“Where is this place?”
I grin a bit and explain as our group ducks into a borrowed minivan. We are going to Grits Cafe in Forsyth — near Macon. Friends often ask me to select our dining destination, but this time, my selection is met with sideways glances.
As we exit I-75 in Forsyth, I scan the landscape for a back-up plan if the restaurant fails to please. Not much — save a Dairy Queen. I wonder whether a stellar restaurant could lie here in this little town. I silently beg Grits Cafe to surprise us.
Located in one of the original buildings on the town square, Grits Cafe is charming. We sit beneath grapevines entwined with tiny lights as we sip swoon-worthy Porch Swing cocktails — Maker’s Mark bourbon with chunky-sweet-peach puree — and peruse the menu of Southern dishes with touches of Cajun, Southwestern and Asian influence.
Our road-trip snacks long gone, we dive into our appetizers. We can’t resist ordering the fish-stick-shaped Asiago grits fritters ($7.25) and fried-green-tomato Napoleon ($9.25) with jumbo shrimp carefully layered in a former-era plating style and drizzled with a not-so-spicy remoulade. Though all are tasty, the hands-down winner of the appetizer round is the ginger-soy ahi tuna. Grilled medium-rare tuna is complemented by tangy wasabi aioli and crunchy-sweet teriyaki relish of cucumber, carrot and sweet red peppers. Crafted with skill, this is the dish that delivered the first surprise — the kind for which I had silently begged.
Though we intend to share, the person ordering the mustard marinated lamb tenderloin ($28.75) resists doing so. When I spear a bite, I understand why. The lamb exudes a striking grilled flavor and is anchored by a mixture of mushrooms in a swirl of demi-glace. Also bold in flavor, the double-cut pork chop ($21.75) — the day’s blue plate special — provokes a closed-eye inhale as the waitress sets the smoky and aromatic plate before us. The ensuing bite doesn’t disappoint.
The winter-spiced short ribs ($24.75) surprise us in a different way. As the flavor unfolds, we take turns identifying the spices — cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, fenugreek and cardamom — which are bold and unexpected when paired with the rich beef.
The sides paired with entrees are those of cheese-laden starchy goodness. Smoked Gouda soft grits from Carolina Plantation, herb baked macaroni-and-cheese and goat cheese potato croquettes fill bellies in the style of a grandmother who wouldn’t want you to leave hungry.
After my first meal at Grits Cafe, I did not mind the drive on two subsequent visits. Though it is frequented by Macon residents and “snowbirds” who make it a regular stop on trips to warmer locales, I don’t hesitate to recommend it as a dining destination for Atlantans — especially for dinner. While Grits Cafe serves lunch and an assortment of desserts, my money is on the dinner entrees — both the lamb and pork chop top contenders on my best of 2011 list.
Surprise. No Dairy Queen required.GRITS CAFE 17 W. Johnston St., Forsyth, 478-994-8325 Food: Upscale Southern with Cajun, Southwestern and Asian influence Service: Unhurried but friendly, knowledgeable and eager to help Best dishes: Ginger-soy ahi tuna, mustard-marinated lamb tenderloin, house-smoked pork chops Vegetarian selections: Spring rolls and salad Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5:30-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays Children: Best to bring them at lunch; children’s menu and high chairs available Parking: Spaces on the square Reservations: For groups of five or more only Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Low Patio: No Takeout: Yes