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VOL. 125 | NO. 212 | Monday, November 1, 2010

Three Popular Restaurants Undergo Notable Changes

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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John Bragg (Photo: Bob Bayne)

In 2008 and 2009, restaurant news tended to be depressing because it usually involved restaurants that were closing, sometimes old favorites.

Today’s news, however, deals with moves and additions.

First, John Bragg is taking his eponymous restaurant Circa by John Bragg from its sleek perch Downtown out east to the Regalia Shopping Center at Poplar and Ridgeway.

Second, Reinaldo Alfonso, chef at Chez Philippe, is leaving that august sanctum of fine dining in The Peabody to go to Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia.

And third, Erling Jensen: The Restaurant is finally getting a bar.

Circa by John Bragg, which opened in June 2007 in Peabody Place on South Main, is moving east, way east to Regalia, the upscale shopping center at Poplar and Ridgeway. The location, tucked back into the interior corner next to Great Wines & Spirits, used to be the Japanese restaurant Mikasa, which closed in 2008.

The contemporary-fashioned space that housed Circa will not remain empty.

“We don’t have a name yet,” said executive chef and owner John Bragg, “but it would be best to call it a wine bar with a gourmet kind of menu. The key concept is a sophisticated, grown-up place to eat, drink and hang out.”

Bragg said that he is “trying to go with customer tastes. You know, there are a lot of tourists Downtown and a lot of event-based business, and those people are not necessarily looking for chef-driven dining. So we want to make something more accessible, a little more casual. People down here like to go out late, so we’ll be open late for them.”

The interior of the former Circa, with its striking signature free-standing wall for wine storage, will be altered.

“We’ll change it a little,” said Bragg. “Redo the bar, open the interior up, make the aisle space wider. We’ll have some lounge seating areas, a TV or two.”

The wine-wall will move to the new Circa location, which, Bragg said, should open early in December.

“That wall is part of Circa,” he said. “This will be real cool looking, with a nicer entrance, a nicer lobby.”

In a sense, Bragg is returning to the area just east of I-240; before opening Circa, he was executive chef at River Oaks Restaurant, where Jose Gutierrez now presides.

“I like the feeling out here,” said Bragg, “and I like the people. We’re returning to an audience we know, one that didn’t want to drive Downtown. And lunch will be better out here. Downtown at Circa, lunch was always hit or miss.”

Reinaldo Alfonso came to Chez Philippe in 2005, after the departure of long-time and original chef Jose Gutierrez. Alfonso, whose parents were Cuban, had been chef at Tsunami – no relation to Ben Smith’s Tsunami in Cooper-Young – in West Palm Beach, Fla. He gave Chez Philippe’s French-leaning menu a decided Caribbean and Southeast Asian flavor.

Alfonso is going to Alma de Cuba, a popular restaurant in Philadelphia. Alma de Cuba is one of the Stephen Starr Restaurants, a group of stylish establishments that place as high a value on sleek or opulent decor as on crowd-pleasing cuisine. Starr has 15 restaurants in Philadelphia, two in New York, two in Atlantic City, N.J., and one in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the best-known being the Morimoto and Buddakan in Philly and NYC.

“In a sense, every chef goes back to the food he grew up with,” said Alfonso. “I feel as if I’ve come full circle.”

He emphasized that Alma de Cuba features a wide range of Latin and South American cuisine. Eventually, he will overhaul the restaurant’s menu, “but not now,” he said, “when we’re going into the holiday season. After that, I’ll make a lot of changes, but not the signature dishes.”

While a national search for Alfonso’s replacement occurs, the Peabody’s executive chef Andreas Kistler will preside in the kitchen at Chez Philippe.

Let’s say it: Erling Jensen: The Restaurant is great; Jensen and chef de cuisine Karen Ross make a terrific team in the kitchen; Jensen’s wife, Patti, runs a tight (and very comfortable) ship in the dining room; and John Condy manages an enviable (and constantly updated) wine list.

But the place needs, has always needed, a bar.

Finally, perhaps within a month and certainly before Christmas, Erling Jensen: The Restaurant will get the bar it has needed for 13 years. That’s what the construction in front of the restaurant is about, an addition that adds an expansive foyer and – ta-dah! – a bar.

With many restaurants that also have popular bars in the vicinity – The Grove Grill, Interim Restaurant & Bar and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, for example – it would seem inevitable that Erling Jensen would want to capitalize on the market.

“Well, we’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” said Patti Jensen, “and we decided that we would just do it. Financially, we’re jumping out on a limb, but so many of our patrons told us they would come more often if there was a bar where they could sit and have a drink and a small plate, that we felt it was necessary.”

In fact, she said, “a couple came in recently and said that they went to Fleming’s first for a drink at the bar and then came here for dinner.”

That’s not a scenario that will bring joy to the folks at Fleming’s, but for Patti and Erling Jensen, the point is inescapable.

The Jensens are still debating about the form that food served at the bar might take.

“Erling wanted to do sliders and bar-food like that,” she said, “but we shouldn’t do what everyone else does. I think it would be better to do smaller versions of what we already have on the menu.”

Readers can follow the progress of construction on Erling Jensen’s Facebook page.

PROPERTY SALES 56 56 9,658
MORTGAGES 49 49 10,665
BUILDING PERMITS 212 212 21,170
BANKRUPTCIES 49 49 6,157