Menu from the Palm Court in NYC's Plaza Hotel (1959)
IN THIS ISSUE
RETURN TO MEMPHIS
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
MATE WITH SUMMERTIME FARE
By Geoff Kalish
RETURN TO MEMPHIS
By John Mariani
Withers Collection Museum & Gallery
Two years ago I reported on Memphis in these pages. It took three articles to cover it all, yet that didn’t exhaust the city’s attractions. So I returned a few months ago to see what I had not seen and eat what I had not eaten. I suspect I’ll be back sooner than later for more.
In my last report I focused a good deal on the changing music scene in Memphis, from the re-opening of The New Daisy, now a venue for top rock and roll, country and western, and hip hop; The Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum; the legendary Sun Studio, where Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis and Johnny Cash recorded; Stax Museum, operated by Soulsville USA; the W.C. Handy Home & Museum and the new Blues Hall of Fame.
Had I the time I would visit all these every time I come to town, but there was so much more I hadn’t seen, not least the Gibson Factory Tour, attached to a showroom of Gibson instruments that will make any pro or amateur guitar player’s jaw drop. Nice thing is, they let you pick any instrument off the wall and just sit down to try it out.
The tour itself (reservations necessary) brings you face to face with the people who make these classic American instruments, from the intricate process of binding, neck-fitting, painting, buffing, and final tuning, plus a video of the company’s history.
I also had a chance to visit the humbly named Music Store, which is actually a place stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall, bin after bin with blues records, from Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt to B.B. King and Guitar Shorty, from Eric Clapton to John Mayer. Start up a conversation with owner Dr. Malcolm Anthony, “Bluesologist,” and you’ll spend an hour getting a musical education.
Downtown Memphis is still an amalgam of stunning city architecture like the Sterrick Building (left) and the strikingly modern FedEx Forum, the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association and the Benjamin L. Hooks Public Library. But it must co-exist with a good deal of wholly mundane architecture and brutally ugly multi-story parking lots.
Many people don’t know of Memphis’s place in movie history, but a plaque on South Main Street commemorates King Vidor’s production of Hallelujah! (1928) filmed there and the wave of moviemaking beginning in the late 1980s, including The Firm, Mystery Train, Hustle & Flow, The Rainmaker and the Johnny Cash bio Walk the Line.
One of the places new to me that I was most excited about was the Withers Collection on Beale Street, devoted to the work of Ernest Columbus Withers, a photographer who chronicled all the great leaders and events of the American Civil Rights Movement, as well as the musicians and artists of a period that ranged from the 1940s to 2007. Many of his photos—among 1.8 million in the collection—became iconic images of their day in the Washington Post, Ebony, Newsweek, and Life, and they are as beautiful, startling, troubling, and glorious today as when they first appeared. The Withers family oversees the Collection, working to some day have every image digitalized.
Just outside of downtown is another remarkable place of great historic significance. It looks like nothing from the outside but a modest-sized antebellum white clapboard house. The lawn is unkempt, the wood needs a paint job. But above the door is a banner reading “Slave Haven Museum Burkle Estate 160th Anniversary.” Inside, a series of small rooms reveals artifacts from the era of the Underground Railroad, which ran through the property. Here, from 1855 to 1863, Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant and stockyard owner, risked his life to help escaping slaves by harboring them in the cramped cellar of his home, located not far from the Mississippi. When the time was right, the runaway slaves ran to the shore to be rowed across the wide river to make their way to northern states.
You can go down into the cellar now and see the
trap doors and the narrow slits of daylight coming
into the room. Upstairs there are photos, maps
with the trade routes from Africa, clinical
lay-outs of the slave ships, diabolical manuals on
the treatment of slaves. And then there is the
charming African-American folk art, quilts and
memoirs, some for sale.
Move beyond the city center and Memphis’s Shelby Farms Park—once a penal farm—seems far away from the downtown bustle, although Memphis is rarely thronged with people or traffic. Set on 4,500 acres of recreational land, with 50 acres devoted to a buffalo herd, the park is actually five times the size of New York’s Central Park. Pine Lake, within a forest, has a treetop adventure by which you can swing and climb through the forest on more than 40 crossings of rope ladders and net bridges. There are horseback riding trails and pony rides, an off-leash dog park, and 20 lakes for boating.
I also visited the growing Pink Palace Museums,
which holds a section on Tennessee history and
artifacts, the Sharpe Planetarium and 3D Theatre,
the Lichterman Nature Center, and the superb
Mallory-Neel and Magevney historic houses.
I happened to be passing through Memphis a week
after Elvis died, and I remember the stone walls,
as now, splattered with graffiti, one of them
reading, “Elvis is not dead, He’s Just On Tour
with God.” Later
I got to visit the house and found it garish
Others may see it as testament to a life of sheer excess—whatever Elvis wanted here, he got, and his entourage was omnipresent. TVs blared in every room. And still others might see it as the American Dream realized in Technicolor.
