When I took my first bite of the tomato butterbean risotto at Sweet Grass, I looked at my friend and said:
"This tastes like my grandmother and Wally Joe cooked it together."
That's mighty praise, and chef Ryan Trimm deserves it.
I'll mince no words: Sweet Grass is among the finest restaurants to come along in a good while. It's the real deal, the total package. Gorgeous space, excellent wait staff, a hip vibe, and some of the most flavorful food around.
Glenn Hayes of Café 1912 (and the former La Tourelle) and Trimm, a native Memphian who worked for a few years in South Carolina after culinary school and had been cooking at The Grove Grill, are partners. Trimm hired his right-hand man, sous chef Brady Bryan, built a menu around the Low Country foods he knew from South Carolina, and Hayes put together a server staff that includes two former restaurant owners. Impressive.
It's easy to associate Low Country and Cajun food. What we know as a shrimp boil in Louisiana is known as Frogmore stew in South Carolina (the shellfish might change). Jambalaya is pretty close to chicken bog (or at Sweet Grass, simply called Low Country chicken jambalaya). And it makes sense, as each culture takes advantage of the plentiful seafood, rice and vegetables of the regions, which are similar, and the African and Caribbean influences. Cajun is a tiny bit spicier.
"It's a thin line," Trimm said.
I asked Lee, the former owner of Lolo's Table, to help me choose an entree from the selection of medium plates; small and large are also available. I asked him if the jambalaya was more of a brown, Cajun-style jambalaya or a tomato-based, New Orleans-style. Neither, he said, explaining that it was a rice dish in a broth.
Ah, those broths. Don't be dismayed when your shrimp and grits, your jambalaya or even your pan-seared scallops come to you in a puddle that looks a little watery. This is liquid gold. I mean it when I say to ask for a spoon.
The jambalaya comes served with big pieces of pulled chicken, Andouille sausage (at lunch; the dinner menu says it contains Benton's country ham) and vegetables, including tiny split pods of okra so tender they're served with their caps, mixed with seasoned Basmati rice. A pool of savory peppery broth surrounds it.
The shrimp and grits and the jambalaya are the only two dishes I tasted that have the same flavor base: Peppers, onion -- spicy but not fiery. Plump shrimp, along with Andouille sausage and Benton's country ham, top a bed of Delta Grind grits, covered with that thin elixir of the Gullah gods.
Though neither is a traditional Low Country dish, two excellent lunches are the duck confit hash in a Henry Bain sauce topped with fried eggs, and the green tomato BLT. The former is a generous serving of pulled duck served with potatoes and peppers in the tangy, slightly sweet sauce more associated with Kentucky than any other region. The latter is a huge sandwich impossible to eat closed, but worth every knife and fork bite, particularly when enjoyed with the sweet pepper relish that comes alongside. My server brought extra when I told her I liked it -- a nice touch. (The service is friendly and efficient across the board. Smooth, unobtrusive and just plain nice.)
At lunch we also enjoyed the finest Bloody Mary I can recall, so elevated because the vodka is infused with a mix of peppers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and even pickled green beans. Put a glug of that in your glass and you might as well change the name to a Bloody Good Mary. Miss the opportunity to try it, and it's a bloody shame.
Before I pick back up at dinner, let me also point out that the restaurant's signature cocktail, the Sweet Grass, is as refreshing as the Bloody Mary is spicy. Hendrick's gin, Pimm's (a favorite of mine since the days of the classical music bar Fantasia, I'm glad to see it's finally coming into its own), ginger ale and club soda are mixed together and topped with the classic Pimm's garnish, a slice of cucumber. There's a splash of another liquor in there that I'm going to hold back so you can have fun playing a guessing game with your friends. Your server will gladly tell you what it is, but see if you can identify it.
At dinner we started with the Charleston oyster stew, a rich and decadent creamy version that will be comforting in the fall and winter, but is too heavy for the heat.
The braised Berkshire pork osso bucco with collard greens, bacon shiitake grits, bourbon peach butter and mushroom jus -- more broth! -- was a massive dish, ordered from the large plates section. It was also the essence of earthiness, from the smoky collards and grits to the tender-to-the-bone pork shank. The flavor was as deep as the color of the meat -- a rich mahogany borne of a leisurely braise.
I ordered the pan-seared scallops from the medium plates menu, and was delivered a plate with four perfectly cooked scallops -- browned with a tiny hint of crispness to the crust, delicate inside -- served over that tomato butterbean risotto mentioned earlier, all surrounded by a pool of a basil shrimp broth. The risotto was perfect, creamy but not even close to mushy. It reminded me, truly, of an appetizer I ate at the long-gone Wally Joe some years back.
But the butterbeans took me right back to Sunday dinner at my grandmother's, thus prompting my opening remark.
The crème brûlée and the devil chocolate mousse cake were both fine, but paled against the quality of the meal that preceded them. I have only one other quibble: The menu needs more appetizers. The small plates section contains three salads, the Charleston oyster stew, and mussels. I'd like to see something besides the mussels that's easily shared, because I intend to return frequently, and I plan to bring friends with me.
Address: 936 S. Cooper
Telephone: (901) 901) 278-0278
Hours: Open for lunch 11 a.m-2 p.m. Friday through Sunday; for dinner, 5:30 p.m.-until Tuesday through Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Low Country chicken jambalaya ($10 lunch; $14 dinner, and they are slightly different); shrimp and grits ($14 lunch; $22 dinner, and again they are slightly different); braised Berkshire pork osso bucco ($22, dinner); pan-seared sea scallops ($17, dinner); pan-fried green tomato BLT ($7, lunch). From the bar, the Bloody Mary and the Sweet Grass, each $7.
Alcohol: Full bar; wine list with 15 selections for $6.50 per glass or $26 per bottle, in addition to more expensive bottles and big beers.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars