Art of The Meal: Grist For The Mill
17 West Johnston St., Forsyth
Parking: Free and usually plentiful, on the street.
Credit cards: All major.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of five or more.
Dress code: Anything goes, but many patrons seem to enjoy dressing up a bit.
In the dead of winter, in the midst of an economic downturn, Forsyth’s town square is quiet and many of its storefronts still. Sure, it has seen better days – haven’t we all? But with the gorgeous old red brick Victorian courthouse under renovation, it almost feels as though the town square is holding its breath, waiting for spring.
That is, everywhere except the Grits Café, whose lunchtime opening seems to signal the square’s wake-up call. On two lunch visits, patrons materialize not long after 11 a.m., some to be ushered to a soon-bustling group table in the restaurant’s gas-lit, ochre main room, hung with local artists’ work. Walk-in workmen quiz the hostess about the daily blue-plate specials before deciding on their takeout. The hostess answers a constantly ringing phone. At night, it would be easy to imagine the Grits Café as the town’s social nucleus, nearly as important in marking life’s milestones as the courthouse across the street.
True to its name, the Grits Café serves grits. Really good grits – stone-ground and creamy, with bacon and shiitake mushrooms, in a martini glass; blended with asiago cheese and fried into fritters; and in compact, grilled cakes, topped with cornmeal-dusted shrimp and a roasted corn and green tomato salsa.
Chef-owner Wayne Wetendorf’s culinary degree is from Canada, but like almost everything I tried, the shrimp and grits are as fanciful as a garden party dress, while true to authentic Southern flavors – gritty grits, Georgia wild shrimp, fresh corn. The side vegetables – crisp julienned carrots and a few al dente asparagus spears – are as pretty and well-prepared as the crunchy pink shrimp.
At lunch, clever re-inventions like the cheesy collard dip (warm queso dip with collard greens and fried tortilla chips) and the BLFGT (a BLT made with fried green tomatoes) vie with bistro favorites like grilled pizza, a burger and salads.
Dinner offerings range from lamb to rubbed pork tenderloin and praline chicken; worldly asides like a special tom ka gai Thai soup and mushroom-and-goat cheese empanada keep things interesting. Prices are reasonable but not cheap – lunch entrees go for $10-$15; most dinner mains are in the $20 range and include a salad.
At lunch, you can sample a taste of the dinner menu by trying the beef short rib sandwich. It’s an almost criminally indulgent combination of succulent braised beef and melting fontina cheese on toasted baguette, served with excellent hand-cut fries. The Grits Café’s wine list is as quirkily personable as the menu, and even by the glass, you can find entertaining matches like Castle Rock pinot noir ($10).
If you’ve got any room left, let your cheerful, knowledgeable wait staff pick your dessert. You’re likely to get the rich bread pudding, flecked with toffee and caramel, drizzled with chocolate and crème anglaise, and sprinkled with fresh blueberries.
As good as it all is, what’s better is knowing that long lonesome road between Atlanta, Macon and beyond holds a friendly, welcoming stop for lunch and dinner.