There is a time machine in Collierville: The Memphis Special, which sits on the Collierville town square as the Collierville Train Museum, has been renovated and restored. Now, two dining cars and a lounge car serve as the dining rooms and bar area for the Mid-South's newest fine-dining experience.
The train has been renamed The Tennessean after the passenger train that ran from Memphis to Washington, D.C., from 1941 to 1966. The red-velvet curtains that line the windows put one in mind of the 1940s, when art deco was king and elegance was everything. The glassware is crystal, not glass, and all the fixtures, lamps, and even chairs are either replicas of the original 1941 Tennessean décor or actual relics of the age.
"I have a responsibility to create an authentic atmosphere," says Tom Powell, part owner of the restaurant with his stepfather, Marshall Criss. "When old folks come in, they always comment on how they remember everything, and when young folks come in, they trust us to create an accurate representation of the past. That's what we've done here."
Big-band music softly plays over hidden speakers. The floor of the dining car vibrates with the action of the air conditioner so that you could swear that you were riding the original train to Washington. The freight trains that occasionally speed by on the adjoining Norfolk-Southern line add just the right spice to an already convincing dish.
Chef David Krog has created a beautiful and historically accurate menu to accompany the Tennessean's rich atmosphere. Food in the '40s wasn't centered on a small waistline, so when you go to the Tennessean, expect to indulge. The Southern-French dishes are always fresh. In fact, the only freezer in the restaurant is used exclusively for ice cream and sorbet.
The service at the Tennessean is as classic as the atmosphere. Your host is an engineer in '40s-era uniform who leads you past other diners to your table. The servers are knowledgeable and eager, and the food appears in a timely manner, evidence of sous chef Hal Rusk's excellent management of the kitchen. The wine list is small but the prices are outstanding, with such beauties as the 2003 Stag's Leap merlot available for only $48 a bottle.
The menu is presented in five courses: appetizer, salad, soup, entrée, and dessert. I chose three courses when I visited. The Charleston she-crab soup, instead of being strained and served smooth like most soups of its kind, comes with shredded lump crab directly in the cream-based broth. It's a savory and delectable dish that is unique to the Tennessean and has become one of the restaurant's most popular dishes in the eight weeks it has been open.
The Alaskan halibut is flown in whole every other day from its state of origin. When the huge fish arrives, the kitchen staff works to clean and butcher it for the next day's meal. When prepared, the pistachio-encrusted halibut is served over shredded, braised fennel and a citrus Dijon cream sauce. The cream sauce is subtly delicious, and the halibut itself is thick and juicy and leaves you quite satisfied.
For dessert, the Grand Marnier crème brûlée is perfect. The custard, well-complimented by a strong flavor of oranges, is rich without being overbearing, and the presentation is aesthetically pleasing. The brûlée is placed off-center and accented with spots of multicolored fruit sauce, which go quite nicely with spoonfuls of crème brûlée.
Currently, the lounge car is being remodeled to look like the original bar of The Tennessean, a grand, curved, modernist affair with chrome accents. The lounge car will feature wide leather and wood banquets where people can sit and chat, a throwback to the luxury lounge cars of the '40s.
When the lounge car is completed, Marshall Criss is planning a rechristening ceremony for the train. "Back when the train was first built, they took water from the Potomac and the Mississippi to symbolize Washington and Memphis coming together. Well, the little girl who did the original christening is still here in Collierville. We're going to ask her if she'd like to do it again."
The Tennessean is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 9 p.m., and for lunch Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Tennessean, 123 N. Rowlett in Collierville(853-9447)