The museum section of Graceland is certainly testament to Elvis’s global idolization and his achievements in music, from the dozens of gold records and photos with U.S. Presidents to the various onstage outfits that grew more outlandish—and larger—as The King grew older. You see the famous photos of the young heartthrob getting his hair cut in the Army, posters from his films, the pictures of Priscilla Presley from their wedding.
Only a cynic will find Graceland distasteful in the sense of being repellant, for whatever else it is, it was a house and a home and a retreat from a world of pop celebrity that could be truly distasteful and demanding of a fantasy Elvis had to live up to every day away from Graceland.
After Graceland, you might want to head over and take a walk by twilight over Big River Crossing (below), which spans the Mississippi. Opened just last autumn, it was once a rusting train trestle and now the river’s longest pedestrian and biking bridge, connecting Memphis to Arkansas. And if you stand there when a train whistle blows, maybe you can still hear an echo of Elvis singing “Mystery Train.”
rolling down the line,
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
VIVE LE BERNARDIN!
any detail you like at random. The
softened butter in a small ramekin, replaced
after each slice of bread you eat. The
fineness of the bread selection itself. The
exceptional thinness of the wine glasses.
The way no guest rises up from or sits down
in a chair without being assisted by a staff
member—any of them. The
civilized level of sound in the beautiful
dining room. The warm welcome by the coat
check woman and immediate seating by a host
never absent from his podium. The lighting,
which at first seems low, then, as your eyes
adjust, is soft and warm. The
white double tablecloths and chairs so
comfortable you comment on them. The amuse that
arrives with your Champagne or cocktail. The
pacing of the meal and the ballet of staff
delivering each dish and pouring sauce on
it a moment later. The helpful advice
from wine director Aldo Sohm and his four
And at evening’s end, the sincere
goodnight from a staff hoping and happy that
your evening was perfect.
Such details add up to what true fine dining involves in 2017, and it is precisely what you find at Le Bernardin, now three decades into its reign as NYC’s finest restaurant. Opened by Maguy Lecoze (right) and her late brother Gilbert in 1986 (he died in 1994), now with her chef-partner Eric Ripert (above), Le Bernardin first brought and has always maintained a refined glamour that has never changed or faltered, despite the slackening of standards elsewhere in NYC. True, a rube could get away without a jacket but would feel foolish being the odd man out. Women look forward to going to Le Bernardin as much for the opportunity to dress up as to dine well. And the staff, both men and women, are themselves impeccable in their dress, even if black shirts, ties and suits are too somber for such a joyous place.
Upon opening, Maguy Lecoze managed the room and set the style while Gilbert revolutionized seafood cuisine, not just in NYC but everywhere in the world, proving that excellence of product and minimal but carefully thought-out preparation produce magnificent and consistent results. The miracle is that, after Gilbert’s passing, Ripert has developed entirely his own ideas for Le Bernardin’s menu but never betrayed the ideals the Lecozes set more than thirty years ago, so that any dish you will enjoy tonight could well have been on the menu in 1986. The evolution still puts Le Bernardin at the forefront of innovation in the second decade of the 21st century.
Ripert was born in Antibes, so the flavors of the Riviera are rife in his cooking. But he has widely expanded his repertoire via global travel, so that a service of American caviar on filet mignon comes with kampachi lightly smoked (left). A single sea scallop is barely cooked, its texture almost raw, its flavor sweet, to which deeper notes are added from bone marrow and baby turnips, with an enriching calamansi-butter sauce (right).
Poached halibut (below)—easy enough to be dull—takes on all the summer flavors of asparagus, peas and fava beans with a woodsy morels casserole, a dish in which every element seems perfectly suited to every other one, as in a well-composed suite.
Next came monkfish (below)—easy enough to cook into a chewy sponge—pan-roasted quickly and set on fideos, the very thin Spanish spaghetti made with squid ink, to which is added a spicy chorizo sauce. Striped bass is baked—you’ll notice that every technique of cooking seafood is employed—with spaghetti squash and a green papaya salad with a ginger-accented red wine sauce that might have come straight from the best kitchen in Shanghai.
By this point in the meal my wife and I were content with all the savory courses, but before dessert we could not resist ordering several superb cheeses served at the perfect temperature and ripeness. Then came a yogurt tinged with citrusy candied Buddha’s hand and something called “scorched cheesecake” that tasted a little like a really great Smores, and a cooling yogurt sorbet. Last was a blackberry corn custard with frozen corn meringue and blackberry mezcal-laced sorbet. Of course, there were petits fours and chocolates.
