Think of my new favorite restaurant in Memphis as a present wrapped in newspaper. Outside, Erling Jensen, the Restaurant packs all the entertainment of the average obit section. Inside, you'll find plush environs and gorgeous local artwork. Forget about all that: Come here for the food and service. Both are exceptional. I began with roasted quail for $14 atop purple basil (yes, purple). The Meat & Game section lists just about every wild animal Marlin Perkins of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom ever saw--from ostrich to elk. Like Marlin's sidekick, Jim, I went out on a limb and decided to order a fillet of buffalo tenderloin with a lobster béarnaise. It was perhaps the most tender red meat I've ever tried. The creamy lobster totally put the dish over the top, a good thing because the price tag was a whopping $42. Be smart, and end with Erling's insanely great chocolate soufflé. It's covered in a milk chocolate-Maker's Mark crème anglaise, which should be regulated as a controlled substance. 1044 South Yates; (901) 763-3700 or www.ejensen.com. Entrées: $29-$44.
Wood-paneled walls and an old tile floor give this eatery, located in a former jewelry store, a much more charming feel than its Main Street location would suggest. Opt for Stella's amazing crawfish cheesecake. A Champagne sauce filled with shiitake mushrooms is poured tableside over the savory mascarpone creation. In this city of barbecue, Stella also makes some meaty entrées that shouldn't be missed. Her prime filet mignon comes with phenomenal sauces. One is made with Madeira, and the second is a smoked, bright yellow tomato aïoli ($35). The Colorado rack of lamb was made special by the sides of ricotta gnocchi, squash, carrots, asparagus, chanterelle mushrooms, and sweet and tender onions ($34). 39 South Main Street; (901) 526-4950 or www.stellamemphis.com. Entrées: $20-$46.
This restaurant takes the cool factor of Memphis up by a power of 10. It occupies a turn-of-the-century historic home in the Victorian Village. Yet this isn't some lacy place where you'll be served tea by Miss Penelope in a hoop skirt. Cielo (which means "heaven") rocks: Funky decor and dusty light fixtures give the creaky old house the feeling of a Tim Burton movie set. The food is just as creative as the atmosphere. I devoured the blue crab beignets with crème fraîche, a delicious combination that puts a clever twist on a New Orleans favorite. Every entrée I tried was excellent, but chef David Scott Lorrison's seared duck breast with a port sauce ($26) really stood above the rest. Duck can so often be a greasy, fatty mess--but Cielo's was lean and tender, topped by the perfect combination of fruit chutney and morel mushrooms. Di Anne Price, Cielo's soulful pianist, plays the meanest blues in town and says Cielo "is the place to come where everyone is happy--it's all about comfort here." 679 Adams Avenue; (901) 524-1886. Entrées: $26-$34.
Local Favorite: LuLu Grille
The bistro-style decor of this tiny restaurant sparkles with illustrations by Ludwig Bemelmans (of Madeline fame). You won't go wrong with any of the pasta or fish entrées here, but for a simple meal done right, ask for LuLu's Reuben sandwich. The high-quality Black Angus corned beef is fabulous--not too fatty--and comes as a Reuben should with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on marbled rye bread ($10). 565 Erin Drive; (901) 763-3677 or www.lulugrille.com. Sandwiches: $8-$10.
"Food Finds: Memphis Deluxe" is from the February 2006 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.