Local Restaurants Feature a Southern Favorite
By Frank Whitman
I love shrimp and grits. The regional classic is so good, Southerners just can’t keep the secret to themselves. Treasured along the Atlantic coast for generations, its reputation is spreading. A combination of shrimp with spicy sausage, smoked bacon, sautéed onions and peppers served over grits, this every-day dish from the Carolina low country, is finding a place on restaurant menus across the nation.
The tasty dish has migrated here to Connecticut, where two local restaurants have made it a menu feature.
In the robust Shrimp and Grits ($26) at Greer Southern Table, the hearty sauce includes spicy bits of sausage, bacon, chunks of tomato and the occasional bite of an assertive pepper. The base, known on
Greer’s menu as “the holy trinity,” includes sautéed green pepper, onion and celery. Five shrimp ride atop the mahogany-colored sauce while creamy yellow grits peak out around the edges for a satisfying and authentic taste of the South.
At Greer the menu is loaded with more Southern favorites. Marsha was drawn to the pan-seared salmon for its summer succotash and black eyed peas. Our niece Jori enjoyed herb-roasted chicken with duck fat fingerling potatoes and green beans, all served in a cast-iron skillet. Sides of airy unsweetened cornbread and brown-sugar collards were passed around the table.
Greer Southern Table, the creation of well-known Norwalk restaurant operator Greer Fredericks, is the newest addition to the Wall Street dining scene. The authentic menu includes pickled deviled eggs and pimento cheese among the starters along with fried chicken skins and crawfish cakes. You can get a bucket of Greer’s famous cold-brined fried chicken, a po-boy with either clams or oysters or Carolina trout with muffuletta olives. The list of sides reads like a tour of soul food kitchens: grits, hoppin’ john, collards, summer succotash, cornbread, dirty rice, and of course, mac and cheese. The inviting high-ceilinged space with modern, eclectic furnishings is stylish, hip and comfortable.
It wouldn’t be a true southern restaurant without the soul food staple: banana pudding. With “Nilla’ wafer crust,” silky pudding and loads of whipped cream, it rang all the bells.
Shrimp and Grits ($38) is offered with a French accent at the Rive Bistro in Westport. Classically-trained European chef Roland Olah has successfully refined the Southern recipe to fit his French style. Slices of bright red Peppadew peppers mix with loads of gently-browned garlic slices, translucent shallot and fresh herbs for the base of the sauce. The milder spice lets the flavor of the shrimp shine through. Olah swaps creamy polenta for the grits, adding a little sophistication. Six tender shrimp are atop the savory broth.
Olah’s pescatarian version skips the usual bacon and spicy sausage. Instead, carefully sautéing golden-brown garlic slices “brings out a sweet flavor, without bitterness,” he shared. After hours of slow cooking, the polenta is enriched with mascarpone and Parmesan. White wine and lemon juice balance the sweet and rich with acid. At the end, a handful of chopped parsley adds a fresh, herbal note.
I’ve made shrimp and grits at home. It’s a rewarding and tasty cooking project for when you’re in the mood, but there are easier answers.
Sarge’s Shrimp and Grits sauce is a ready made solution for a quick and easy meal, as Marsha’s family can attest. A little gloppy out of the jar, it heated and thinned out to a nice consistency. With plenty of spice, it got acclaim around the family table (even among the skeptics). It’s easy to tweak Sarge’s with a favorite sausage, more spice, extra bacon or some canned, diced tomato to make it your own. Keep a jar on hand, some shrimp in the freezer and a bag of grits, and dinner can be on in half an hour.
Grits play second fiddle to the shrimp even though it gets equal billing in the name, but it deserves our attention. Amongst the cooking cognoscenti, small-batch stone-ground grits are a must. Across the South cheddar-cheese grits have become the favorite for this dish, but that’s too rich for me. Along the Carolina coast, where this Gullah-heritage dish is a quick and easy weeknight meal, quick-cooking grits are just fine. I did give it a boost with a little cream and butter along with plenty of salt.
Shrimp and Grits is a little like New England chowder. Each region, village and cove has its own “authentic” recipe. I’ve sampled S & G across the South as well as locally. It’s clear, there are no wrong versions, only delicious ones.