Throughout my food-writing career, I have taken particular delight in giving shout-outs to the often unsung culinary heroes who add nuance and dimension to the Southern story — from barbecue pitmasters, to small-ag farmers, to old-time tamale makers. Every once in a while, though, I will find equally amazing insight into a region’s food heritage in a contemporary, top-tier restaurant.
Such is the case with ACRE, a beautiful restaurant in a re-purposed private home built of stone and cedar tucked away in a lovely leafy neighborhood in Memphis’s Midtown. The thoughtfully executed menu offerings melding local and global flavors is reason enough to check it out. But the experience is all the more rewarding if you know the back story.
Many years earlier, its chef-owner, Wally Joe, won national attention for the creative high-end cuisine he was serving in
a much more unlikely place: Cleveland, MS, a small town smack dab in the
heart of the Delta. He had arrived there from Hong Kong as a pre-schooler, with his parents and younger brother Don. Like most of the other Chinese families who’d immigrated there, the Joes ran a grocery store in a poor black section of town where
they also lived. Eventually they purchased a local continental-style
restaurant that had gone up for sale closer to the town’s center, and all the family members pitched in.
Wally learned to cook — by following the classic techniques of the original restaurant staff who stayed on after the change of hands, and by paying closer attention to his parents as they prepared family meals at home.
Wally went on to study banking and finance at Ole Miss, and for a time considered law school. But his true passion kept calling him back to the kitchen. After the family restaurant succumbed to a fire, KC’s — named for his Dad — emerged in its place, in far swankier digs. All the while Wally continued to build his repertoire and resume. He became the first Mississippi chef to cook at the prestigious James
Beard House in New York, and landed on the Today show and in other high-profile
media spots. KC’s became a training ground for
many aspiring young Delta chefs, including Andrew Adams — now his chef-partner at ACRE.
researching Eat Drink Delta, I dined at KC’s several times and got to know Wally’s brother, Don, who ran the Cleveland restaurant while Wally pursued other opportunities in Memphis. I was excited to include their story in my book. In the middle of writing it, though, I got
the disheartening news that KC’s had closed its doors, unable to weather
the bad economy.
before Eat Drink Delta went to press, my writer friend Liz Copeland, who
lives in nearby Olive Branch and helped me considerably in the research of the Memphis chapter, alerted me that Wally had resurfaced in a new Memphis restaurant called ACRE that was getting lots of accolades. On a later visit, I confirmed that the restaurant did indeed live up to its hype, and finally got to meet Wally in person. I was struck by his friendliness and humility almost as much as his great food.
Wally told me more of his experiences growing up in a Chinese immigrant family in the Delta, and we continued to stay in touch. He was highly supportive in my efforts to understand his region better, and after Eat Drink
Delta came out, he posed a tantalizing suggestion. What if we celebrated with a special dinner at Acre
— with courses inspired by the Delta memories he and Andrew, also a true Delta boy, share?
Naturally I was humbled and honored. He set the date on a Monday night, on the tail end of the two-week book tour I took with my mother earlier this month where we worked our way up to the Delta beginning on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
My mother and I arrived in
Memphis the day before the dinner, and checked into the Peabody Hotel. The lobby of
this beautiful old hotel, after all, is the place where the
Mississippi Delta is famously said to begin — and gave my book its starting place — so it seemed fitting.
Plus, after dragging my poor mother along for more than a thousand
miles for emotional support on this jam-packed journey, I wanted to treat her
to some luxury.
Peabody did not disappoint! Our room had a great view of the Memphis
skyline, and we got to watch one of the famed duck marches led by the
hotel’s red-jacketed duck master to and from the lobby’s ornate marble
fountain. It is one of my all-time favorite hotel tourist attractions I
never tire of.
The next day, we met up with my trusty literary assistant, Teresa Hendrix, and her mom and sister at the newly refurbished Bon-Ton Cafe, another Memphis classic, right around the corner. (The French dip sandwich, by the way, is excellent!) Teresa is an Ole Miss journalism student I met during my teaching gig there, and happens to be a Memphian. (For some of her own southern-inspired stories, you can stop by her page: suite like tee. )
That evening, Teresa brought along her good camera to ACRE, and documented
what turned out to be a meal that, for me, will go down as one of the
greatest I have ever experienced, anywhere. As a house-turned-restaurant (below), ACRE made for a perfect setting — as comfortable and intimate as it was elegant.
From Eat Drink Delta and
their own brilliant imaginations and personal histories, chefs Wally Joe and
Andrew Adams composed a menu (click the photo at left to enlarge for
detail) that was thoroughly original, and also thoroughly Delta.
It began with a witty antipasti platter, inspired by childhood memories of snacking in gas station cafes, where to this day you can often stumble upon something homemade and surprisingly delectable to eat. Every morsel, from the fried chicken livers dipped in Lazy Magnolia beer aoli, to the “Jojo” potato and chicken skin (above) on a stick, connected to a hometown event — as did every item on the rest of the menu. And in between courses, Wally, Andrew and I discussed them, and invited questions from the crowd.
As a tribute to the broiled pompano made famous at Lusco’s in Greenwood, Wally and Andrew offered their own rendition, filleting and lightly smoking it, and garnishing it with a sprightly radish relish. As a nod to Memphis bbq, they served up an Asian spice-rubbed grilled quail glazed with balsamic BBQ sauce and accompanied by classic fried green tomatoes (that recipe’s in my book, and it is great at home, too!) They even came up with a dignified course in honor of the White Front in Rosedale, the holy grail of hot tamales — featuring a cornmeal cake topped with with braised and seasoned pork that indeed conjured the flavors of those wrapped in shucks and sold in old grocery stores all over the Delta. Each dish came with an optional wine pairing.
The sweeter tastes of the night were the starter cocktail of strawberry-mint infused moonshine, citrus, and tonic) and the finale of dewberry (a local blackberry) cobbler with vanilla ice cream.
I was thrilled to find our Memphian guests as excited about the stories of the Delta told through food as I am. Even though we hadn’t planned to, Wally and I decided on the spur of the moment to let them in on a little secret: We are soon to begin writing a book chronicling his personal journey through the Delta and beyond, dish by dish. That unforgettable meal at
ACRE has definitely whetted my appetite to get started!
Eat, Drink, & Enjoy the Journey,