The Magnolia House can be described quite simply as having Southern charm, but with a big dash of Mediterranean spice.
It is a graceful setting, with subdued tones of brown, soft beige, and black-and-white photos contrast with brightly colored modern paintings. Live jazz can be heard in the background from the lovely bar at the main entrance. The Magnolia House is stately, elegant, but comfortable as an old Southern home should be.
Chef Kelly English has made a national name for himself with his two Memphis restaurants, Restaurant Iris and The Second Line. He is from southern Louisiana, which had a profound influence on his culinary interests, studied at the Culinary Institute of America, later worked with Chef John Besh in New Orleans, but has made his professional stand in Memphis.
He also has been a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast and was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine Magazine.
Recently, English visited Magnolia House, as he does on a regular basis, and I was invited to sample his latest menu. Chef Joshua Mitchell is the room chef — casino lingo for head chef of a casino restaurant — and he worked together with English to come up with a fresh, exciting, springtime menu. The menu changes seasonally and causes quite a stir when it is rolled out, and with good cause, as my friend Anna Roy and I were about to find out.
We started with Chef Josh’s zhug chicken, made with coriander, feta cheese and fried pita chips ($17). It was a delightful beginning, spicy, warm and a great hands-on small plate. We both stayed with La Crema pinot noir for the meal. It is a moderately priced pinot that did well with each course.
A second small plate (remember Anna and I were sharing) was sautéed Gulf snapper with sauce Ponchartrain (onions, bell pepper, celery, mushrooms and white wine), combined with corn, tomatoes, and just the right amount of tarragon. The snapper was perfectly cooked and well worth $34.
My preference is always to stay with smaller portions, so I was pleased with the arugula and goat cheese salad, served with spinach, orange, beets, toasted pumpkin seed, and sherry vinaigrette for only $10.
We got into some serious comfort food when we tried the spring pappardelle with peas, squash, zucchini and tarragon pesto with Parmesan ($24). The house-made pasta — I love the wide, toothsome pastas like pappardelle — was wonderful and the dish was reminiscent of a good curry.
We skipped dessert and ended with the seared lamb chops and couscous with raisins, turmeric and Parmesan, red wine gastrique (think sweet and sour) for $48. It was a grand finish to a lovely evening.
Magnolia House is a gem well worth visiting time and time again. From a graceful setting, to sharp service, imaginative food, and lovely platings. This is fine dining, but it does not beg a special occasion. See you there.
Magnolia House by Kelly English
Where: Harrah’s Gulf Coast casino, 280 Beach Blvd, Biloxi
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday