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Tired of Fusion?

Freshness and flavor reign at Linda Waller's Azalea Grill.

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Echles is a quiet, modest, and generally nondescript residential in the U of M area. There's virtually no reason to drive down it unless you live there, but for years, a tiny former sundry store has played home to some unique and wonderful restaurants. The Handy Stop became famous for its deli-by-day, fine Russian diner-by-night MO. The building was also home to the Morocco Café, a delightful establishment offering delicacies from the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean. But in Memphis, the restaurant business is all about location, and these hidden treasures eventually passed into the memories of Memphis' most dedicated foodies.

Now Chef Linda Waller is taking a crack at the space. Waller earned her reputation as a proud purveyor of fabulous flavors in 1994 when she opened Puck's, a relatively short-lived establishment on Overton Square with a reputation that lingers to this day.

"At Puck's, I was trying to run both the front and the back of the house," Waller says. "I tried to do everything and I couldn't keep it up. It just wore me down."

Waller is a third-generation chef and the fourth member of her family to enter the food-service industry. Her grandfather opened a restaurant called the Stable in the old -- and now demolished -- Admiral Benbow Inn on Union Avenue. Her father, a doctor by trade, had cooking in his blood and would leave his practice to work in his dad's kitchen. Eventually, her brother opened his own branch of the Stable that, according to Waller, served perfect fried chicken in a cast-iron skillet.

But Waller didn't follow in the family tradition. At least not right away. She became an artist and a weaver traveling across the country with her loom to attend arts-and-crafts fairs. It was an exhausting affair, so she eventually exchanged her artist's tools for kitchen utensils and trained at the New York Restaurant School. After that, she worked at as many small, privately owned bistros as she could in order to learn new dishes and new techniques.

"I moved to a different restaurant every three months," she says. "I made a point of doing that because everywhere you went you learned something new. That's when I realized that this really was my art."

After Puck's closed, however, Waller was determined to get out of the brutal restaurant business.

"I tried to market my own line of herbal preserves," she says. "We had orange-rosemary marmalade, cherry, fig, balsamic glaze, blueberry mint, and meadowsweet peach. They were all delicious, but I didn't realize that it costs tens of thousands of dollars to get your product on supermarket shelves." Unable to place her preserves on grocery shelves, Waller sold the 4,000 units she'd produced on eBay and went to work at Mantia's.

"I really loved working for Alyce Mantia," Waller says. "But that's where I got the itch to open my own restaurant again. I figured that if I was going to be cooking, I should be cooking my own food."

Waller opened the Azalea Grill with Jimmy Skefos, who owns the building, this month and has already attracted a number of loyal regulars. The fact that her reputation as a detail-oriented chef attracted career waiters from such esteemed restaurants as Chez Philippe and Justine's doesn't hurt. And Waller's menu, which features dishes such as Moulard duck breast with stewed oranges and figs steeped in port wine, cracked pepper, and rosemary, reads like gastronomic pornography.

"I'm so tired of 'fusion,'" Waller says. "We have some wonderful chefs in Memphis who do great fusion cooking, but, really -- does everything have to be served on a rutabaga soufflé?"

Waller focuses on finding the freshest ingredients and juxtaposing ingredients in a way that puts the natural flavors, not the chef's process, in the spotlight.

"I'm dedicated to working with local farmers," she says. "And I'm very serious about the freshness. If I can't find a good fresh tomato in the wintertime, then we won't have tomatoes on the menu until the summer."

Waller's wine list, which exclusively features wines crafted by small, farmer-owned wineries in California, Oregon, and France, reflects a similar sensibility. There's not a single mass-produced wine to be found.

With its neutrally colored walls and elegant but no-frills décor, the Azalea Grill is homey and inviting. Bucking the overdecorating trend that has dominated the local bistro scene since the 1990s, it feels like a place where the customer is more important than the color scheme. The restaurant's centerpiece is a baby-grand piano where a rotating slate of local keyboardists plays nightly.

Entrées include pistachio-crusted sea bass with sour cherry and Zinfandel glace, grilled tuna with fresh herbs, wasabi, and blood-orange reduction, and Waller's signature dish, grilled rack of lamb with roasted garlic and plum sauce. Salads and appetizers range from $5 to $14, and entrées range from $17 to $25. n

The Azalea Grill is located at 786 Echles, 452-0022.

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