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Eureka!

Understanding at Alcenia's Desserts and Preserves Shop.

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In the four years that I've lived in Memphis, I've tried to figure out this "Memphis feeling" everyone talks about. I joined a church, went to Graceland (numerous times), and attended Memphis in May events. I've eaten more barbecue than a person should. But I still didn't get it. I thought, What have I been missing? Then came an invitation from a friend to try the soul food at Alcenia's Desserts and Preserves Shop on North Main.

We arrived on a glorious Saturday morning. Alcenia's is usually not open on Saturdays, but on this day owner B.J. Chester-Tamayo was holding an art opening and brunch for local artist Larry Walker. As we entered the small restaurant, the first thing I noticed was the intimacy of the dining rooms -- two rooms that seat a total of about 45 people. Then I noticed the colors -- neon purples, fuscia, green, and gold -- and the funky touches, such as animal-print lamps, silk flowers, and brightly painted cane chairs.

B.J. greeted us, as she does all her customers, with a hug and a kiss for each. Her restaurant, named for the owner's mother and granddaughter, was hopping, and people were standing everywhere waiting for tables. B.J. warned us that due to the private party for Walker there would be a wait and asked us to be patient. We agreed to: With an atmosphere as electric and fun as this one, we were not going anywhere. Our conversations with other patrons and the staff truly projected the essence of community, family, and friendship.

Our waitress, Sherry, had also come in for breakfast, but when she saw that Alcenia's was swamped she grabbed an apron and pen and went to work. Everyone waiting tables, cooking, tending the register, and bussing were friends of B.J., all volunteers helping with the brunch.

The menu featured salmon croquettes, fried green tomatoes, rice, grits, omelets, sausage, bacon, pancakes, and biscuits. Desserts included peach cobbler, egg custard pie, and bread pudding. For $6.99 a patron could order one main dish and three sides. Desserts ranged from $2.65 to $3.45.

The salmon croquette, a blend of pink salmon, cracker crumbs, egg, parsley, and salt and pepper, had been fried to a golden, crispy consistency. Three thinly sliced, flour-dredged fried green tomatoes accompanied the salmon. The tanginess of the green tomato enhanced the fish. Perfectly cooked grits and a large, golden-brown biscuit completed this hearty meal. My companion ordered the pancakes, which were the fluffiest I have ever seen. With his pancakes came sausage, grits, and an omelet stuffed with cheddar cheese and sausage. The omelet could have been a meal itself.

Alcenia's weekly lunch and dinner menu consists of one meat, two sides, and cornbread or rolls, with each day featuring different meats and vegetables. Among the meat selections: pork chops, fried catfish, fried chicken, meatloaf, chicken and dressing, and barbecue chicken. The vegetables offered: cabbage, green beans, rice, corn on the cob, slaw, lima beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, meatless spaghetti, and macaroni and cheese. You can also order sandwiches and assorted munchies, such as fried cucumbers, hot wings, french fries, and onion rings.

Alcenia's is best known for its cha cha (a pickled mixture of cabbage, green tomatoes, and spices), preserves (peach, apricot, pear, and fig), and desserts (pecan pie, sweet potato pie, bread pudding, and a featured fruit cobbler).

At Alcenia's I felt like I finally got the education on Memphis I was looking for. And another thing I learned -- if you plan on going, call ahead and let them know what time you're coming and what you would like to eat. Alcenia's prides itself on serving fresh food, so they'll have your meal ready when you get there. n

Alcenia's Desserts and Preserves Shop is located in the Pinch District at 317 North Main Street. Entrées range in price from $6 to $8.35; sandwiches and munchies, $1.50 to $5.35; desserts and preserves, $2.75 to $10. Hours: Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1-5 p.m. Open Saturday for special events. Closed on Monday. Dine in or carry-out, 523-0200.

food notes

Elvis Eats

"We encourage any Elvis fans who enjoy cooking to join us for the evening," says Elizabeth Boyd of the Viking Culinary Arts Center. That's because on Friday, August 17th (the day after the 24th anniversary of Presley's death), Boyd will honor the King by teaching fans how to make a Creole dinner, including stuffed artichokes, shrimp Creole, French bread, and bread pudding. And participants can watch one of Elvis' legendary movies, King Creole, while they stir and stuff. Everyone is encouraged to dress in Elvis garb to really get in the spirit.

The class is open to anyone 18 or over, and is limited to 35 spots, 20 of which are already taken. The evening begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Viking Culinary Arts Center, 119 S. Main, Suite 600. To register or for more information, call 578-5822. The cost is $35. -- Hannah Walton

Harry's Back

For Harry Nicholas, the detour to Harry's Detour was long. "I got in trouble five years ago," Nicholas says. That trouble included a drinking problem, a brush with the law, and the selling of Harry's On Teur (now On Teur). But now Harry's back and he's starting a new restaurant located at 532 South Cooper. Along for the ride is Betsy Gross, who is a veteran of Chez Philippe. "I'm probably the most grateful person on the planet," Nicholas says. He says he's been sober for five years and that he and Gross named the restaurant's parent company Lazarus for obvious reasons. "I'm really lucky to be alive," Nicholas says, laughing.

Harry's Detour will open in "two or three weeks." Putting the final touches on the restaurant, Nicholas predicts an American eclectic cuisine with all dishes made to order and a menu that changes daily.

"Basically it's my interpretation of the dishes people eat," Nicholas says. The menu will include Thai, Greek, and Hunan selections, among others. Nicholas will pick fresh seafood daily and grill meats over specially ordered pecan wood. "Real food is what I call it," Nicholas says.

Nicholas describes one as yet unnamed dish of beef tenderloins cut down the middle, stuffed with tasso meat, oysters, spinach, and bread crumbs, then charbroiled to order and placed over wild mushrooms and red wine. Another (also unnamed) dish will include monkfish medallions wrapped with bacon, baked in a confectionery oven, and then placed on a mound of strong greens and drizzled with a pear or peach sauce.

Nicholas says, "I can't wait to get this stuff out of my head and on the plate." Call 276-7623 for updates on the exact opening date.

-- Chris Przybyszewski

Grace's Goods

When you hear the name Dinstuhl's, you think of candy. Now, think again.

Years ago, Grace Dinstuhl typed out her own recipes and had them bound for her only child, Gary. When Gary showed it to his friends, they requested their own copy. On August 11th, Dinstuhl will be signing that, her first book, Grace's Kitchen, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers from noon to 2 p.m.

The recipes vary from a family favorite, "Country Captain Chicken," to macaroni and cheese.

"I thought everyone knew how to make macaroni and cheese, but I have gotten so many compliments on this particular recipe," Dinstuhl says.

Dinstuhl's father-in-law opened the first Dinstuhl's Candies store and passed the business on to her and her husband, Gene, and they have since passed it on to Gary.

Grace's Kitchen is available at Davis-Kidd Booksellers and all Dinstuhl's Candies locations. -- HW

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