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Feeling Bleu

The Westin's new restaurant opens after much anticipation.

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If you haven't heard of Bleu yet, you will soon.

The newest restaurant at the corner of Beale and Third, in the former location of Sole, has waged an extensive marketing campaign: mysterious emails, microsites, and advertisements about a "neu" restaurant downtown, various "cleus" about the identity of the restaurant, and a mystery-chef gig at this year's Zoo Rendezvous, complete with a curtained-off kitchen and a fog machine.

Yes, a fog machine.

And according to executive chef Robert Nam Cirillo, the second wave of their marketing campaign is on its way. When asked if the new restaurant could live up to the hype, Cirillo answered confidently that it would.

"It's a great bar for us to set and meet and then go over," he says. "We made a promise to our customers that we will give them something that is new and bold and distinctly different."

Bold and different come into play with the much-discussed "Grand Finale" on the dessert menu. It's sort of edible art prepared before the diners' eyes on a piece of thin wax paper: Molten chocolate cake, vanilla bean gelato, fresh berries, crystallized bacon, Oreo "dust," chocolate-chip cookie crumble, toasted meringue, chocolate paint, seasonal sauces, and freeze-dried bread pudding are all on the chef's palette.

Not surprisingly, blueberries are a feature or garnish in many of the dishes, like the blueberry cheesecake, grilled corn and blueberry salad, and the coffee and cocoa lamb chops with blueberry chutney and pomegranate reduction. The specialty martini is the Bleu Steel, made with vodka, simple syrup, muddled blueberries, thyme, and lemon juice.

Otherwise, the menu is what Cirillo describes as "eclectic and worldly."

And worldly is something Cirillo knows a lot about. Korean-born, he was adopted into an Italian family in New York and grew up cooking in the classical Italian tradition. These influences come together in his favorite dish — the Maine lobster and shrimp pappardelle pasta, served with a spicy green curry sauce.

"I always saw America as a melting pot of cultures, and with cultures come cuisines, so I really think American food is a worldly cuisine," he says.

Cirillo spent 10 years cutting his teeth on the restaurant scene in Rhode Island before seizing this opportunity at the Westin hotel in downtown Memphis. The New England flare is alive and well in his accent and in the menu's extensive seafood dishes, including crab claws flown in fresh from Maryland.

Another nice touch is the menu's drink recommendations, which accompany each entrée item and range from pricey wines to Amstel Light.

Cirillo laughs at this. "I love beer," he says. "I wanted a place on the menu where I could just recommend Budweiser.''

There are more sophisticated selections as well, like local favorite Ghost River beer on tap and a lengthy cocktail and wine menu.

Bleu is the official hotel restaurant for the Westin, so they serve a full breakfast every day at 6:30 a.m., including a farmers market omelet and Cirillo's favorite: a smoked salmon eggs Benedict. They also offer late-night hours for special events like Grizzlies games at FedExForum. (We're talking to you, NBA lockout.) A blue piano sets the stage for live music as well, like that of local lounge singer Lee Taylor.

Dinnertime won't be optimal for vegetarians, as all of the entrées are meat-based, but lunch offers a host of options, like the chef's plate or the build-your-own sandwich menu. While a dinner entrée will run you from $23 to $30, you can grab lunch for $7 to $10.

One of the benefits of being a hotel restaurant is that Bleu keeps long hours, and you can snag a bite to eat pretty much anytime you fancy. Bleu is open every day at 6:30 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 p.m. or later on Friday and Saturday, and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Bleu, 221 S. Third (334-5950), bleumemphis.com

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