A Caramelized Staycation at the James Lee House

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It's undeniable that many of us struggle to truly "get away" from the hustle and bustle of work and commitments. The notion of an out-of-town trip poses questions of logistics, flight costs (especially from Memphis), and miscellaneous work conflicts. Nonetheless, I've found the solution that creates a fine line yet fulfilling separation between home life and a genuine getaway: the staycation. Photos by Donny Granger of Creation Studios

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Memphis' premiere bed and breakfast, The James Lee House, will always be my staycation of choice. Its opulence overwhelmed me in the best way possible, as the historic, restored mansion (in the Edge/Medical District) is less than 2 miles from my Downtown town home but felt like 5,000 miles away in France.

I nourished in the sweet touches of hospitality by owners José and Jennifer Velasquez. Freshly baked (from scratch) oatmeal cookies were ready in the state-of-the-art kitchen upon my arrival, instantly elevating the mansion's coziness from rain showers outside. Southern white rocking chairs basked the front porch, and upholstered seating throughout the parlor and dining room welcomed travelers from near and far.

Before Alex picked me up for a nearby dinner at Ecco on Overton Park and nightcap martini at Mollie Fontaine Lounge (across the street from the bed & breakfast), I caught up on some reading in the grand parlor with a glass of pinot noir and faint orchestral music in the background. The novel I packed along in my Moore & Giles leather weekender had been sitting on my nightstand at home, unopened, for over a month. The luxurious and calm atmosphere of the James Lee House naturally opened the door for an hour of uninterrupted, cherished reading time.

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To complement the home's complete restoration--from to exquisite interiors and top-of-the-line amenities--I turned to Oak Hall to select a luxe, lounge-able look for the evening.

I hinted the upcoming Valentine's holiday with a blush-colored Rebecca Taylor cropped tweed embroidered jacket. The blazer draped over an everyday staple--the Joie Alicia silk racerback tank in Porcelain--and was paired with an daintily trendy Joie Meriner crepe trouser in navy.

I brought along slippers for the room, though I slipped on the Loffler Randall Amelia sandal in wheat just in time for dinner.

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The contemporary classic bathroom boasted elaborate marble and fluffy white towels in every corner. I brought along Trish McEvoy body cream--available exclusively to Memphis at Oak Hall--and a natural-toned makeup planner with brushes and blushes for the evening.

The evening was effortlessly enjoyable. And though I've had Ecco's mushroom pasta and Mollie Fontaine's crisp dirty martini already once before, the staycation attitude refreshed those previous dining experiences. Taking the extra few moments to pack that perfect outfit, plan that romantic meal, and lift those feelings of stress made all the difference.

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And, of course, I was counting down the moments to breakfast, diligently crafted each morning by José and Jennifer, the dream team. An 8 'o'clock arrival in the breakfast room was welcomed with hot coffee and a display of raisin cream scones--made from scratch (because who are we kidding).

The second course was a dainty yogurt parfait, layered with Jennifer's Meyer lemon raspberry marmalade, Greek yogurt, homemade granola, and a sprinkle of fresh berries. Fresh and utterly delightful.

The third (and final) course was rich and ridiculously tasty -- I still remember the first bite of buttery prosciutto and hollandaise with a poached egg on a buttered english muffin. The side of potatoes were caramelized in fresh sprigs of rosemary, among other herbs. It was a joy to watch José and Jennifer work together to plate each ingredient, who worked with such focus and emitted a light of appreciation and pride for all they'd accomplished in their years of planning. I shared that pride with them.

Whether you choose to staycation solo, or with a friend or lover, the well-deserved break offers an opportunity to unwind, relax, and refresh--all in less than twenty-four hours. And with Valentine's Day soon approaching, I know just the gift for that special someone or for yourself...a stay at the James Lee House! Tell them Caramelized sent you.

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This post was made possible by The James Lee House's generous hospitality, Oak Hall's fine wardrobe offerings, and Donny Granger's exceptional photography. Thank you for being supportive of my sponsors!

Tart (Memphis)

12401665_10205610899740961_8952297291243019188_o As we rediscover our resolutions and goals for the new year, we similarly rediscover restaurants. Or, at least, I have.

Memphis' quaint French café and bakery, Tart, sits cozily on the Cooper strip; and rather than bunched with the Cooper Young and Overton Square intersections, the white house stands alone with a darling red sign and outdoor patio with vintage chairs and tables. It had been a year or so since I had returned to Tart -- not for any negative reasons -- though their to-go homemade orange and rose macarons were a decadent treat this past summer. Tart's refreshing menu and minimalist interior brought this restaurant back up to top-of-mind brunch and lunch options.

The eggs in brioche changed my perspective of brunch in Memphis. Tart conveyed pure simplicity, sophistication, and effortlessness. Bundled up in a pullover and sweatpants with a pot of hot earl grey tea, I relished in a perfect portion of baked eggs and gruyere in light-as-air buttered brioche (made in-house). The dish took me back to Paris. A stone fruit and granola side (which I didn't even have to request!) refreshed my palette between rich, satisfying bites of the entrée.

