It is often in the attention accorded the lowliest of ingredients that a chef's truest love can be discerned, and at Marigold Kitchen you cannot help but notice the ritual surrounding the grits - coarse yellow, ground by stone, from historic Byrd Mill.
In the end - after hours of low-simmering and whisking (every 10 minutes, dictated by the buzz of a timer!), chilling, and hard-beating over the space of two days - they are transcendent things, buttery and risottolike in their classic pairing with shrimp, an altogether different species from what you'd expect.
It is the turn of Erin O'Shea at the head of Marigold's freshly Southern-ized kitchen, the third chef in a batting order of exceptional talents - the avant-garde Steven Cook (who still owns the place), and later Israeli-born (and Vetri-bred) Michael Solomonov, both now collaborating on Zahav, the new spot at the foot of Society Hill Towers.
So Marigold regulars who may have ordered sweetbreads with crispy chicken skin and tahini, or juicy barramundi fish with creamy apple and celery-root puree as recently as Christmas, need to radically adjust their compass headings.
And not just for the land of cotton: What O'Shea is doing with Southern fare - not playing to type, or country, or soul - is on the order of what Susanna Foo did with Chinese; kept the accent and pantry, but upended the predictable feel, technique and presentation.
The turnip soup, sweet and airy, is poured tableside over a tiny Virginia ham and apple biscuit. Spiced pecans spice up the butter-lettuce salad (but so do pear and aged Gouda). The chiffonade of collard greens, lightly creamed, is an elegant take on the warhorse of greens; sauteed, not stewy, greasy and limp.
Corn bread ennobled with buttermilk and chive is accompanied by slivers of Virginia Wigwam ham (a smoked country ham) and sunny-side-up egg, $7; and it's crumbled in the subtle cornbread-pear stuffing in a roulade of tender chicken breast, $18.
O'Shea was tutored in French technique under Jimmy Sneed, the "colorful" (that's the adjective unfailingly attached to him) chef-owner of Richmond, Va.'s, widely acclaimed, and now closed, the Frog & the Redneck.
Sneed was a rising Southern star in the '80s, a disciple of the Watergate Hotel's legendary Jean-Louis Palladin; he started O'Shea at the bottom of the pot - as the grit-stirrer.
Grits, it would seem, are as basic as it gets; take coarse-ground cornmeal, add water, salt, butter, and boil. Hoo-boy! Not so fast. Like the pit-cooked pork barbecue battle - tomato-based versus vinegar-based - grit-making gets deeply personal. Even a tad acrimonious.
In Charleston, you'll find a history of grits made with milk, said to be (by Anson Mills, one of the finer suppliers) a colonial tradition "picked up from Italian engineers brought to design the rice fields." There's the divide, as well, between white and yellow corns. And let's not get into the contempt true-grit types have for the watery, insipid puddles produced from those boxes of instant, quick-cook grits.
In the new-model Marigold (featuring the same rambling Victorian boardinghouse dining room that has served West Philadelphia's Spruce Hill neighborhood for generations), the grits are from Byrd Mill in Ashland, Va., stone-ground cold to preserve the germ and flavor.
They are mixed four parts liquid (half water and half chicken stock) to one part grits. They are boiled; this loosens the hulls, which can be skimmed off as they float to the top.
On a very low flame, they are stirred every 10 minutes for five hours, then chilled overnight into the texture of firm polenta. Then that is broken down the next evening and reheated with more stock and a knob (grits recipes always call it a "knob") of butter.
Finally, a cook goes at them with a heavy-gauge whisk - "beats the hell out of them," O'Shea says - unleashing the starch, rendering them creamy but still robust, and full of chewiness and, yes, the down-home flavor of dried corn.
For body, two chopped shrimp go into the appetizer portion. Another shrimp is curled on top next to a half-penny of smoked Surry sausage.
And that's it - shrimp and grits - topped with a shaving of pecorino, each flavor still its own: "I want the grits," O'Shea says, "to taste like grits."
But not like any grits you've tasted before.
501 S. 45th St. (at Larchwood Avenue)