I realize this is, technically speaking, an “Arkansas” blog, but our state’s centralized location, in proximity to a number of truly fantastic food cities, is a rather unique aspect of Arkansas. Within a short day’s drive, Arkansans can quickly be in any number of exciting locations, within Arkansas and without. Perhaps more than any other place, Memphis shares more connections to Central Arkansans than any other city in the country. Recently, I joined up with a group of food-loving scalawags for a weekend road trip to Memphis. We were determined to make this unlike any other foodventure ever attempted in this city. We researched out the culinary scene for months in advance, attempting to get a good idea of where the city’s food scene was at and what it had to offer. It quickly became clear to us, through inquiries made to many of our Arkansas friends, that Memphis is a exciting and enticing food town—indeed, nearly every person we talked to had a laundry list of restaurants that we needed to try. This was to be my first time visiting Memphis, and I was determined to make the most of the experience, wanting to leave the city with a decent grasp on some of the important things going on in this neighboring city. It was important for us to delve into some of those iconic Memphis experiences, but also to dabble in some of the exciting things recently popping up, pushing Memphis cuisine to another level and helping put some of its chefs on the national culinary playing field. Sure, it may not be Arkansas, but there’s a good chance that most central Arkansans will be heading east of the river before too long…and if you’re not planning on doing so, I’ll tell you right now, you are missing out on some splendid things.
In the end, we sampled 18 restaurants in a two-day period—a real blitzkrieg of gastronomic delights. I don’t want to go into heavy details on each location—many classic Memphis restaurants were sampled, some were decent, and some were rather disappointing. But I’d prefer to share with you a handful of joints that may be flying under most visitors’ radars. You’ll have to get off of Beale St. to sample these beauties, but I assure you, it will be well worth your time. So here they are, 3 places that every Arkansas should travel to Memphis for:
1. Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen: A place that only barely squeezed itself onto our list at the last minute, Andrew Michael was, without a doubt, the greatest dining experience for the entire trip—every person in our party, four very persnickety food lovers, agreed. This place was something special. Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman’s Italian restaurant entered the Memphis scene in 2008. Having already spent time learning the old world cooking techniques in Italy and France, they brought an exciting approach to Italian cooking as well as a passion for innovation and quality product. Their skill has not gone unnoticed. This year alone, they were semi-finalists in the “best chef” category by the James Beard Foundation and brought home a “best new chef” award from Food & Wine magazine. I’ll attest to the fact that they deserve every accolade they’ve received—and they probably deserve more.
Our meal was simply stunning. From beginning to end, we saw nothing but impeccable service, carefully executed dishes, in a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere. The staff is well trained—they know the menu (both food and drink) well. Their suggestions are detailed and personalized. The food was, quite literally, breathtaking—there were moments I got goose bumps. We first sampled the “AM Breakfast,” a dish compiled of perfectly tender, unctuous porkbelly, a poached egg, with golden, runny yolk, resting on a bed of soft, creamy polenta. This was paired with a few crispy housemade pork rinds. It left us all speechless. The flavors, the textures, the aromas—everything worked together like a symphony. Next, their “Maw Maw’s Ravioli,” a dish steeped in tradition, a rendition of an old family recipe that was without a doubt, the best meat ravioli I’ve ever eaten. Each carefully constructed, housemade raviolo, was replete with a herby, rich stuffing of pork and beef, smothered in a bright tomato sauce. Lastly, we ordered the “cappelletti,” small round pasta shells stuffed with a colorful blend of beets, peanuts, tarragon, and goat cheese, dressed in a creamy, rich, poppy seed-studded sauce. Each bite was a harmonious blend of tangy cheese, earthy, sweet beet, and nutty peanut. The combination was dazzling, and there were hardly enough to satisfy our four ravenous appetites, thirsting for as much of this stuff as we could get our paws on.