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A feast, edible and visual, at Opelika’s Botanic restaurant

Alabama Living Magazine
A serene scene greets guests arriving at Botanic, and it continues into every area of the large property.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on at Botanic. Everywhere you point your eyes at this combo nursery, garden shop, home decor store, and cafe-bar-restaurant in Opelika, there’s a visual feast waiting. Every conceivable shade of green pops from houseplants, bushes and trees. Flowers explode in a riot of rainbow colors. And the collection of buildings, holding greenhouses, eateries and retail spaces, blends into the natural surroundings with layers of landscaping, worn-wood beams and stone elements. 

But it’s the actual edible feast that has the dining room of Botanic’s restaurant The Grille (accessed via a stroll through a verdant oasis) packed at lunchtime on a spring Tuesday. 

Botanic’s chef James Jolly serves up dishes that are both creative and comforting.

Ladies celebrating a birthday dip lettuce wraps stuffed with red curry chicken, pickled veggies and peanuts into a salty tamari-hoisin sauce. A young couple tuck into a bowl of warm and creamy Conecuh-sausage-corn dip with crisp house-made tortilla chips. A delightfully rowdy group of retirees sips macchiatos and munches on fried chicken sandwiches with spicy Wickles Pickles spread and “grown-up” grilled cheeses: ooey-gooey gouda (from nearby Thomasville, Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy), fig jam, tart apple slices and bacon between slices of sourdough. 

A juicy chicken breast over crisp kale and cobble, apple and cucumber chunks, toasted pumpkin seeds and salty feta combine in the chopped crunch salad.

The menu’s selections are innovative but not too complicated, a little elegant but still accessible; Executive Chef James Jolly describes the concept as “a refined Southern dining experience.” But, he stresses, refined doesn’t mean snooty. “We want the food and the atmosphere to feel unpretentious,” he says. And his other goal — in addition to serving delicious dishes — is in step with Botanic’s motto: “of and for the earth.” “We’re really focused on sustainability when it comes to our food.”

Built on local and seasonal ingredients, the Grille’s options at lunch, dinner and brunch reflect these ideas and Jolly’s overall food philosophy. “We do scratch cooking, making all we can, about 85-90 percent, in our kitchen,” he says. “I’m always asking myself, ‘What’s ripe and abundant now and what can I do with it?’” 

With summer coming, that means diners can expect dishes that put a spotlight on the bounty from area harvests. “Summer is my favorite time of year, bringing me my favorite ingredients,” Jolly says. And while The Grille’s menu changes throughout the year, every summer, Jolly’s “favorite ingredients” make their way into some sort of succotash dish. There’ll be a crispy stone-ground grit cake with some type of cheese and a swirl of heirloom tomato sauce (maybe it will be smoked). And the star — the succotash — is mix of farm-fresh delights: okra (possibly flash-fried), cherry tomatoes, lady or purple-hull peas, lima beans and always bacon. “I want all of summer in one pan,” he says. “It’s an elevated take on a Southern summer supper that’s so comforting.”

Honey vanilla pot de creme topped with a blackberry-citrus jelly and honeycomb-shaped cookie ends a meal at The Grille on a sweet note.

Jolly is particularly passionate about another seasonal gem: Alabama peaches. After 2023’s lackluster crop (due to a late freeze), he’s getting ready to peach-out, using the sweet, soft fruit in cocktails, desserts (like a peach cobbler cheesecake), appetizers (perhaps grilled peaches cozied up to creamy burrata) and thick pork chops topped with a peach salsa. “That’s serving great-tasting food but also cutting down on waste, increasing our sustainability,” he says.

It’s clear Jolly relishes playing and experiment in the kitchen, and it’s a mindset he’s instilling in his team, too. “I like to give all my chefs the freedom to be creative,” he says. “I have some great cooks here, and I like to let them go and show off their skills.”

And the foods and flavors of The Grille are just a taste of Botanic. If you’re in a hurry, pop into the market for a toffee nut and honey iced coffee and a salted caramel brownie. If you’re more interested in a refreshing libation, head to the patio bar, where you’ll find a blackberry bramble cocktail waiting. Don’t leave without shopping for a few potted plants and veggie starts at the nursery and main greenhouse. And find garden supplies and the works of local artisans (pottery, jewelry and more) at The Garden Shoppe.

The greenhouse.

Mirroring the thousands of green things soaking up sun and water and getting bigger every day, Botanic is expanding too. When its construction is finished, a new 10,000-square-foot greenhouse will soon allow Jolly to grow more for use in Botanic’s kitchens. “We currently have some raised beds where we grow lettuces, tomatoes and peppers,” he says. “But I can only get so much out of that. With the new greenhouse, I’ll be able to produce enough vegetables and fruits to run our restaurants and maybe even have a surplus to sell to the public.”

The garden.

The aptly named The Garden is also coming soon. The dining space and event venue will deliver a unique eating experience, a full immersion in Mother Nature, with tables surrounded by shrubbery and blooms and climbing vines, all under a greenhouse glass roof that can be opened when weather permits. “It’s a multi-purpose space, with a martini bar and a beer garden area too,” Jolly says. It will host breakfast, brunch and lunch as well as private events and special Botanic dinner and entertainment events at night.

For Jolly, food is a focus — “I want to blow people away with flavor,” he says. But he also puts emphasis on the entire Botanic experience, which begins with a warm welcome. “I don’t want anyone to feel they don’t belong at Botanic,” he says. “The spaces are so inviting — all the plants set that tone; nature is inclusive — and they are for everyone to enjoy. We want to give people more than a meal; we want to help them create memories here.”

The Grille at Botanic

1702 Frederick Road, Opelika AL 36801

334-748-9082

Shopbotanic.com

Hours:
Dinner Reservations | Tuesday – Saturday 5 – 9 p.m.
Lunch | Tuesday – Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Sunday Buffet 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Closed Mondays

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