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VOL. 126 | NO. 114 | Monday, June 13, 2011

Joe’s Acre Restaurant Opens to Diners’ Delight

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Acre is the most highly anticipated restaurant to open regionally since, well, since Wally Joe opened in May 2002 and closed early in January 2007, with executive chef Wally Joe announcing that he was looking for a new space. That was, of course, four and a half years ago.

Now Acre has been open for lunch for about two weeks and dinner a little more than a week. The restaurant occupies a formerly modest East Memphis house, 690 S. Perkins Road, behind Theatre Memphis (and slightly south). The building has been utterly transformed, through the funding of Joe’s partners Mary and Frank Stanley and by remarkably intuitive and astute architectural and design choices, into a place of beguiling, light-filled charm and clean, minimalist sensibility.

You could spend a good deal of time walking through the restaurant admiring the diverse lighting fixtures, the buffed, honey-smooth grains of natural woods, and the restrained construction of the furniture. Acre redefines the notion of casual elegance in Memphis. Except for this sudden heat wave and the righteous droning of tree frogs, you might be in Napa Valley, gazing at the Mayacamas mountains or in Mendocino, hard by the sea.

What diners will not see at Acre is the feature that dominated Wally Joe (the restaurant) and continues to dominate its replacement, Interim: the gleaming black and white and stainless steel open kitchen that served as a dramatic, indeed a theatrical backdrop for dining there. At times the open kitchen at Wally Joe was a distracting entity, seeming to command attention even more than the restaurant’s refined cuisine; at other times, depressingly, it felt as though there were more cooks and other staff members behind that chrome counter than patrons on the dining-room side.

The kitchen at Acre is roomy and gleaming white, with that rare feature in restaurant kitchens, windows that open to the outdoors. On May 14, when Acre held an opening reception, chef Andrew Adams, who opened Wally Joe with the eponymous executive chef in 2002, seemed almost giddy with pleasure at the large, well-equipped space entered through a wide opening with no door.

“It’s not an open kitchen,” Adams said, “but the door is always open, and we hope people will come in to say hello.”

Well, perhaps just to peek in and a wave at the chefs and cooks; there are safety issues involved with civilians who venture into restaurant kitchens.

And let’s make a note here. At Wally Joe (the restaurant), Joe carried the title executive chef with Adams as chef de cuisine. At Acre, both are called chefs, a bold and necessary statement about the equality and creativity of their partnership. Actually, Wally Joe will still be in the kitchen but will spend more time in the front of the house as general manager. Sous-chef is Ken Lumpkin, former owner and chef of the now-closed Umai.

The dissolving of the old executive chef/chef de cuisine categories really has to do with the more free-flowing nature of restaurant kitchens these days. “The kitchen is filled with talent,” said Adams. “Everybody has ideas. Everybody collaborates.”

“I couldn’t have landed at a better or more exciting place,” said Lumpkin, the day before Acre was scheduled to open for dinner on June 2. “It’s product-driven, ingredient-driven, creative. I feel as if I’m cooking with my family. In a few minutes, we’re all going over to the farmers market at the Botanic Garden and see what’s fresh and available.”

While the creation of the menu at Acre was a collaboration between Joe and Adams, much of the research and many of the ideas came from Adams, who feels, he said, after having worked for the Joe family since he was 16 in Cleveland, Miss., “honored to be given this much confidence and responsibility. This feels like a real accomplishment.”

Prices at lunch range from $7 to $12 for first courses; $8 for soups; $12 for sandwiches; and $14 to $19 for entrees. Dinner prices, even a day before the restaurant was supposed to be open at night, remained amorphous at this writing, but a menu that Adams emailed had first courses from $7 to $14 and entrees from $20 to $30 with most clustered around $24 and $25. When Wally Joe opened in 2002, appetizers were $7 to $16 and entrée princes were $24 to $34.

“People are eating differently than they were 10 years ago,” said Adams. “Tapas and small plates came along. The whole farm-to-table movement with the emphasis on fresh and local ingredients. People have gotten away from eating huge pieces of meat or 12 ounces of fish. And the recession was the biggest change. A lot of people don’t want to pay $35 for an entrée now.”

While the wine list at Acre carries its share of expensive Big Deal selections, it also offers 45 bottles at $50 or less, many of which are not only interesting but intriguing, particularly in white wines.

PROPERTY SALES 100 375 3,773
MORTGAGES 63 202 2,481
BUILDING PERMITS 392 651 8,607
BANKRUPTCIES 38 117 2,021