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I returned within the week for a lunch meeting, upon which cold temperatures were instantly eased. The bowl of hot French onion soup cannot be beat, especially the baked croutons atop and caramelized onions throughout. I paired mine with a beautifully colorful beet and goat cheese salad (perfect for a New Year's detox). A traditional tuna Nicoise with extra haricot verts is highly recommended, as well.

Whether you're in need of an espresso and croissant pick-me-up this cold season, a light mid-week lunch, or a refreshing hangover cure on a Sunday morning, Tart is your destination.

top photo courtesy of Mary Catherine Hughes

James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour

IMG_9825 I have intentionally taken five days following the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour to let the mesmerizing moments and tastes and sights sink in. It was truly an honor to not only sit amongst such beautiful, appreciative Memphis company, but also to stand in the kitchen with top chefs and mentors of our country's food landscape.

Though the wine glass count per table topped almost 75, and the amount of foie gras arguably confused Tennessee for France, the entire evening's James Beard experience could be stripped down to one word: refinement.

Cultured elegance and pure creativity poured out of the hearts of the seven participating chefs and onto the plates of the 180 attendees. They were not about boasting skill sets over one another; they were about sharing and honoring the culinary insights James Beard had directly and indirectly passed onto them.

Jeff, our James Beard Foundation host for the evening, opened the sit-down dinner with the captivating storytelling of James Beard's culinary legacy. Immediately following Beard's 1985 death in Manhattan, Wolfgang Puck cooked in Beard's kitchen for a party of twelve to celebrate the chef's life and lasting impact. To this day, chefs nationwide prepare out-of-this-world cuisine in the James Beard House. Memphis is lucky enough to have been selected as a Celebrity Chef Tour stop, during which chefs road trip to provide a matched dining experience to the original in Manhattan.

The Memphis Zoo was an optimal and unexpected location for the dinner; in fact, it's the first zoo in history to ever host a James Beard dinner. Weather could not have been more wonderful for an outdoor cocktail hour and sea lion show. The rustic Teton Trek dinner site was gorgeously decorated with warm linens and gold flatware.

Memphis' Chefs Andy Ticer, Michael Hudman, Kelly English and Phillip Ashley Rix knocked it out of the park, and they were joined by Atlanta's Steven Sutterfield, Oxford's John Currence, and New York's Michael Ginor.

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Chef Steven Sutterfield, whose kind personality complements his insanely talented work with the South's seasonal vegetables, magically turned a first flavor of fall--the delicata squash--into candy. New York Chef Michael Ginor's foie gras with brandied pickled quince and champagne brought me back to sparkly summer evenings in Paris in 2013.

Chefs Andy and Michael prepared a dainty ditalini pasta by hand with Southern lady peas and an inimitable broth. Shaved muscadine grapes studded the top of each plate for a punch of sweetness. I'm a sucker for all pastas, but this pasta...Oh man.

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Chef John Currence's explanation of his sausage-stuffed quail over sweet potato epitomizes the union of cooking and community. Chef devoted each component of his dish to another chef in the room: The sausage's texture taken after Currence's first bite of Andy and Michael's meatballs at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen; the action of stuffing thanks to Chef Kelly English, who brilliantly stuffs everything; the pure sweet potato inspired by Satterfield's "insanely subtle things with vegetables." I agreed with Currence's remark that "there is no better justice to and interpretation of Italian food than Andy and Mikey."

That explanataion, to me, defines community and the reason we're all in the kitchen in the first place. Thank you, Chef Currence, for sharing the meaning of sharing.

I was lucky enough to stand in the prep line for Chef Kelly English's Lebanese-rubbed lamb; I watched the other chefs work to make English's plate look off-the-charts. Chef Andy Ticer spread the pureed cauliflower, while Chef Phillip Ashley Rix carefully placed each piece of lamb atop the base. It was a beautiful sight and, of course, made the first bite even more delicious. I'm refreshed by Chef Kelly's ability to show his well-rounded abilities, though he's known around here as the Creole master. I'll never forget his Asian-inspired dish at a Hog & Hominy fundraiser dinner. English proves over and over again that his work never settles; it's always evolving.

I realize I have yet to mention the wine pairings and libations, which consistently wowed every guest, my favorite being a special, limited edition Pinot Noir alongside Currence's quail. Mixologist Nick Talarico of Memphis' Andrew Michael trifecta prepared cocktails with herbs and fine liquors and gorgeous presentation.

The evening served as a collective toast to refinement; a proof that James Beard's original ideas are still thoughtfully impacting kitchens nationwide...even the Memphis Zoo's.

