by Rick Bostick
This met-in-your-mouth marvel at Sweetgrass features braised Berkshire pork osso bucco with collard greeens, smoked bacon shitake grits, and bourbon peach butter.
Recently, I bought a rope of sweetgrass, something I'd never even seen or thought about before now. I looked askance at the outer wrapper's hokey Native American-style design elements and the mystical directions to burn it for purification during prayers to Father Sun and Mother Earth. However, upon tearing open the package, I found that the straw-like, sage-colored braid held my kind of magic: a sweet and pure anise, chicory, and molasses scent that I couldn't get enough of, maybe because it was so foreign to me.
I conducted this brief sensory experiment because of my interest in the new restaurant Sweetgrass, located in Midtown's Cooper-Young neighborhood and open since early April. Tucked away in a smallish corner building colored dusky yellow and orange with a cute grass-green, lowercase-letters sign, Sweetgrass offers an introduction to the traditional low-country cuisine of the Carolinas, and it's a concept that extends way beyond simple shrimp and grits.
With Sweetgrass, chef-owner Ryan Trimm and co-owner Glenn Hays have successfully brought something unexpected and new to Memphis.
I first ventured out to Sweetgrass on a suddenly calm Saturday night after a thunderstorm-punctuated day, so thank goodness my time at dinner was the respite I'd hoped it would be. The dimly lit, casual atmosphere features subtle decorative nods to the sweetgrass plant throughout in vases, pots, and wrought- iron detail. A fledgling bit of real, live sweetgrass also is starting to take root in two pots placed at the entryway.
Once we were seated, our server set down the bread basket, and I was immediately impressed. Warm jalapeño cornbread, focaccia with cheese, and sourdough wheat bread were accompanied by a dish of softened butter.
The menu at Sweetgrass is divided up by small plates, medium plates, and large plates, and we sampled each. To begin, I selected a cup of gazpacho, which was pleasing; crunchy vegetables had been chopped very small and included a thin, flavorful broth. I had heard great things about the Charleston oyster stew, and it had a generous portion of good-sized oysters with a creamy base, chunky potatoes, and Allen Benton's smoked bacon. Also on the small plates (a.k.a. appetizer) section, the local field greens salad had what were called "crisp goat cheese croutons," reminiscent of hush puppies, on the side. These golden orbs turned out to be fried goat cheese, a warm and decadent match with the sweet house vinaigrette.
Next was an interpretation of osso bucco made with braised Berkshire pork that fell right off the bone, and its accompaniments included smoky bacon-shiitake grits, collard greens, and the unexpected treat of bourbon peach butter, which completed that beautifully balanced plate. My companion's dish, grilled portobello mushrooms with eggplant, tomato, and zucchini topped with pesto and a balsamic reduction, was well-made but seemed to fall outside of the predominant low-country theme.
The desserts didn't come across as well-thought-out as the rest of our meal, but they were twists on old standbys. The chocolate mousse cake had a pudding-like layer and a berry sauce but not much depth of flavor. The deep dish sour cream apple pie was a towering heap of thinly sliced apples and creamy, eggy layers that needed more spice and more punch.
From the get-go, service was brisk and professional, but also a bit aloof, which I attributed to the tables and the bar being at capacity. Our plates were switched and our server seemed distracted, but other than that, my main concern — the food being on time and at the right temperature — was on target.
Sweetgrass's wine list is easy to decipher since red, white, and sparkling wines are $26 a bottle on average and $6.50 by the glass. I recognized some good-but-affordable choices, and my dining companion enjoyed trying the Charles and Charles cabernet syrah.
My next meal at Sweetgrass was dinner a couple of weeks later, and that night, I learned that the restaurant had started serving lunch on the weekend, so I made a mental note to come back and try it, too.
We started with the Prince Edward Island Mussels as an appetizer, and the mussels were luscious with no runts in the bunch. They were the main attraction, but tomatoes and sweet red peppers added some color, and my companion loved the pickled onions nested in the middle of the dish. The arugula salad, with circles of caramelized onion, a mild blue cheese, perfectly toasted (but not over-sugared) pecans, and balsamic vinaigrette, was balanced and light.
I'd heard that the Low Country Shrimp and Grits entrée was not to be missed, and I found this to be a new interpretation on an old favorite. Loaded with grilled shrimp, scallops, and small pieces of andouille sausage, the dish had a lot going on, and my companion remarked that there were so many flavors it was hard to keep track of them. I just wanted more of the amazing grits! We also sampled the grilled quail stuffed with broccoli barley risotto and dashed with Pernod gravy.
The re-interpreted peach cobbler was by far my favorite dessert at Sweetgrass. Once I got over the inexplicable strawberry and pineapple garnish, I loved the clafoutis-like, smooth top crust and the lush peaches in a thick sauce below it.
The lunch menu offers an abbreviated selection of appetizers and entrées also available at dinner plus plenty of sandwiches only available during the day. One afternoon I picked up a few things to try since I hadn't seen them on the menu at dinner. First was a pimiento cheese sandwich with applewood-smoked bacon on grilled bread, and its smoky, bright flavor — rich, sure, but not over the top — was complemented by a light hand with the mayo. The cornmeal fried oyster salad, with a nice and subtle, very fine crust on the oysters, was tossed with Green Goddess dressing, which seems to be coming back into style all of a sudden. It dawned on me that a theme was developing: Bacon seems omnipresent at Sweetgrass, and matchsticks of Benton ham hid in the salad. I also sampled the roasted chicken jambalaya which had a lone piece of okra and plenty of sweet corn, but the deep, spicy jambalaya flavor I expected wasn't present.
In addition to serving lunch from Friday to Sunday, Sweetgrass also offers a brunch; the short and simple menu looks promising with items from barbecued duck confit with fried egg to brioche French toast with pecan bourbon syrup.
Sweetgrass boasts a solid concept that'll feel new to many diners unfamiliar with low country traditions, and interest those who already know and love the cuisine. I enjoyed my meals there, and now I'll associate my still-fragrant little souvenir braid of sweetgrass with a sweet new experience.