The Elegant Farmer and Acre
The Memphis food touring continued yesterday with lunch at The Elegant Farmer, then dinner at Acre.
The Elegant Farmer was great, a very comfortable, welcoming place on Highland, just south of Poplar, conveniently near Buster's Liquors. The owner raved about the wonders of the catfish. For the most part I have never been a huge catfish fan, other than when it is well and thoroughly fried. I have now changed my mind. At The Elegant Farmer a filet is perfectly pan seared, moist and firm, a texture that I don't usually associate with the fish. It was in a smoked tomato broth that perfectly complemented it. On the side were turnip greens that were the first I've had in the South that were not cooked into a mush. They had good texture and great flavor, smoky with strips of smoked peppers rather than pork (so if you're a vegetarian you should be happy about that.) And there was fantastic mac & cheese made with an excellent bechamel mixed with creole mustard and a little Louisiana hot sauce. Everything was perfect, super flavorful and not terribly expensive. I very much want to go back for dinner.
Dinner was much anticipated at Acre - Wally Joe's restaurant, having moved from Cleveland, MS. The place is beautiful, in an old house on Perkins south of Poplar, and super comfortable. Lighting is dim but I could still make out the menu and what I was eating. There is a lovely bar area, nice art and a very refined but relaxed feel to the place. The service was impeccable.
The food, though, just misses. Everything seems to be trying a little too hard, not allowing the flavors to come through and speak for themselves and not coming up with any surprising or significant value-added from the combinations of the many ingredients. We started with an appetizer of grilled Spanish octopus with Gigante Beans, Black Garlic, Oxtail & Gochujang. It was the best dish of the night, but still there were only a few bites in which the flavors worked together in a way that enhanced each other. The oxtail seemed sort of superfluous, the black garlic with the octopus and some sauce was the highlight. We also had an appetizer of Artichoke Cremeux, Smoked Steelhead Roe, Grilled Gobo, Parsnip, Dill, Cucumber & Sourdough. The artichoke comes in the form of a light custard, which is fine, but you could barely taste any artichoke. I have had artichoke custards before, and soups, where the artichoke flavor came through, it didn't in this case. The smoked Steelhead Roe would have been a nice complement if there had been more of it and if the artichoke flavor had been there. The gobo and everything else sounded good but left us feeling like they were there more to sound good than to do anything for the overall flavor.
Main courses were Kimchi Glazed Alaskan King Salmon with Artichokes, Chorizo, Avocado & Ginger-Pea Sauce. The salmon was perfectly cooked and some of the bites where the kimchi glaze was especially strong were very good. The chorizo was a nice touch. But the avocado & ginger-pea sauce was way too bland, sort of overly mushy and damped down rather than enhanced the other flavors. The dish really needed something to perk it up, perhaps even a simple squeeze of lime juice in the sauce would have helped. We also had the Peruvian Paiche with Purple Cape Beans, Masa Tamal, Charred Okra & Guajillo Pepper-Green Tomato Sauce. Paiche - an Amazonian river fish - has become one of my favorite fish, certainly my favorite fresh water fish, and it is very nice to see it beginning to show up on menus in the U.S. It was cooked nicely, though perhaps slightly overcooked. The masa tamal was nice, not unlike a block of polenta. The charred okra tasted more of char than okra, although in a few bites, especially where I got some tamal and fish and the okra, the char worked nicely. The cape beans were good but also sort of bland in a way that dampened down the other flavors. There wasn't much sauce at all, and what there was of it didn't have the sort of depth or character that I want from guajillo peppers. Again, a dish where its complexity worked against it because the flavors weren't bright enough to do much for one another.
So, Acre? It's ambitious, but maybe overly so and the execution just wasn't there. It was a Monday night and I'd be willing to give it another try to make sure, but while I respect what it was trying to do and I do very much like the place itself, I'll be moving on to try other places before I bother with a return visit.