Skewer (Memphis)

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Nestled in a Sanderlin shopping centre with Napa Café, Muddy's Bake Shop, and Cosmic Coconut, Skewer's 50-seat restaurant carries a nonchalant, modest beat while preparing, in my opinion, the best Japanese in town. Chef Gai Klaimongkol, originally from my beloved Thai favorite Bangkok Alley, opened the spot in January to expand Memphis' Japanese palate. Chef did well.

While the sushi is fresh and reliable (and highly recommended), the rest of the menu boasts authentic excellence and creative twists to the "expected" Asian dinner menu.

For a lighter lunch or dinner, I recommend the fresh tuna tataki with addictive ponzu sauce and the three mushrooms salad. The salad boasts a combination of exotic pan-roasted mushrooms (that challenge even Whole Foods' selection) over baby greens and shaved almonds. The honey soy vinaigrette is unreal. I'm considering buying enough to use on my own home-prepared salads.

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If you've ever been to Smorgasburg (or read my recap), you've heard about the famous ramen burger, in which the bun is brilliantly made of a crispy ramen patty. Skewer has mastered the dish here in Memphis; in fact, they take it up another level. Caramelized onions, bacon, and a side of nori, seaweed-dusted fries with spicy mayo put Brooklyn to shame.

Of course, the namesake is a must-try, too: I ordered a chili shrimp, beef tenderloin and asparagus skewer trio. The portions are perfect and allow for easy sharing. Okra and shiitake mushroom skewers are my other favorite vegetable offerings.

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Oh, and featured bonus: no corkage fee. Bring your favorite bottle of red, white or sake to enjoy with a yakitori dish or two! I look forward to cozying up with a bowl of ramen or a rice bowl once the weather cools to appropriate autumn temperatures.

Follow Skewer's mouth-watering menu items on Instagram.

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Where to Brunch in Memphis

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Caramelized_Brunch I frequently joke that my newest title should be the Caramelized "concierge," specifically because not one weekend passes without a text or email with restaurant requests. I'll admit--The answers now arrive more naturally, though it's terribly difficult to align my recommendations with the preferences of those asking.

In an attempt to cover the Memphis must-tries, I created a Memphis City Guide earlier in the year of my favorite finds around town. Karlee Bronson, a Memphis transplant and talented artist behind Milo Made Studio, reached out to illustrate the list in ink and watercolor. Her final product is effortlessly wonderful--I couldn't be more excited with the final piece! I urge you to share the list with friends and strangers, alike. We'll be working on more in the future.

A flaky almond croissant at Cafe Keough. Baked eggs in Brioche at Tart. A ginger scone and latté at Muddy's. Sweet potato pancakes in Elvis' booth at Arcade. Grapefruit brulée at Porcellino's. Migas and Bloody Mary at Beauty Shop. Cheese grits on cheese grits at Brother Juniper's.  The options are inevitably outstanding.

So, where to brunch first? Let me know where you choose during this gorgeous autumn weekend!

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Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana (Memphis)

This month has marked the culmination of revisited old favorites in town. Perhaps it's the recent wave of new Memphis transplants who have yet to experience restaurants I had simply taken for granted. I've played the "concierge" hat this weekend, especially, introducing new friends South Main Trolley Night, impeccable seafood and a warm, familiar crowd at Tsunami, and a healthy quick fix at LYFE Kitchen. Yesterday's lunch at Las Tortugas acquainted a whirlwind of nostalgia and joy--It had somehow been about a year since I was able to enjoy the frescas and tortas and tacos and salsas. The original spot on Germantown Parkway (though a second location is in the works!) boasts no fanciness in decor or set-up, but instead a warm, wonderful greeting by owner Jonathan Magallanes at the cash register.

Having brought a new Memphian to try the restaurant for the first time, Jonathan whisked us into a tale of the Las Tortugas process and proper recommendations. Becci and I decided (with Jonathan's blessing) to split a few must-haves: tacos, tortas and mexican street corn. Jonathan was kind enough to give Becci a guacamole sampler to accompany our meal since we did not order the full chips and guac item--arguably the best chips and guac in town.

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I am routinely drawn to the flaky fish tacos with avocado, lime and cilantro. We noticed, however, a Claybrook Farms brisket taco special in green Expo market on the register's accompanying white board. Great choice. Flaky brisket from a farm only miles away worked beautifully with the avocado, and an extra smoky barbecue-inspired sauce added a tasteful kick.

Becci and I also split the smoked chicken torta, which beats any typical sandwich and pleases our carb-mindful friends. The bread is hollowed out and grilled to mimic a crispy, almost tortilla-chip-like texture. Loaded with chicken, farmer's cheese, tomato and avocado, this Mexican take on a sub is a classic go-to at the restaurant.

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And, of course, we savored the extra buttery, cojita-crumbled Mexican street corn with a squeeze of lime and sprinkle of spice. In my opinion, a trip to Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana is incomplete without the street corn side. No one masters it better in Memphis.

Here's to revisiting the old but good ones; the restaurants whose consistency and quality and passion once created and now sustain Memphis' culinary merit.

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