If you took Southern cuisine and condensed it to its essence, what would that look like?
At Distilled at Gratz Park, the new restaurant in Lexington's oldest boutique hotel, it looks sophisticated, modern, spare ... elegant even.
The new restaurant is expected to open by Nov. 14.
Owner-chef Mark Wombles said the menu, which he will finalize with executive chef Jeremy Simpson, will be "very contemporary Southern cuisine."
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For many folks, Southern food means fried chicken, catfish, country ham. Distilled's menu will play on that theme, perhaps with catfish sliders with a vinegar slaw, Simpson said.
"We're trying to do something like Husk in Charleston," Wombles said of the restaurant featuring James Beard-award winning chef Sean Brock. Fried chicken will be in there somewhere, but it might be pickle-brined first, he said.
"When I'm writing menus, I like the customer to not really know what they're getting," he said. "I like to leave an element of surprise."
A recent menu, worked up to give food bloggers and writers from Southern Living a taste of Distilled, featured a roasted autumn squash salad with kale, pecorino sardo, spiced pepitas and a maple-sherry vinaigrette. That was followed by either seared scallops with eggplant puree, pickled chilies, fried garlic, mint and cashew with a 15-year balsamic vinegar, or brined and roasted Berkshire pork loin with maple grits, golden oyster mushrooms, grilled treviso and a gold raisin reduction. For dessert: apple crisp with dulce de leche and vanilla ice cream. The three-course dinner was $55.
The starting menu for the restaurant isn't finalized yet, and Wombles said the offerings will change frequently to reflect seasonal fruits, vegetables, meats and fish.
"We want to remain fresh," he said. "One thing we do not want to do is serve asparagus in November."
Wombles is working with local farms and producers, including Marksbury Farm, to obtain fresh and seasonal foods, he said. Some of it will be even more local: He has a beehive on the Gratz Park Inn roof to provide honey for cooking and drinks.
The Distilled bar and the restaurant will have a strong bourbon presence, with mixologist Adam Geissler behind the bar, Wombles said.
The space was formerly Jonathan at Gratz Park, a fixture in certain Lexington circles. But the inn's owners — Zedtta and Wayne Wellman, Craig Turner and Bill Lear — chose not to renew the lease with chef Jonathan Lundy in June so they could go in a different direction.
And they have. Everything from the décor to the menu will be a change. Gone are the warm, dark colors, replaced by cool grays and green. No curtains, no tablecloths, no carpet.
"We wanted to take a lot of the stuffiness out," Wombles said. "It's just fresh, airy."
Will Gratz Park's former loyal following embrace this look? Probably, if the food and drinks are as well done as at Heirloom, Wombles' restaurant in Midway, which will remain open.
Lexington likes good food, as evidenced by the rising foodie culture, which Wombles said he hopes will soon rival Louisville, Nashville and Charleston.
"Change is good. ... We're not trying to follow any paths," he said. "We're just trying to put out good products ... do our own best at what we do. And we think the rest will fall into place."