It is no wonder that Le Bernardin is always full, both at lunch and at dinner, and guests are still arriving at 10 p.m. So when an ignorant member of the food media sniffs that this style of dining is dying in NYC, dare him to get a reservation on short notice at Le Bernardin.
Indeed, reservations are requisite, but as the staff is eager to tell you, the bar-lounge just inside the door does not take them and has its own abbreviated menu. But, if you ask for anything on the dining menu, the answer is a smile and an assurance that you may have it. (Ripert and Lecoze also opened Aldo Sohm Wine Bar just across the building’s breezeway, a more casual spot with a menu of small plates.)
And for all this kind of excellence, you do not pay an outrageous price. A three-course lunch is $87, a four-course dinner $150, and an eight-course tasting menu $180, with wines $270. Compare those with similar menus in Paris, like Jules Verne, where a five-course a meal runs 190 euros, six courses 230 euros; or twelve courses at Arpège at 390 euros; and at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in Le Meurice, an appetizer alone of langoustines is 135 euros, while chicken with mushrooms and celery runs 175 euros. Next to these, Le Bernardin seems a bargain. (Michelin has awarded all these restaurants its highest three stars.)
And in the end, Le Bernardin is still very much a NYC restaurant in its rhythms and amiable hospitality of a kind you won’t find in Paris. Even at 5:30, guests feel pampered and dine at their leisure.
All this takes an enormous amount of hard work and attention to detail, the kind you can only really find if you look for it.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
by Geoff Kalish
And from a series of recent tastings, the following listing (by type of fare) is offered as an aid to consumers in ferreting out some widely available worthy choices for summer.
Recommendations to accompany popular summer “outdoor gathering” fare, like guacamole and salsa with chips, crudité accompanied by ranch dressing dip and bruschetta and even Caprese salad.
2016 South Coast Winery Tempranillo Rosé ($16)
Grapes for this wine hailed from California’s Temecula County and were fermented and aged in stainless steel. It has a fragrant bouquet and slightly sweet taste of strawberries and raspberries and a hint of citrus in its finish.
2016 Triennes Rosé ($18)
This dry, fruity wine from Provence is a blend of primarily Cinsault grapes, plus Syrah, Grenache and Merlot. It has a bouquet and taste of strawberries, with notes of peaches and a dry, refreshing finish.
Recommendation to accompany shellfish, like shrimp, lobster, scallops and grilled mild-tasting seafood such as striped bass, grouper and halibut.
Château Carbonnieux Blanc ($35)
This blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from the Pessac-Léognan region of Bordeaux shows a bouquet of fresh herbs and a hint of new-mown grass, with a well-integrated taste of cooked apples and grapefruit and a vibrant finish.
St. Innocent Freedom Hill Vineyard Chardonnay ($26)
From Oregon’s Willamette Valley comes this Montrachet-like 100% Chardonnay that’s fermented and aged (11 months on its lees) in old French barrels. It has a pale yellow color, and a bouquet and smooth taste of apples and pears, with a lingering finish that has hints of ginger.
Recommendations to accompany grilled chicken, as well as flavorful seafood like tuna, swordfish, salmon and Arctic char.
2015 Jordan Chardonnay ($32)
Made from 100% Russian River Valley night-harvested Chardonnay, this dry, crisp Chablis-like wine was fermented in stainless steel (47%) or new French oak barrels (53%), aged for two months on its lees and another six months in 100% new French oak. It has a bouquet and taste of cooked apples and ripe pears with a vibrant, memorable, lingering finish of exotic herbs.
2015 Millbrook Chardonnay ($18)
This wine was produced in the Hudson Valley using 100% New York State Chardonnay grapes that were partially barrel-fermented, with 50% of the wine aged in barrels for seven months. It shows a bouquet and taste of apples and tangerines and a crisp finish with a lingering taste of caramel.
Recommendations to accompany hamburgers, grilled steak, pork and lamb, as well as duck and blue-veined cheeses.
2012 Antiche Terre Amarone ($26)
This bargain-priced and not over-the-top (15% alcohol) wine was made in Italy’s Veneto area by the traditional Amarone method from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes allowed to raisin (to concentrate their sugar content) before fermentation and 18 months of barrel aging. It shows a rich bouquet and taste of ripe plums, cherries and raspberries with a smooth, lush finish.
2014 The Chocolate Block ($27)
This flavorful South African wine was made from a blend of grapes (71% Syrah and smaller amounts of Grénache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Viognier) grown in the Swartland region of the country. It has a bouquet and taste of blackberries and cherries with a lingering finish containing hints of dark chocolate.
2012 Cantine di Ora Amicone ($17)
Made primarily from Corvina grapes allowed to raisin for a while, this wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in large French oak barrels for 8 months. It has a fruity bouquet and easy-drinking taste of ripe plums and raspberries and a smooth finish with a hint of toasty oak.
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