Our first visit to Grits Fullerton, the new diner by ex-Hopscotch chef Cody Storts, started awkwardly. After seating our group of four, our server asked for all our names. "We like to be on a first-name basis here," she explained. As she proceeded to scribble our names onto her notepad as if taking roll call, I thought about how weird but strangely refreshing it was. Yet that was the last time she'd address us by name that entire Sunday morning. A different server delivered our dishes. And all interactions we had with her and the rest of the staff during our meal were cordial but anonymous. It's just as well: I couldn't remember what she said her name was anyway.
I did, however, remember her saying the house coffee was cold-brewed for five days and that the restaurant was a "scratch kitchen." She seemed proud of that last part, but so is the website. Grits' home page reads, "The kitchen is wide open and built to scratch-make everything that comes out of it." It continues with this rather bold proclamation: "Because BRUNCH in Fullerton needs a kick in the ass."
What it doesn't mention are the prices. Brunch can cost upward of $22 per dish. You could opt for one of the cheaper main entrées of bacon and egg with biscuits offered at a mere $9, but the menu all but discourages you from trying it--it's in a section labeled "Boring." And when you're here, you don't want something boring. You want something commensurate with the amount of time and effort it took to brew that coffee.
The Pork Cheek Benny is such a dish: a Benedict that also happens to be the least expensive plate of grits that includes some sort of protein and features jalapeños in the porridge. And though it's the kind of meal I knew would slow me down the minute the weight of it settled in my stomach, I ate the whole thing anyway. The yolk of the poached egg was at that perfect silken state between liquid and solid, and the Hollandaise blanketing everything--from the pieces of charred pork cheek with a steak-like chew to the beveled slices of grilled baguette--somehow tasted feather-light, even though it didn't feel that way an hour later.
But then, just about every main entrée we ordered was a gut-bomb. The most popular dish, though not necessarily the best, was the Pork & Grits. The bone-in shank was braised with Dr. Pepper before being placed atop more grits and surrounded by a moat of gravy that couldn't quite rescue it from being underseasoned and dry.
If you prefer sweet over savory, Grits offers a version of French toast that's made from two slices of a dense, multilayered almond lemon cake. Our serving was massive, with the wedges briefly griddle-seared to warm it, then served with Storts' version of sweetened condensed milk, maple syrup and berries. We only managed to chip a few forkfuls off this pastry Rock of Gibraltar; the rest sits in my fridge waiting for an occasion when I can eat it with ice cream.
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I preferred that over the pancake balls, Storts' attempt at ebelskivers that came out with burnt bottoms and looking as flat as deflated whoopee cushions. There are two ways to have the balls: One has it dolled up with hazelnut ganache, raspberry syrup, berries and two hunks of almond butter I never ended up using; the other is about $4 less, with the balls simply dusted with powdered sugar and served alongside maple syrup, butter and fruit. Whichever you choose, they're too close to a short stack at IHOP in a restaurant that tries very hard to be anything but.
This is, after all, a hipster breakfast joint with purposefully mismatched chairs that serves bone marrow with biscuits, puts beef tongue in the chilaquiles, and offers tiny blue crab tostadas with crème fraîche. And when you put in your drink order, you'll be asked whether you want a bowl of the duck broth to start. It's best to pass on the broth since it tastes like nothing. You're better off investing the $2 you would've spent in the $9 pork belly plate--a fat-weeping sampler with four different preparations, including something that approximates an andouille sausage and another that's flavor-packed with curry powder. When I returned two weeks later to try it, the waitstaff had all but ditched the charade with the names. It's probably better to be nameless when you're eating this much pork fat in one sitting anyway.
Grits Fullerton, 133 W. Chapman Ave., Ste. 102, Fullerton, (714) 449-0939; www.gritsfullerton.com. Open daily, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Brunch for two, $20-$50, food only. Beer and wine.