Sweet Grass Restaurant
We have been looking forward to SweetGrass Restaurant opening for some time now. There are three ways to get anywhere in Bloomington, and one of our most frequent routes has us driving by the “Sweet Grass Restaurant Coming Soon” sign at least twice a day. And we checked, twice a day, for indications of the restaurant opening—lights being on inside, and then a few weeks after that, seeing the bar lit up with bottles of rum and vodka lining the walls, and then finally the sign of signs:
My new neighbor.
It just so happens that my new neighbor is quite friendly and came over to our house on her move in day to share in our joy of lighting sparklers on the 3rd. After showing her our place, and she showing us hers (and sharing some disappointments in how the builder chose to finish both of our places), her boyfriend told us he was one of the chefs at SweetGrass, and told us it would be opening the following Tuesday, after the holiday!
We went opening night, knowing full well that, being a soft opening, there were going to be some kinks in the system. However, service was fast, friendly and pleasant. We were seated immediately, taking in the ambiance of the place as we were escorted to our (tiny) bistro table. The restaurant was comfortably occupied, as more patrons coming in as we ate to fill the remaining tables. We were seated in what turned out to be an awkward space–not really in the restaurant with everyone else, and not really in this strange nook area near the bar that had a black leather couch and two armchairs that also had tables for dining, and not really at the bar……close to the kitchen, but far away…. it was awkward enough that I can’t fully explain it, because it didn’t make much sense.
The tables were obviously new (ie, they weren’t sticky from years of previous use, and I felt comfortable grabbing the edge of the table and not fearing sticking my fingertips in 20 year old Bubba-licious), and the decor was minimal; a strange Tuscan theme, featuring curly, wrought-iron details scattered at random throughout the open-floor plan restaurant, and paintings/photographs that struck me instantly as something I would find in Olive Garden.
The best seat in the house.... which was beside us.
Don’t get me wrong, the decor was pleasant, but not the “Southern” theme I was expecting, as my new neighbor described the place as such. When he described the menu, and recommended that we try the Shrimp Po Boy sandwich, and the Fried Green Tomatoes, I kind of expected some kind of modern Southern-American fusion restaurant, and I don’t think that’s where we ate. I think it needed a gay man’s touch.
Let’s start with the appetizers. Averaging about $7 each, the appetizers included a smoked applewood bacon and shrimp pizza, stuffed portobello mushrooms with a roma tomato marinara, and fried green tomatoes. Described as a “southern favorite,” the fried green tomatoes couldn’t have been any better! They were heavily breaded with panko bread crumbs which stuck to the tomatoes by way of a thick layer of tart buttermilk. When they were fried, the buttermilk made this almost cheesy layer between the crisp crust and the green tomato. The dish was only made better by dipping the pieces into the buttermilk ranch sauce that accompanied the dish in a little stainless steel bucket. The sauce was light on the ranch flavor, so light in fact, that I wouldn’t have described it as anything but thickened buttermilk, but good nonetheless. If you’ll notice in the photo below, there was a relish of some sort–corn, red tomato, and slivered green pepper–atop the fried tomato rounds that was distinctly tart with vinegar and salt. This same relish was plopped on top of my appetizer, the Roasted Tomato Soup.
Fried Green Tomatoes with Buttermilk Ranch Sauce
The Roasted Tomato Soup was a tough pick when considering the other options (a creamy potato with sharp cheddar and something called “potato grass” and the forgettable soup of the day–it’s forgettable because I can’t remember what it was to tell you about it!) However, I find it to be increasingly difficult to find a GOOD tomato soup–either its too salty, too creamy, or just bland. This one reminded me of Goldilocks’ porridge–just right. It was slightly sweet, with just a hint of spice, and the aforementioned relish glooped on top made the soup more like a raw veggie soup. The menu said it would come with focaccia croutons, but I think I preferred the veggie relish over the croutons. Offbeat, but good. I’d have it again for $3 a cup. It would be an excellent, healthy lunch option at $5 a bowl, too.
"Roasted Tomato Soup: Creamy tomato seasoned and served with focaccia croutons" Veggie relish does not equal focaccia croutons.
