Tuna Dish Embodies Sweet Grass’ Stellar Fare

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

One in an occasional series on the signature dishes of local chefs.

Ryan Trimm, chef and owner of Sweet Grass, holds his signature dish of grilled yellowfin tuna with fried oysters, Carolina mustard BBQ sauce, ham butter and tomatoes. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Oh, I can tell you what my customers think our signature dish is,” said Ryan Trimm, chef and co-owner of Sweet Grass in Cooper-Young. “And I can tell you what I think it should be.”

Sweet Grass, where the fare leans toward Carolina Low Country, has been open 10 months, and already Trimm has been nominated for a People’s Best Chef Award in Food & Wine magazine. His partner in Sweet Grass is longtime Midtown restaurateur Glenn Hays. Trimm was chef de cuisine at The Grove Grill for six years before teaming up with Hays.

“I mean, I’ve cooked our shrimp and grits thousands of times because people love it and they order it constantly, but I would really like our signature dish to be the pork osso buco or the tuna with ham butter and fried oysters. I think those dishes are much more creative and offer the customer a different experience.”

We choose the tuna, because, as Trimm says, “the pork osso buco is really heavy,” and the tuna, perhaps not the lightest of dishes to be sure, still feels more spring-like.

At 10:15, the dining room and the narrow kitchen at Sweet Grass teem with activity as the staff prepares for lunch service. Nevertheless, Trimm commandeers the stove and the grill to make the dish, officially described on the menu as Grilled Yellowfin Tuna, Crisp Fried Oysters, Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce, Benton County Ham Butter and Tomatoes.

What, you’re asking, is ham butter, and well you should.

Trimm drops a few small shards of country ham into a sauce pan, places the pan on a burner and turns on the flame. In a few moments, the pieces of ham begin to sizzle.

“You want to pull as much fat out of the ham as possible because, well, that’s where all the flavor is.”

He splashes in a dollop of white wine and “a little tiny bit” of chicken stock. “We make all our stocks in the kitchen,” Trimm says, “chicken stock, shrimp stock, veal, rabbit, whatever.”

He dribbles a touch of cream into the simmering mixture and then knives in a thick pat of butter. “The cream helps stabilize the butter and keep it from breaking up.”

That’s the ham butter.

Trimm brushes a mixture of olive oil and vegetable oil on the 5-ounce portion of tuna and lays it on the hot grill. “You want those grill marks,” he says. “They look pretty, even though we’re going to cover them up.” He turns the tuna over and brushes on a spoonful of the mustard-based Carolina barbecue sauce. “That really makes a nice glaze.”

While the tuna is on the grill, Trimm dredges large Gulf Select oysters through a pan of corn meal, lays them in a metal mesh basket and drops the basket into the deep-fryer. “This is all we use the fryer for,” he says, “this and the goat cheese croutons.” The oysters snap and sizzle in the furiously bubbling oil. As he lifts the basket out of the oil, he says, “I don’t like to fry the oysters too hard. That makes them tough.”

Now to assemble the dish.

Across the surface of a white plate, Trimm draws an abstract zig-zag of the Carolina barbecue sauce and sets the tuna, grilled to medium-rare, squarely on top. Three little heaps of diced tomatoes are placed at triangle points around the tuna. The oysters balance on top of the tuna – these are large enough that Trimm uses two instead of three – and then he ladles the ham butter, really a sauce, with bits of ham in it over and around the tuna, so the two sauces mix a bit on the plate.

“The acidity of the barbecue sauce helps cut the fat and the richness of the ham butter,” Trimm says, and he’s right. You feel the contrast and the balance of the two sauces as they complement the tuna and the oysters in their own way.

The final touch is a scattering of chopped scallions.

The menu at Sweet Grass offers “Small Plates” ($4-$10); “Medium Plates” ($14-$17); and “Large Plates” ($22 to $24). The tuna and oyster dish is available both as a medium plate ($17) and a large plate ($23).

“A lot of people ask what we mean by small, medium and large,” says Trimm, “and I say, ‘Are you hungry or really hungry?’ We get a lot of people here early because they’re going to Playhouse, and they can have small plates and be satisfied and get to the theater.”

Trimm, 31, and his wife Sarah, a first-grade teacher at St. Mary’s School for Girls, are expecting their first baby early in May.

“Yeah,” he says, “first baby, first business, first everything, it’s crazy but it’s working.”

Trimm mentions that Sweet Grass is expanding into the adjacent space to open a separate bar, which should be launched in three weeks or so.

“I hate to use the term ‘upscale sports bar,’ but that’s sort of the idea. There will be a different bar menu with small plates running $7 to $13. Same kitchen, of course. And a different name, maybe Sweet Grass Next Door, but we’re not committed to anything yet.”

The bar inside the restaurant will remain in place.