Riding on the coattails of the renowned Heirloom Restaurant in Midway, Distilled at Gratz Park is a stylish and sophisticated destination for classic, refined Southern food. The name Distilled is more than just a nod to the restaurant’s extensive bourbon and cocktail selection. It also suggests the theme of the menu: classic dishes taken down to their essence so that the flavors really shine. Chef/Owner Mark Wombles and his team work with fresh, local ingredients while taking a creative and often surprising approach to Southern cuisine.
Those who have visited the Gratz Park Inn on West Second Street will hardly recognize the space that formerly housed Jonathan’s at Gratz Park. The restaurant in Lexington’s most historic boutique hotel has been given a complete makeover, and the dining room has been opened up to reveal a modern, airy, and sociable space. Metallic accents and cool gray, white, periwinkle and lavender tones create a contemporary and relaxing environment.
Chef Mark Wombles says that the menu at Distilled features a decidedly Southern flair – think fried chicken and waffles, crab cakes, and country ham. But at the same time, guests should expect the unexpected. “We’re trying to present Southern food with an element of surprise,” he said. “Plus, our menu changes frequently so we can offer the freshest seasonal fruits, vegetables, meats and fish.”
It may be surprising to learn that Distilled offers a breakfast menu. Because the restaurant regularly serves hotel guests, the kitchen opens at 7 am, serving up classics like Wiesenberger Grits and Sausage, Buttermilk Lemon Poppy Seed Pancakes, Chicken Biscuits and Gravy, and the Frittata of the Day.
Lunch selections include Vanilla Bourbon Roasted Parsnip Soup, Cheesesteak Sandwich with Beef Tenderloin, Sautéed Mushrooms, and Crispy Bacon on a baguette, and a Crab Cake Sandwich with Spicy Fresno Slaw, served on a Challah Bun.
And for dinner, expect showstoppers like Grippo Crusted Rabbit, Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin, Sweet Glazed Short Ribs and Sweet Potato & Mascarpone Agnolotti. When asked about customer favorites, Wombles mentioned the Maine Lobster Salad, which is served with Chive Cream, Toasted Sourdough, and Fried Egg. “It’s one of the most popular items on our menu, and looks beautiful on the plate,” he said.
Distilled makes it a priority to support local farms such as Marksbury Farm, to bring fresh and seasonal foods to their guests. In addition, there is a beehive located on the roof of Gratz Park Inn that supplies honey for cooking and cocktails. Bourbon is prominently featured at the Distilled bar – for example, The Revolver (Bourbon, Coffee Liquor, Orange Bitters) or the Bourbon Buck (Bourbon, Lemon Juice, Simple Syrup, Fresh Strawberries, Ginger Beer), but guests will also find an extensive wine list and an array of specialty cocktails and local craft beer.
With Heirloom and now Distilled, it would seem that Wombles has always had a fondness for Southern food, but in fact, that connection has been more recent. “My former background had more to do with California cuisine,” he explained. “I went to school in San Francisco and worked there for several years. When we opened Distilled, I wanted to explore Southern cuisine and try to put a modern spin on it. I love the whole Southern hospitality thing…cookouts with lots of fixings. People just seem to be nicer in the South and that translates into entertaining with food.”
When asked how he defines hospitality, Wombles said, “It means a lot of things, but mostly it is to welcome and enchant someone. People love new experiences and love to be taken care of. That’s what we do in the restaurant business. We try to transport people into another world where they can slip away for an hour or so, and forget their stresses.”
Q&A with Chef Mark Wombles
Your job title: Chef/Owner, Distilled, Heirloom, Mezzo Italian Café
Your age: 39
Tell us about the overall concept for Distilled. How does it differ from Heirloom? The concept doesn’t differ too much from Heirloom. We wanted to have a minimal approach to the decor so that most of the focus would be on the food.
What was the last thing you cooked for yourself? A taco.
What is your favorite food or food memory from your childhood? My mom is an incredible cook. We had a huge garden and she would always cook something from the garden: fried green tomatoes, BLTs with tomatoes still warm from the garden. My mother would also make the best chili I’ve ever had, even to this day! Her butterscotch pie was unbelievable!
How would you describe working in your kitchen? The best way to describe it is even-keel. I like to keep things calm and composed in the kitchen. We do like to pull the occasional prank on one another.
What chefs do you admire (Lexington or others)? I honestly admire any chef that does well in this business on any level. I appreciate when chefs take a simple approach to food.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? Ketchup from 2013. We never eat at home!
A meal or a dish that, as a young chef, was an inspiration or a revelation? I was inspired by everything as a young chef. I would often become fixated on a particular dish. It would become like an obsession and then I would move on to something else. I guess I had a “flavor of the month” type of mentality.
Last restaurant where you dined? Miyako.
If someone wanted to start a restaurant, what 3 things would you tell them? Have a lot of passion, work hard, and don’t give up!
What is one dish on your menu that will follow you wherever you go? Chicken livers from Heirloom! People LOVE them!
Favorite meat & way to prepare it? I’m more of a fish type of guy, but occasionally I get a hankering for a steak. If that’s the case, I sear it at a high temperature, with lots of butter, pepper, and fresh thyme.
What are your guilty pleasures? I gave them up after having kids.
Quote you live by? I have two. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”- Aristotle. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” - Ferris Bueller.
You have a beehive on top of the restaurant and make your own honey. Do you use that same DIY approach in other ways? Not at the moment. However, we do plan to make our own burrata (a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) at our new restaurant, Mezzo Italian Café in Midway.
What food trends are you excited about? What trends do you wish would go away? I’m not much to follow trends. I just do what I like.
Cocktail Recipe: Thistles of New York
2 ounces Cardamaro
1 ounce Bourbon whiskey
¾ ounces freshly squeezed lemon juice
¾ ounces simple syrup
2 ounces red wine
Combine 2 ounces Cardamaro with the Bourbon whiskey. Add the ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice, and ¾ ounces simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice, cover, and shake until outside of shaker is frosty, about 30 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Gently pour ½ ounce fruity red wine (such as Shiraz or Malbec) over the back of a spoon held just above the drink’s surface so wine floats on top.