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VOL. 125 | NO. 109 | Monday, June 7, 2010

Hunt-Phelan Dish Steeped In Tradition – and Butter

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Chef Kjeld Petersen and his Redfish "Clemenceau" dish at Hunt-Phelan.  Photo: Bob Bayne

Kjeld Petersen had no intention of “going back into the kitchen” when he and his wife, Melissa, moved to Memphis from Portland, Ore., several years ago.

A well-trained and experienced chef, he was interested in what he perceived as a growing food culture in Memphis and the potential for an Edible Memphis quarterly magazine, part of the national Edible Communities Publications. With Melissa Petersen as editor, the magazine was launched in the summer of 2007.

Petersen was intrigued by the Inn at Hunt-Phelan in the Hunt-Phelan house on Beale Street – originally built in the 1830s and enlarged in 1855 – with its sense of history and, as its motto says, “remaking history” in the sense of maintaining tradition within innovation.

“One Sunday last November I was talking to Stephen” – Stephen Hassinger, the restaurant’s first chef – “and on Monday I was here,” Petersen said.

Hassinger is now general manager of the inn, which opened in late 2005.

A dish that was on the restaurant’s original menu is redfish Clemenceau, and with brief intervals now and then, it has remained on the menu for four and a half years. Main courses at Hunt-Phelan are $22 to $32.

“It’s a classic,” said Petersen. “We like to cycle through the menu and drop something for a while, but when we take off the redfish Clemenceau, so many people ask for it that we have to bring it back.”

The dish is a reminder of Hunt-Phelan’s ties to New Orleans. Hassinger was a protégé of Susan Spicer, whose restaurant Bayona has long been regarded as one of the best in a city top-heavy with great dining places.

Strangely enough, Hassinger and his family were on their way back to New Orleans (from British Columbia) when Hurricane Katrina devestated the city. Coming to Memphis, Hassinger opened Hunt-Phelan with a steady regard for the Crescent City’s Creole heritage, a tradition Petersen continues and longtime Memphians, with memories of the local Justine’s twinkling in the distance along with annual jaunts to New Orleans, still relish.

Petersen stands at the blackened six-burner industrial range in Hunt-Phelan’s tidy kitchen. He explains that the dish, which was originally made with a chicken breast, and was created at Galatoire’s in honor of visiting French prime minister Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929).

The Hunt-Phelan version involves a filet of redfish, a Gulf denizen made famous by Paul Prudhomme, first seared and then baked, and a sauce with “a good amount of butter” and peas, mushrooms, diced potatoes and shrimp: “Gotta have shrimp,” said the chef. The whole preparation takes about eight minutes; of course most of the chopping has been done already.

First, Petersen sears the fish in a small pan with a dollop of an olive oil blend and then runs it into the oven to bake while he prepares the sauce.

Then, in quick succession:

A mixture of oil and butter goes into a sauté pan, along with a handful of diced potatoes. Petersen shakes the pan back and forth and gives it a twist to flip the potatoes around.

Into the pan go the sliced shiitake mushrooms and green peas.

Now the shrimp and a handful of flat-leaf parsley. He scoops this mélange into a metal dish and sets it aside to warm, adds a little olive oil to the pan, a few splashes of white wine and some roasted garlic.

“We don’t use a lot of raw garlic,” Petersen said. “We like to roast it and puree it so it’s soft and sweet.”

As the sauce bubbles and reduces, he gives it a squeeze of lemon juice and then starts adding butter, a few tablespoons at a time, lifted from a metal container with tongs. More butter.

Finally, a handful of herbs, a touch of Tabasco, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and the two parts of the sauce come together.

Petersen takes a dinner plate and ladles some of the sauce into the center and then lays the redfish fillet on top. He arranges the presentation carefully, making certain the fish is decorated with each element of the sauce, adding, as the last touch, a dash of lemon zest and chopped parsley.

Voila, a little bit of New Orleans in Memphis.

Inevitably a dish that uses seafood from the Gulf of Mexico brings up the question of the BP drilling disaster and the hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil that are gushing into the Gulf every day, threatening wildlife, beaches and the widespread fishing industry.

“The situation presents some challenges,” said Petersen. “We want to keep the flow of seafood coming to the restaurant, but we’re seeing changes already. The supply of shucked oysters is dwindling. They’re very perishable, of course, and becoming more expensive. Shrimp are definitely affected.

“We’ve had to go to a different size shrimp. We’re going more toward Mexican white shrimp instead of Asian tiger shrimp. These prices are going up too, not because the supply is small but because the demand has increased. We’re looking at sourcing more fish from the Atlantic.”

It shouldn’t affect menu prices.

“We’ll adjust portion sizes and adjust accompaniments while maintaining quality,” Petersen said. “We don’t want to pass cost along to the customer.”

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