As for entrees, I had a hard time finding something that I “had to have.” Usually, when going to a new (to you or brand new) there’s something that you think, “Hm, if anything, I have to try THAT.” I just wasn’t getting that feeling, mostly because I came in thinking there would be some kind of fried chicken. A fried chicken sandwich, southern spiced chicken fingers, ANYTHING…. but alas, there was none. I could have opted for a salad ($5-7) and added chicken, shrimp or salmon ($4-6), and tried a variety of house-made dressings (included a mango vinaigrette), or a variety of sandwiches. But, I settled for the salmon.
Sandwich offerings from Sweet Grass.
My date went with the shrimp po boy, and said it wasn’t the best sandwich ever, and that it wasn’t very memorable. It wasn’t a sandwich that had him saying, “When I come back, this is what I’ll order.” It came with a sauce on the side (which I appreciate, as I like to control the sauciness of my food), which turned out to be the same buttermilk-wanna-be-ranch dressing as the fried green tomatoes. Looking at the sandwich section again, what in the world is “burger” about the “Pizza Burger” ??? There’s no mention of meat in the description. Sounds like pizza bread to me. Most of the entrees and sandwiches came with your choice of a side– mashed potatoes, house cut fries, asparagus, risotto, side Caesar salad, side salad, or three southern options—collard greens, carolina slaw, or a grit cake. We’d never tried collard greens, citing wanting a professional to cook them for us, so we know how to cook them ourselves, but if that’s what collard greens taste like, I’ll pass. Having never tried collard greens before, I’ll let this one slide.
Shrimp Po Boy: Fried shrimp, Carolina slaw, and breaded sweet peppers served on a hoagie ($12)
The risotto that I ordered with my salmon was super-duper rich and creamy. I like it a little lighter, less dense, and luckily I like asparagus, because it was in and on top of the risotto. It was only after I finished my meal that I realized my plate was missing the a key ingredient: there was supposed to be a grit cake placed under the citrus (farmed) salmon, and that really would have made the dish.
Citrus Glazed Salmon: Pan seared citrus salmon served over a fried grit cake. Add a side of your choice. ($16)---Notice the lack of grit cake. Sadness.
Again, this is a soft opening, so maybe some ingredients didn’t come in, or the menu changed, things are forgotten–all understandable. When I pointed out the error to the server, the host offered us dessert for free.
The deep fried Twinkie, one of two menued dessert options (the other being a variety of Stewarts Ice Cream Floats and the special was pecan pie), made me really excited, as I had heard of such delicious atrocities at carnivals, but had never tried one.
Deep fried Twinkie ala mode with strawberry sauce
It was a Twinkie. Deep-fried. Not a lot of flavor. But, that’s a Twinkie for you, right? We got it a-la mode, and the ice cream was good, but the staff had dished it into individual servings and placed it on the plate (kind of assembly line style), meaning the scoop had frozen all the way through and was hard as a rock. The strawberry sauce on top was most likely homemade, but the strawberries were soft and had lost their tartness in the mess of sugar sauce.
The entrees were the same melange of indifference as the sandwiches— a brine roast pork tenderloin, roast chicken breast, vegetable ziti, a flat iron steak, and the only discernably southern item, which was shrimp and grits. I’m not a vegetarian, but having catered several events while working for a campus catering company, “vegetable lasagna” was the instant go-to for the “veggie option” on the menu. I also think Kid’s Menus are insulting to kids–if you want your kids to enjoy a variety of foods, have them try new things that AREN’T swamped with cheese! Any good restaurant should be able to size down a variety of entrees for a kid. Kids SHOULD eat more than grilled cheese, cheese pizza, chicken fingers, or spaghetti and meatballs. This kid’s menu was no different, and was completely uninspired.
The gist of what I’m trying to say: The chef is young. 23, to be exact. This menu was reminiscent of someone cooking straight out of culinary school–a flat palate, the basics, some with a southern twist, but I guarantee if you saw the whole menu, and I asked you for the “concept,” I don’t think southern would be first, or even fifth, on the list. It was uninspired and if you are going to go
We’ll go back again for lunch, after the staff gets the kinks worked out, and try it again and see if the menu has changed and any adjustments made to reflect lessons learned during the first month of business. Until then, I’m only going to give Sweet Grass an average rating, because of its potentially awesome concept that was not really followed through on the menu or in the restaurant, and for feelings of general discomfort while we were there (bad table placement, awkward division of space in eating area, having to stare directly at the kitchen as I ate a-la “Welcome to Moe’s!” style).
I’ll give it another try, and let you know how it goes.
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