Some of my close family members now live in the far reaches of Gwinnett County and just over the line in Walton County. When I visit, I bring my knives and do the cooking. Restaurant choices include national chains A, B and C.
Not anymore. A new restaurant opened in the charming 100-year-old Grayson home that once housed the Grayson House restaurant and later Stillwater, a barbecue joint. It was under renovation for the better part of a year as family members watched in anticipation. Over the summer, Graft, a unique-for-the-area farm-to-table restaurant, opened, satisfying our curiosity.
The renovation preserved the character of the former home, with layers peeled back to reveal original wood and a free-standing fireplace that forms a quaint niche in the dining room. The interior, once sectioned into the tiny rooms of an old country home, now boasts an open floor plan with a rustic-looking bar made from reclaimed wood.
If the romantic character of the building and protesting creaks of the hardwood floors don’t signal a departure from local alternatives, the edible landscaping and organic garden will. A seat on the spacious side patio flanked with muscadine vines will afford a glimpse of the rear garden’s tallest stalks of okra and surprise with an occasional shower of pecans from overhead trees.
In addition to herbs, Graft grows many different vegetable varieties, now transitioning from eggplants, peppers and tomatoes to fall crops including arugula, chard and golden beets. What it doesn’t grow on site, Graft sources from local farms, such as Dillwood Farms in Loganville.
Graft’s jagged hand-torn menu changes about once a month, with items reflecting the season’s bounty. Owner Ashley Clemence, whose grandfather was a restaurateur, develops salads and small plates while chef Blake Hargroder tackles the entrees. Hargroder brings experience from the kitchens of Two Urban Licks, Emeril’s and Vinny’s on Windward.
As with many neighborhood spots, you’ll need to learn how to best use this one. Grab a buddy and share a few of the five different food and wine pairing options ($13), each including two 3-ounce wine samples and two small plates. Wine categories include crisp and tangy whites, chardonnays, French reds, Spanish reds and bold red blends.
The “Spaniard’s Choice” was the most successful food and wine pairing we tried. Housemade chorizo highlights the spicy notes of the Garnacha (Castillo de Monseran, 2009), although the dried cranberries tucked in Bibb lettuce may mute its fruitiness. To the contrary, the blueberry and cranberry preserves served with mild goat cheese on nearly dehydrated baguettes complement the fruit-forward flavors of the Tempranillo (Flaco, 2010).
These small tapas-style dishes, while somewhat imperfect and light on protein as a whole, offer a unique dining experience for the area. Despite what your waitress may suggest, one food and wine pairing is not an entree stand-in. Add a salad and maybe split an entree.
We added an arugula salad ($10), a fun rendition with blue cheese, toasted pepitas with a kick (cayenne, paprika, turmeric and sugar) and pickled pears. Those pears, pickled in rice wine vinegar-based brine, add the acid missing from the salad’s vinaigrette. My husband still reminisces about those puckery pears.
Skip the flabby honey-Tabasco wings with blue cheese foam ($8) in favor of an entree. We tried the tender brisket ($17), brined for a week and smoked out back. It is topped with an oddly matched pico de gallo and a redeeming creamy but toothsome stone-ground grits with Gouda.
I’d also recommend the pan-seared scamp grouper ($24), plump with sweet white flesh. Pass on the garnishes: haylike fried leeks and bitter balsamic reduction. The grouper pairs well with the silky risotto dotted with tiny specks of butternut squash.
If you’re in the mood for a homey dish, it’s the heaping portion of fresno pepper-topped chicken ($16) for you. This moist bone-in version flecked with herbs and loads of pepper sits atop a mound of chunky mashed potatoes with roasted fennel. A bite of each swirled in chicken jus equals pure comfort.
As far as neighborhood restaurants go, Graft is one to watch — one that is sourcing locally, making its own stocks and ricotta, pickling its own fruits and curing its own meats. One that serves wines beyond those available at the corner grocer and local beers from Wild Heaven ($7) and Red Brick ($4) breweries. All in all, it’s an ambitious — and admirable — undertaking for this ZIP code.
Could I recommend the drive here from intown? Not yet. But anyone within a 10- to 12-mile radius? You betcha.GRAFT