By Karen Ott Mayer | Photography courtesy of Karen Ott Mayer and Jack Binion’s Steakhouse
A well-known Memphis chef, renovated dining room, and wine cellar make for winning combination.
Walking down a flight of metal stairs at Jack Binion’s Steakhouse increased my curiosity about our intended destination.
“We’re actually on the bottom floor of the barge,” says Tammy Williams Hansen, executive chef of food and beverage at Horseshoe Casino, a property of Caesars Entertainment.
Everyone knows the casinos in Tunica, Miss. are built on floating barges, but it’s not often the sound of hollow steel echoes underfoot while in a casino. Today, however, I’m following a small group to the wine cellar, located under the restaurant and where two rooms seat private parties up to 12 guests. A large table anchors the cozy room lined with shelves of wine bottles. Originally a bastion for high rollers, today the wine cellar welcomes anyone interested in a tailored, private experience including a seven-course meal. Occasionally, Mother Nature even sits down like during the 2011 Mississippi River flood.
“Half of this space was filled with water. Imagine moving all of this wine!” Hansen says with a laugh. River or not, guests now enjoy the upscale wine cellar for all its originality and seclusion.
Recently arrived Wine Manager Mark Magruder comes to Tunica from Las Vegas and Hawaii. While Binion’s serves up the best and most expensive wines like Caymus, Opus One, Dom Pérignon, and Cristol, Magruder has an additional goal in mind.
“We want our wine list to be highly accessible to every table here. While you can order an expensive bottle of wine, we also want to offer affordable labels that everyday visitors and guests can enjoy.”
Upstairs again, we find the fully renovated Jack Binion’s Steakhouse, which makes no apologies for being rather masculine in style, either for the design or the cuisine.
“We are a traditional steakhouse,” says Hansen.
The dark woods, leather booths and overall feel reminds of a dusky, rich vintage setting where the aromas of meat mix with cigars and music. The size is deceptive. The restaurant can seat up to 220 guests, but the space feels more intimate. It’s the place to wind down after a chaotic week or hole up on a cold winter afternoon after watching a show.
The new Chef de Cuisine, Brian Thurmond comes out of Memphis with a strong reputation, having worked up through the ranks at Kelly English’s award-winning Restaurant Iris and after recently closing his own restaurant, 148 North in Collierville, Tennessee. Known for his Southern cuisine with a culinary French twist, Thurmond’s new menu introduces a few key dishes that reflect his style, yet honor Binion’s meat and potatoes soul. Even though the menu changes twice annually, Thurmond says he can incorporate new dishes as he pleases and may even cater to a guest’s particular request.
As I scan the menu, Thurmond explains that anyone can enjoy a dinner at Binion’s.
“If anyone thinks we’re out of reach or really expensive because we are a steakhouse, that’s not true,” he says.
In addition to a la carte items, Binion’s offers a reasonable all-inclusive pre-fix menu that runs from $49.99 to $75.00, including choice of dessert. The full menu consists of every expected cut of steak from a filet to ribeye. Less than carnivorous guests will find pork, seafood and plenty of sides and salads.
Only 30 miles from Memphis – and soon north Mississippi with the completion of I 69 this year – Binion’s makes an ideal destination restaurant. A commuter himself from Collierville, Thurmond believes Binion’s meets Memphians’ taste buds. In fact, the restaurant enjoys a mix of travelers and locals from Memphis, hoping for a quick getaway.
The new menu released in August highlights Thurmond’s signature style, specifically with the added seafood dishes.
“The ultimate goal is to bring more refined French style cuisine that’s still approachable,” he explains.
Regular guests will find the new Snapper Pontchartrain, a classic seafood creole dish with a beurre blanc sauce. If that doesn’t sound appealing enough, his Scallops Picante will awaken any bored taste buds.
On the other end of the spectrum, Thurmond’s dishes respect his own Mississippi roots that originate from cooking with his mother and grandmother. “I make collard greens that will beat out anyone,” he says with a laugh and a challenge.
In the end, Thurmond wants one thing: “We just want to serve quality food, done really well.”