At Josephine Estelle, vegetables are participants, not bystanders. A delicately fried soft-shell crab is good enough on its own, but ribbons of shaved asparagus, pink radishes and fresh fava beans add dimension and crunch, and ultimately make the dish outstanding. Stracciatella, a dreamy creation in which soft cheese curds meet heavy cream, is framed by a bouquet of fresh vegetables: pale green romanesco, bright purple radish petals, crunchy marigold-hued beets, Bibb lettuce.
The restaurant, opened in the spring by Memphis chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman inside the buzzy Ace Hotel, is decidedly Italian. Dishes often are whisper-light, a far cry from the standards at Sicilian and Creole red sauce joints that pepper New Orleans. I love a plate of meatballs and red gravy as much as the next person, but the food here is a lovely respite — a reminder that Italian food can be as simple as a few fresh ingredients combined with care.
The snapper crudo is one of the menu's most talked-about dishes, and rightly so. Nutty brown butter sauce, the dish's star, pools around thin slices of fish, and crisped sunchoke chips teeter on top like bronzed flower petals. Crumbled hazelnuts add earthy crunch while petite dollops of Meyer lemon curd add a semi-sweet acidic jolt.
Some dishes carry strong Southern flair. Red snapper arrives swimming in a soupy potlikker broth with collard greens, while chili-infused vinegar adds a burst of heat and fermented Brussels sprouts and lemon confit round out the dish with tart sweetness.
The chefs also understand the value of a little excess. Arancini features four types of cheese — fontina, Taleggio, mozzarella and Parmesan — folded into golf ball-sized bites.
Braised veal breast looks and tastes like a lacquered piece of pork belly. The brined and braised meat arrives nestled on a bed of nutty farrotto — a hearty, warming dish.
Servers make a point of informing guests that pasta is served in the true Italian manner as a mid-course. It's a useful warning, as most dishes wouldn't suffice as an entree.
Gnocchi with Gorgonzola are served in a bowl painted with a thick streak of balsamic and showered with arugula. The pillowy pasta tastes of the sharp cheese though other elements tame some of its bite. Agnolotti are served with an earthy mix of sweetbreads and chicken thighs. Dressed with chanterelles and a heavy shower of Parmesan, the tiny pockets taste woodsy and peppery. Caccio e peppe — a basic cheese and pepper dish — features canestri instead of spaghetti, and sauce clings to the tiny tubes in the chewy, salty and intensely peppery dish.
Desserts take a backseat, but the short list has a few interesting options. A hunk of creamy Brillat-Savarin is served with blackberries, dark chocolate bark and buttery shortbread cookies — a brilliant sweet and savory combination.
Service operates like a well-oiled machine: consistent, knowledgeable and friendly. But the restaurant has the unmistakable chaos of a buzzed about, see-and-be-seen hotspot. It's best to expect the occasional wait when getting a drink at the bar and know that a night here won't be a quiet evening at your neighborhood trattoria.