Chef Sarah Gresko plating shrimp and grits at SweetGrass. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

New BYOB hoping Hopewell has a taste for Southern classics

Though just a mile-square, there is little room for novelty in Hopewell Borough’s restaurant scene. The downtown’s eclectic Restaurant Row draws both locals and visiting foodies, who can indulge their cravings for anything from authentic New York-style pizza to Pad Thai — and, with the opening of SweetGrass last month, Southern fried chicken.

Chef-owner and self-proclaimed Jersey girl Sarah Gresko said her menu is inspired by the four years she spent cultivating her culinary career at Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina. Gresko learned how to make fried chicken when she was working at a plantation under the lively, no-nonsense “Miss Rosie,” to whom she owes her secret recipe.

“Everyone in this area, they cook food and they do it well. I wanted to separate myself,” she said. “I’ve worked on a plantation, and I can tell you that the feel of Southern cooking, what someone thinks and feels while they’re cooking, is conducive to the food.”

SweetGrass serves a refined version of the southern staple. Gresko complements the chicken with tomato coulis dipping sauce, a fried black-eyed pea cake and swiss chard. This dish embodies the spirit of SweetGrass’ menu, which features seasonal fare infused with Southern elements.

When Gresko’s brother, the owner of Hopewell’s Kyle Planning and Design, noticed the former Bell and Whistle was available for rent, he urged her to bring her talents to the area. She and her family uprooted their lives in Cherry Hill to open SweetGrass in the space behind Boro Bean.

She said she was drawn to Hopewell’s small town, neighborly charm, which resonates with the sense of Southern hospitality she hopes to evoke in her space.

“I’m trying to buy locally as much as I can. Here, everyone kind of helps each other out. Everyone’s been welcoming, it’s not a place for cutthroat competition,” she said.

SweetGrass’ one-page menu may look short, but Gresko said it allows her to be more creative about components she selects, and think deeply about what each one will bring to the plate.

“I like to take one ingredient and do certain things to make it shine, to use different techniques to increase the flavor and intensity and really showcase that ingredient,” Gresko said.

Another Southern specialty SweetGrass offers is shrimp and grits. When Gresko was a student, she and her group of friends spent weekends conducting their own self-guided food tours around Charleston. She would always order shrimp and grits, a dish that never bored her because of the infinite number of ways it can be garnished.

Her own version of this low country staple is drenched in a hushpuppie batter, floured and fried. She pairs the grits with pickled okra and a punchy Creole sauce.

Gresko hopes that her inventive dishes will encourage a playful, relaxed environment in the restaurant.

“I wanted people to have fun and use their fingers, to basically play with their food. Adults don’t necessarily think it’s appropriate. That’s where I wanted to lighten it,” she said. “I want people to come in and have fun; I don’t want them to think it’s a stuffy place where they have to act any sort of way.”

Gresko has more than 15 years of restaurant experience. Most recently, she worked as executive chef and acting food and beverage director at Doubletree Guest Suites in Mount Laurel, and as a pastry chef for a busy West Berlin bakery.

For more information call 333–8912 or visit sweetgrassrestaurant.com.

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