A Cut Above
Fresher is Better
Story and photos by Casey Hilder
he doors have been open just a few weeks at Red Square Meat and Fish Market, and owner Chris Lee already knows the names and preferences of a steadily increasing flow of regulars. The newly-christened delicatessen/grocery in Hernando combines the rustic feel of a small-town market with the culinary expertise of a world-class chef. Customers are greeted by an overwhelming variety in the form of flanks, shanks and cutlets from a multitude >>>
of specimens. A glass counter near the entrance showcases high-grade, tender cuts of beef and a broad seafood selection that includes fresh oysters, shrimp, lobster, tuna and even more, depending on the day of the week.
“We change our fish up a lot,” says Chris. “We get different stuff in four or five times a week, so it stays real fresh.”
Much like its customer base, many of the products sold at Red Square come from neighboring counties. The store stocks catfish from an Indianola pond, honey from a Nesbit apiary, and eggs from a farm less than half an hour away from the shop’s location at 427 East Commerce Street. Red Square also offers unexpected fare like alligator tails and frog legs for more eclectic tastes, as well as a variety of specially prepared sausages and bratwursts.
The goods that line Red Square’s shelves are marked with multicolored, mismatched and handwritten price tags that add a sense of Southern charm to the fledgling shop, which Chris runs alongside his wife, Natalia, a Russian immigrant-turned-local restaurateur. The name of the Lees’ new store pays homage to central European influence in many of their products, as well as Natalia’s heritage. The couple also owns the Memphis Street Café, which garnered national attention last year when it was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. “Now, we’re able to supply all of the meat from the restaurant out of here,” Chris says.
While Chris currently runs the Red Square and Memphis Street Café with his wife, the business has always been a family affair for him. A third-generation restaurateur, he took an interest in the culinary arts from a young age and was inspired by his grandmother’s work at Burkle’s Bakery, one of the first established bakeries in Memphis. “It was a Memphis landmark,” he said. “Even The Beatles visited one year.”
His love of cooking eventually took him overseas, where he studied for a year at the prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school in London before returning to serve as head chef at several MidSouth eateries. “At the time, I had a choice between Paris, London and Tokyo—I decided to go with the only one that spoke English,” he says.
In addition to his gourmet education, Chris’ local culinary history includes work as an executive chef at McEwen’s Memphis and Café Samovar, a Russian diner where he met his wife. At Red Square, he can offer customers a prime cut, as well as tips on the prime cooking method. Rib-eyes and salmon steaks are among the most popular of the store’s offerings and Chris is often more than willing to share a few tricks of the trade with any customer willing to lend and ear. “For a rib roast, you stick a skewer in the middle of it. Touch the skewer to your lips—if it’s warm, you’re at medium rare,” he says.
“I think this place is awesome. I’ve been waiting for it to open,” says Susan Mazola, a local self-proclaimed foodie and Red Square patron.
Red Square’s shelves stock an uncanny selection that combines rarity and bargain to provide a healthy and fresh alternative to nearby chain stores. Unique items include grape leaves and several kinds of imported balsamic vinegars and olive oils. Chris’ future plans for Red Square include exclusive, pre-made Creole favorites like Oysters Rockefeller, crawfish dishes, étouffées and various gumbos.