I was pleasantly surprised last week while lunching at The Rockwood Room when my old pal, Dayna Steele, offered to share her fried chicken and cheddar grits.
I mention this because the former rock-diva-turned-author-and-speaker has a hearty appetite and, lucky girl, the metabolism of a hummingbird. Of course, she did get fries in return.
But the taste of chef Michael Dei Maggi’s grits reminded me of just how far this simple corn mush has come from its truck stop days as a breakfast staple that had to be smothered in butter and salt to be palpable. Today, this Southern dish is turning up in some surprising gourmet dishes.
If you’re new to the South and not familiar with this wonder food, than you should check out grits.com for the complete history and some good home recipes. Grits have been around forever and have been featured at menus from Waffle House to white tablecloth eateries. Houstonians know that Ouisie’s Table has been serving up excellent shrimp and cheese grits for years to discerning diners, while The Breakfast Klub’s catfish and grits is a comforting foodie favorite. But almost every new restaurant I’ve tried lately has some version of grits on the menu.
Over at the new Bistro Alex, Executive Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez uses them in his Beef Short Rib Osso Bucco dish, which comes with goat cheese stone-ground grits, oyster mushrooms and melted leeks with truffled bordelaise. And you can just get these elevated grits as a yummy side dish for any entrée.
Chef Robert Del Grande mixes his grits with bacon (and why the hell not?) for a sea scallop dish at RDG + Bar Annie, while Mark Cox likes his chicken with Mississippi-style grits at Mark’s.
You can even find grits on Japanese menus now. Chef "Taka" Sekiguchi at Sushi Raku does a delicious slow-braised Berkshire pork belly, or jowl square, with mascarpone grits and kishu ume (Japanese pickle plum) topped with a sunny side up quail egg.
Whether cheese grits, bacon grits, grits with chicken, shrimp or just a big ol’ bowl by itself, Texans love grits. As Steele says, “I travel a lot, and I know I’m home when I can get grits at a restaurant and they don’t look at me funny.”
And don’t worry about all that fresh butter and cheese and truffle oil that might be in your grits.
“They’re healthy, right?” says Steele. “I mean, they’re made with corn!”