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VOL. 127 | NO. 34 | Monday, February 20, 2012

Hotel Eateries Worth Frequenting Anytime

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Last year, in a grand coincidence, two Downtown hotels simultaneously refurbished their restaurants, redecorated, called in consultants, created new concepts or new menus, replaced staff and generally reinvented themselves.

Bleu is the new restaurant in the Westin Memphis Beale Street. Glenn Malone of Senate Hospitality, the ownership group for the restaurant, said that bleu offers an upscale American cuisine with international influences, quality service and out of the “bleu” experiences. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The restaurants were Sole in the Westin Memphis Beale Street, now bleu restaurant & lounge, and Grille 83 in The Madison, now eighty3, and may I say here that I hate the whole lower case affectation?

The motivation was an issue that plagues many hotels in urban centers: how to get and keep an audience of townspeople that will make the restaurant pay for itself. It’s fine to have a captive audience of hotel guests for breakfast, but what about lunch and dinner?

To that end, the management of The Madison brought in Rodelio Agibot, a nationally known chef and consultant, known as the “Food Buddha” for his show on TLC, to overhaul the concept and menu and to inject an air of excitement, if not novelty, into the place.

Likewise, the Westin, which bought Sole back from its management company, called in Robert Nam Cirillo, whose name indicates his family background in Asia and Italy. Cirillo came to the Westin from Aspire Restaurant in Providence, R.I.; Aspire won Best New Restaurant and Diners Choice awards during his tenure.

So, what are the new restaurants like? Do they merit regard after the months of remodeling and reinventing?

We went to each within a week, wanting to test them against past experiences.

Returning to bleu was accompanied by a frisson of trepidation. The last time we had dined at Sole – an occasion I wrote about in this column last year – the out-of-town friend we dined with asked, as is his habit, for a piece of salmon, simply steamed and accompanied by some steamed vegetables. His reward for this request was all sorts of complaints and prohibitions from the waiter and the kitchen, and the salmon came sautéed and covered with sauce. After that dinner, our friend said, “I’ll stay at the hotel, but I’ll never eat in this restaurant again.”

I persuaded our friend two weeks ago to try bleu, and guess what? His request for steamed salmon and vegetables was speedily accommodated, the waiter suggested spinach as the vegetable and everything worked out fine in that regard.

Most of the remodeling effort and expense seems to have focused on the bar; the restaurant looks the same as it did before. The menu, though, is very different, reflecting Cerillo’s world-beat tendencies. I ordered the Grilled Chicken Wraps appetizer ($8), basically chicken salad but with red grapes, toasted almonds, red pepper, smoked Gouda cheese and diced cucumber, folded with a yogurt and vanilla cream dressing, a savory concoction that you wrap in leaves of iceberg lettuce. My wife chose the grilled corn and blueberry salad ($10), an improbable juxtaposition because of the sweetness of the fresh corn, but brightened by that tart blueberries, red onion, cilantro and cucumber, dressed with a slightly sweet jalapeno-honey-cumin vinaigrette.

Service, long my complaint about the Westin restaurant, whether the original Daily Grill or the subsequent Sole, was much improved, at least during the dinner we had.

Our waiter was friendly and helpful, his only quirk being that he insisted, when my wife ordered the steak frites ($25), that only people from New York really want a steak medium rare; Memphians want their steak medium. We protested vociferously, and the steak came perfectly grilled to rosy-pink medium rare, as was my veal chop ($30) – paired with an Italian sausage-roasted acorn squash-baby spinach risotto and a cranberry-Port reduction. I can’t remember when I had a better veal chop in Memphis.

Rodelio Aglibot, aka the “Food Buddha,” and his partner Frank Fronda of Pilot Light have created the new menu and concept of eighty3, formerly Grill 83, in The Madison Hotel. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

After this meal, we decided not to eat dessert, a notion we didn’t follow last week at eighty3.

Unlike bleu, at least the physical restaurant, in its transformation from Sole, eighty3 looks like a different place than Grille 83. Gone are the Memphis-themed photos and art; in is banquette seating along the west wall, a device that opens the space tremendously and adds to the comfort level; before, there never really seemed to be a “good table.” The menu is arranged along the “small plate” method with seven entrees and seven side items for traditionally minded folk. Though Agibot remains on board as consultant, running the kitchen now is Connor O’Neill.

Three of us were having dinner, and we went a little crazy, ordering, from the small plate list, the lump crab and shrimp ceviche ($13); the blue crab and poached tomato bread ($8); the “eighty3 Signature Cornbread,” ($6); roasted beets with blue cheese, grapefruit and pistachio vinaigrette ($9); braised short rib ($14); grilled oysters ($13); the small portion of the spaghetti with sweet corn and scallions ($10); and, from the entrée list, the grilled pork chop ($25). For dessert, we chose the blueberry bread pudding and the deep fried “Oreo” cookie (each $7).

Yeah, we pretty much ate like fools, joined the Clean Plate Club, and went home happy.

The telling point, however, lies in the crowd. At eighty3, on a Thursday night, between 7 and 9:30, there were two tables of two, our table of three and a couple of guys at the bar. By the time we finished, the place had cleared out.

When we arrived at bleu at 6:30 on a Wednesday night, the place was packed. “Hey,” I said, “they’re doing gangbusters.” I didn’t realize that it was basketball night at FedExForum across the street; at 7:30, except for our table, the place was empty, and empty it stayed for the next few hours, though the bar remained active.

I’m not trying to paint with discouraging words, and perhaps on weekends bleu and eighty3 do gangbuster business. Restaurants cannot succeed, however, only on the weekend rush.

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