Flavor: Southern-flavored classics
Ambiance: Historic building with an upscale, relaxed feeling
It’s basic human nature to want what’s out of reach. And the array of seemingly delicious dishes listed on the menu posted outside the Grovewood Cafe was very much out of reach one recent evening when we were apparently locked out of the restaurant.
We rattled the doorknob. We pressed on the door. We considered clambering through the bushes to tap on the window. That $28 filet mignon with the julienned veggies and potatoes on the side tantalized us as visions of the pizza for which we might have to settle swam into view.
A quick call to information eventually connected our shivering party to the lone waitress inside. Grovewood was indeed open for business, came the reply, and would we care to make a reservation? I explained I’d already done that: It was getting inside the front door that most interested us at the moment. Shortly after, access was granted. The lock, it seems, is old and tricky and occasionally is tripped unwittingly by diners leaving the restaurant too primed with food and wine to notice.
“That can’t be good for business,” I joked.
She shrugged it off with a smile and directed us to a table with a flickering candle. Business, while not necessarily booming at all times, has kept the Grovewood Café humming along at a steady clip for years, tricky door or not. Nestled in a historic building beside the Grove Park Inn though not actually part of the Inn itself the café has seen its fair share of locals, tourists and celebrities since it opened more than a decade ago. The exterior has retained its charm over the years, and boasts a nice patio for alfresco dining in good weather. (The interior, however, seems to have lost something to renovations.)
The menu at the Grovewood is made up of classic standards with a Southern twist. Grilled pork tenderloin, for example, is bathed in jus, but chow-chow rides shotgun, providing a taste of the Appalachians and most likely a touch of confusion to many a tourist.
Another item that tends to lend an air of confusion, our waitress revealed, is the Grovewood’s variation on the Panzanella salad. Though it has been bestowed with the rather obvious title of “bread salad,” the dish perennially garners the “where’s the lettuce?” question. With an assortment of very fresh (yet, admittedly, seasonally inappropriate) vegetables like grape tomatoes and sweet red peppers, there’s hardly a need for roughage. My husband chewed thoughtfully on the bread, looked pleased, then launched headfirst into a bread salad tutorial.
“They’ve done a good job,” he said, pushing the plate toward me to sample. I maneuvered the tines of my fork toward a diminutive cloud of goat cheese crowning an olive. He gently albeit immediately halted my apparently foolish endeavor.
“Just the bread first if you don’t mind. What has happened to that bread?”
“It’s marinated croutons,” I said through a mouthful of just that. “What are you talking about?”
“People,” he said gravely, often do “bad things to their bread” when making Panzanella. This, on the other hand, was a dish graced with flavorful, properly toasted bread well-marinated yet not soggy, and full of texture.
Indeed, it seems that the Grovewood has a sure hand with bread. The bread basket contained some excellent little rolls, including savory ones spiked with caraway, and some tiny loaves that tasted like sweet pumpernickel. Lilliputian scones were also offered up, but they had succumbed to extreme dryness and crumbled in puffs of powder under pressure when I tried to break them.
My husband refrained from making another salad into a master class, but it was satisfying in its own right. The South rose again on the plate, this time in the form of a deviled egg, country ham and cubed sweet potato perched on lightly dressed baby-spinach leaves. I was never a fan of deviled eggs growing up, but I might have been if they’d tasted like that one.
For entrees, we were drawn to the special an entree of venison chops paired with a mushroom demi. The pork tenderloin had drawn our attention, but unfortunately, the Grovewood had already run out during what had been, by all reports, a rather busy weekend. The trout, a staple of restaurants that like to riff on the Southern highlands motif, seemed a good enough bet in its stead, as we were told that Sunburst Trout Farms delivers fresh fish to the restaurant on a daily basis.
The fish’s flesh was nothing if not fresh. Adorned with a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of garlic butter and a scattering of fresh herbs, the dish was certainly not ambitious, but suffered not at all for it. The expert handling of the trout had done it great justice, though the accompaniments presented alongside had not. A side of creamed corn was of textural interest almost polenta-like. The natural sweetness of the corn, however, was a bit overwhelming with little else to balance it. Both the green beans and the tomato relish on the side were also quite one-dimensional.
That venison chop, on the other hand, was relished with such fervor that we narrowly avoided fighting over it like hyenas. When I reluctantly yielded it, I could barely keep from glaring at my husband as he ate each succulent little morsel. The venison had been treated with such reverence in that kitchen that it showed bones cleaned to a gleam, meat grilled and then rested to perfection. The mushroom demi was a fitting companion, though the odd choice of cheese grits for the starch and an afterthought of grilled asparagus was not. The sides did not detract, but added nothing by their presence.
All the desserts are homemade, including a rustic chocolate pie we tasted that was similar to a hot, very moist brownie. It was a fitting representation of much of the food that we sampled at the Grovewood Café; while it may not have been the most creative or exotic offering one could dream up, it was prepared with care and attention to quality. Once you get in the door, the Grovewood Café and its food is tastefully accessible.