July 27 2011 12:00 AM

Williamston is buzzing over an awesome eatery


Downtown Williamston maintains the charm
of a small Midwestern town, with row buildings housing retail shops,
hometown insurance agents and a handful of restaurants.  I expected to discover a greasy spoon serving fried eggs.

What I didn’t expect to find was Gracie’s
Place, with some of the finest dining in the area, sitting on a humble
corner at the edge of downtown.

I learned quickly of its popularity on a
Friday evening. The dining space was bustling with activity,
conversations layered one on top of another, waitstaff bouncing like
lasers from kitchen to table and back. One table was left unreserved for
the evening, on the patio, in the still-hot sunlight without an
umbrella. We decided to reserve a spot for Saturday, an advisable
practice when visiting Gracie’s Place.

Like Williamston itself, with a
personality split between sleepier village days and a growing suburban
hub, the décor mixes old and new: Gracie’s Place is contemporary with
stark white walls and unornamented black tables and chairs. But it’s
classic Main Street too, with a faux tin ceiling, paintings from local
artists hanging for sale and a red ochre brick wall with roughly spread
mortar filling joints along one end of the building.   

A U-shaped bar dominates the front of the
space, which was packed shoulder-to-shoulder on our first stop. In
back, another drink counter overlooks the kitchen, where focused cooks
rile and then tame flames — reflections of orange flares flicker in the
stainless steel hood — searing and sizzling entrées on the grill.

We began with Gracie’s cheese plate ($12)
and cranny salad ($4). The plate combined three types of cheese,
strawberry, cantaloupe and a fantastic little peppadew pepper.  My
companion reveled in the sweet-then-spicy pepper, combined with the
earthy salinity of parmesano reggiano. The house-pulled mozzarella,
tender and milky, is drizzled in a high-quality olive oil that retains
the piquant flavor of its fruit and imparts a gentle bitter finish that
dances beautifully with the fresh cheese.  

The cranny salad, with dried cranberries,
fresh dark green leaves and radicchio, walnuts and creamy bleu cheese,
is brought together with a homemade cranberry vinaigrette whose acidity
is tempered by a subtle sweetness. 

And the meal got better.

Like judges in a cutest baby contest, we
had difficulty selecting our main course; they all looked so good. We
went with the cherry grilled chicken ($17) and whitefish ($18) with
green beans and grilled artichoke, red potatoes, tomato and little black

The whitefish was well cooked, moist and flaky without noticeable seasoning.  A bite of fish needed nothing else, though, as long as it was joined on the fork with a small olive and a juicy slice of tomato.  The
green beans and artichoke, cooked with garlic, and potatoes with their
own hint of savory sauce rounded out the flavors of the dish.

I chose the cherry chicken in part for
what came underneath two chicken breasts: coconut-almond quinoa. The
grainy bed did not disappoint — moist and flavorful, a touch of the
tropics under a Midwestern staple of peppery grilled chicken breast.
Sweet cherries, cooked down into a mildly sweet sauce that kept a touch
of tartness from the skin of the berries, crowned it all — little dark red domes intermixed with white crumbles of creamy, tangy, melt-in-your-mouth goat cheese. 

And the meal got better.

For dessert, we went with the lightest option: lemon panna
cotta ($7) in a shallow pool of watermelon purée with bits of
cantaloupe on top. My companion was especially disappointed espresso was
not available to finish off our evening with the sweet treat. The
coffee we did order was a touch overcooked, and the decaf was pretty

The panna cotta — firmer than pudding, less dense than ice
cream — is the perfect choice on a hot summer evening: pleasantly sweet
with a distinctive lemon flavor, flecks of vanilla bean and a hint of
what I guessed was mascarpone.   

Our waitress — young, like most of the staff — chatted
when we wanted to know more about the food (many of the ingredients are
as local as possible), Gracie’s Place’s history (a major renovation last
year after a few years as a coffeehouse and small deli), or the décor.
Despite the action all around, she remained attentive and gracious.

Gracie’s Place hums with life inside; on the streets outside, any buzz it earns is certainly well deserved.

Gracie’s Place
151 S. Putnam, Williamston
(517) 655-1100
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; closed Sunday
TO, P, RES, OM, FB, $$$$