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Tradition with a twist
The Magnolia Grill updates Southern style with a new take on fried green tomatoes and fried chicken
Rebecca Clanton, owner of the new Magnolia Grill, sits with her son Travis. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan

Transforming traditional Southern food into an upscale dinner experience has been all the rage across the South for several years now.

It has taken a while, but the concept has finally hit the Gainesville dining scene with The Magnolia Grill.

"I would call it upscale fresh Southern cuisine," said Rebecca Clanton, owner of The Magnolia Grill and Sweet Magnolia's Cafe and Bakery. "Everything is fresh, there is never anything frozen as far as vegetables."

The restaurant, located in Main Street Market on the downtown Gainesville square, opened about a month ago and is a creation that emerged from Clanton's other eatery, Sweet Magnolia's.

"Rebecca has had Sweet Magnolia's upstairs and she always wanted to do a Southern-themed restaurant," said Debra Harkrider, restaurant partner and owner of the Main Street Market. "The food is absolutely all her and I'm more the silent partner; she's really the person that does everything."

Entrees include a uniquely Southern version of Shepherds Pie with layers of meatloaf, baby peas, macaroni and cheese and garlic mashed potatoes as well as more traditional fare like Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Fried Catfish and Steak Dianne.

"The Catfish Classique has become one of our more popular dishes over the last few weeks," Clanton said. "It's just regular catfish and we make this vermouth cream sauce and add shrimp to it and pour it over the top of the catfish. It's like a dish that you would get more north of here but we just put that Southern twist to it and use catfish."

For the dredging batter Clanton uses one egg, milk, flour, salt and ground red pepper. She dredges the catfish fillets twice and fries them in a Dutch oven with vegetable oil.

For the vermouth cream sauce, she melts butter in a skillet, then adds shrimp and garlic.

The recipe also calls for vermouth, whipping cream, green onions and lemon juice.

Clanton serves the catfish on a platter drizzled with the vermouth cream sauce and topped with shrimp and green onions.

At The Magnolia Grill, the dish is served with collard greens, a dish that Clanton is very particular about.

"We buy collard greens by the bushel and clean them ourself," she said. "We cut the stems off - personally I don't like the stems in my collard greens. I want just the leafy greens."

Harkrider added that people who don't typically like collard greens have been raving about the side dish. The menu, which was kept on the small side, does have uniquely Southern starters for guests.
"My grandmother grew the most incredible tomatoes and I guess that's where I got the idea for the fried green tomatoes," Clanton said. "This summer we will do something with tomato and cucumber with onion and the vinegar dressing.

"The Georgia Fritters are smoked Gouda cheese and we make a batter and shred the cheese and roll it in a ball then roll it in that batter and deep fry it. It poufs up and we serve that with a barbecue aioli sauce and a pear slaw for presentation. It's kind of like a Southern-style cheese stick."

Other starters are the Fried Crab Claws and Grilled Bay Shrimp. The four appetizers range from $6 to $12.

A Black Angus Burger also is offered on the dinner menu along with a Blackened Grouper Sandwich and children's items. The entrees and sandwiches range from $10 to $16.

The full bar offers drinks such as Peach Cobbler Martini, Moonshine Mule, Mint Julep and Tennessee Tea.

"We have been doing infusions for drinks ... real fun stuff," Harkrider said. "But we want people to know this is a great place to come and socialize after work and have a drink, too."

The decor in the new restaurant has a modern Southern appeal, with large black and white photos of magnolia blossoms, splashes of bright lime on the walls and sleek new light fixtures.

Clanton said she has hopes her new restaurant will become something that will remain in the family, with son Travis Clanton.

"(Travis) mostly he's here a lot more than me," Rebecca said. "I really hope that he will take this over ... he does everything from cooking to management; to me this is going to be his baby."

The restaurant offers entertainment for a more mature crowd, with an upcoming dinner show from Clutch, a Las Vegas-style band performing hits from the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

"I am a Panama City native and when we had family come into town we would always take them to the Breakers to see Clutch," Clanton said. "So when we got this going I just thought, ‘How great would it be if we could have somebody like Clutch?'"

The dinner show will be at 7 and 9:30 p.m. May 2-3. The 7 p.m. show will feature a dinner buffet and the 9:30 p.m. show is for entertainment only. Reservations are recommended and tickets are $40 for the buffet and show and $25 for the show only.

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