braised shallots and finished with a dollop of Maytag-blue-cheese butter. A knockout.

The succulent herb-crusted Colorado rack of lamb, drizzled with a Dijon mustard reduction, was so tender no knife was needed. A buttery French gratin of potatoes layered with goat cheese finished the entrée superbly. The final selection of the evening was the roasted halibut with a sauté of wild mushrooms, fresh asparagus, and Mediterranean fava beans with Louisiana crawfish tails served over a parsnip purée with a lemon butter sauce. (Whew!) This dish demonstrated Chef Willett's creativity and her loyalty to Cajun and other regional influences. The beautiful red crawfish, the earthy textures and flavors of the mushrooms, the white of the fish, and the aroma and coloring of the lemon-butter made this dish pleasing to all the senses.

For dessert, we ordered the bread pudding. This simple dessert had been enhanced by fresh coconut and white-chocolate sauce. There was a lot of it, and we were glad. The caramel cheesecake topped with warm caramel and pralines was as smooth as butter, rich, and decadent -- the perfect match for a strong cup of coffee. And no chocolate lover could resist the warm brownie topped with ice cream.

Felicia Suzanne's, located at 80 Monroe in Brinkley Plaza (523-0877), is open Tuesday-Thursday 6-10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 6-10:30 p.m. Reservations are requested, and jackets are preferred for men in the dining room. Appetizers and salads: $6-$10; entrées: $22-$30. A full bar is available.

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