The oven was barely warm at Grace Restaurant when Ben Vaughn opened the companion Au Fond Farmtable in Cooper-Young. If you're going to open two restaurants inside six months, you had better have a big plan or a lot of luck.
Vaughn seems to have both.
Breakfast, lunch and Monday Night Family Dinner are served at Au Fond; Grace serves dinner only. The two restaurants share a kitchen, and while both stress fresh, local ingredients, they are otherwise like night and day.
At the non-fussy Au Fond, you stand in line to place your order and pay, and then your meal is delivered to your table. This is fine at Monday dinner and seems to work at lunch, too, but it hangs up a little on a busy Saturday breakfast. With a full house, as it was when we ate there, a line is to be expected; perhaps someone taking orders from folks as they wait could help move it along.
Breakfast is a good one. My over-easy eggs were delivered perfectly cooked -- whites set and yolks runny. The Newman Farm bacon was excellent, cooked crisp but with enough heft to give it a little chewiness, too. The biscuits, unfortunately, were sweet, which didn't make a good bed for the savory sausage gravy.
I ordered grits and received potatoes, but the grits were immediately delivered when I pointed out the error. And believe me, one bite and all was forgiven.
Vaughn has grits shipped from Anson Mills in South Carolina, which also supplies grits to chefs such as Thomas Keller in Napa and Charlie Trotter in Chicago. There's a reason.
They're coarsely ground, but either by nature or by skillful cooking, the finished product is thick and creamy (think steel-cut oats compared to instant oatmeal). A generous hand with sharp Beemster cheese and a melting dollop of butter in the middle of the bowl sure didn't hurt, but the grits could stand alone.
When you see shrimp and grits on the menu -- as at Grace, the menu changes frequently -- ask how it's prepared. At lunch, the dish was so elevated that I enthusiastically proclaimed it the best shrimp and grits of all time and in all the world to my dining companion. Those creamy grits were topped with shrimp and crab meat in a spicy, slightly creamy sauce spiked with sherry that I would put up against any other version, anytime, anywhere.
But you can't go around willy-nilly calling something the best after tasting it just once. I ordered shrimp and grits again when we went for dinner on a recent Monday night, and instead of the sublime, we were served the so-so and a completely different recipe. No crab, no sherry, nothing creamy -- just shrimp, slightly spicy, in a light, tomato-y broth.
And this brings me to my only significant complaint. It's fine to change a menu, and makes perfect sense for a chef committed to using the best ingredients of the day. But the shrimp and grits you order on Wednesday should be prepared the same way on Monday, if it's on the menu.
I raved about the grilled pimiento cheese sandwich at Grace. Raved; just loved it. Two weeks after I reviewed it, a friend ordered it and instead of sharp cheddar, it was made with goat cheese.
So I appeal to Vaughn: Please understand that many of us are simple creatures living stressful lives who need a little comfort and reliability. The first dish of shrimp and grits I ate at Au Fond could become as associated with the restaurant as, say, the Cornish hen is with Cozy Corner. It was that good, so why serve it any other way?
Au Fond is open for dinner on Monday only. Adult dinners, which include an entree and two sides, are $14, and kids' dinners are $6. You can order wine from Grace's list or bring your own, and there's no corkage fee. This could be one of the best deals in town.
Choices on a recent Monday included the shrimp and grits (the OK version), Au Fond Carbonara, chicken and dumplings and pork and beans. Sides were fried okra, braised greens and dirty rice, among others.
Pork and beans? Ha! The beans were delicate red beluga lentils, and they were topped with a generous helping of spicy house-made andouille (much of the sausage, including that on the half-and-half charcuterie/cheese plate, is made in-house). I ordered it with dirty rice and enjoyed an upscale red beans and rice.
The Au Fond Carbonara was a twist on the classic pasta dish. Pancetta was tossed with spaghetti and tiny tomatoes in a herbaceous cream sauce full of tarragon, basil and a slight, teasing touch of nutmeg.
If all okra came from the Au Fond kitchen, we'd see converts en masse. Tender, bright green pods were cut in about one-inch lengths and fried in a tempura batter. The greens were excellent, possessing vinegary sharpness, and the wilted red cabbage topped with blue cheese also made a nice side. I'll be tempted to order a vegetable plate on my next Monday night visit, or at lunch when it's available.
Chocolate is never my first choice for dessert, but I make an exception for Vaughn and have since his days at River Oaks. His dense chocolate cake is as good as it gets: Dark and tender layers of cake held together by a rich and deeply flavored icing.
The front of Au Fond is also a small store with a growing selection of cheese, bread, gourmet products and flowers. It's an all-round excellent concept with great food and a nice vibe, and I believe the issues with food consistency and counter service will work out in short order.
Au Fond Farmtable
Address: 938 S. Cooper
Telephone: (901) 274-8513
Hours: Breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (7:30 p.m. for grocery purchases); dinner Monday 5-9 p.m. (Both restaurants closed Monday night for Memorial Day; Au Fond will be open until 3 p.m.)
Reviewer's choices: Shrimp and grits ($12 lunch, $14 with two sides at Monday dinner); Mid-town breakfast ($9); pork and beans ($14 with one side for Monday dinner; sometimes available at lunch); grilled sandwiches; grits.
Alcohol: Wine and alcohol available from Grace (only high-alcohol beers). No corkage fee for Monday night dinners when you bring your own wine.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars
--Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223