Photo by Milton Morris
Jeff Dennis is in control of the kitchen and the menu at Simply Southern Bistro. “Nothing here is diet food,” he says, laughing.
Maybe it’s the word “Southern” that leads first-time diners at Simply Southern Bistro to expect a traditional meat-and-three menu.
Don’t. Instead, executive chef Jeff Dennis says, focus on the word “bistro,” a place to go for casually elegant comfort food. He designed his Sumter restaurant to serve creative, made-from-scratch meals in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
Nobody’s going home hungry after eating the bistro’s hearty shrimp and grits, prime rib melt, fried green tomatoes, baked pimiento cheese dip, or loaded chicken biscuit—a cheese biscuit covered in mashed potatoes, buttermilk fried chicken and sausage gravy.
Dennis satisfies diners with flavorful meats, full plates, and occasional surprises like fried duck croissants (topped with bacon, cheddar and fried egg) and pork belly with brie.
“I’ve taken what I’ve learned cooking in different places, incorporating some things, tweaking some things,” says Dennis, who earned a degree in culinary arts from Charleston’s Trident Technical College.
He opened Simply Southern Bistro six years ago with his parents, Wayne and Gail Dennis, members of Black River Electric Cooperative. He was accustomed to long hours in restaurant kitchens, starting as a dishwasher at 17 and cooking at Mexican, Italian, seafood, rotisserie-chicken and fine-dining establishments. At 28, he was ready to make the leap to his own space, and his parents were ready to help.
“They had the money, and I had the drive and the will,” Dennis says.
“He had the experience and the ambition,” Gail Dennis adds. “You know, he’d been working in all these restaurants, but we really didn’t know what he could do until we opened this place.”
The Dennises found a former sub shop in a small shopping strip and put in a full-service kitchen. They gave the interior a cozy makeover with warm red and gold walls, cushiony dining booths, and great spaces for conversation. Jeff Dennis cooks; his parents manage the dining area.
“Jeff is over that whole kitchen—we don’t know anything about it,” Gail Dennis says.
“He won’t let me in the kitchen—he runs me out,” Wayne Dennis jokes.
Specials change every few days, allowing Dennis to try out new dishes and desserts. It’s still a lot of hours in the kitchen, he says, but “it’s rewarding, when it’s yours.
“You’re the one bringing the people in and cooking the food they enjoy.”
Loaded chicken biscuit
2½ cups Adluh biscuit mix
2–3 cups buttermilk, divided
½ cup shredded cheddar cheese
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2–3 cups Adluh seafood breader
½ cup mix of finely diced onion, peppers and celery
4 ounces smoked sausage, sliced thin
½ cup white wine
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 cups heavy cream
Salt, pepper and Cajun seasoning to taste
1–2 teaspoons roux (equal parts blended flour and water)
Preheat oven to 425 F. Blend biscuit mix, 1 cup buttermilk and shredded cheese; shape into biscuits, and bake 17–20 minutes.
In deep pan or fryer, heat cooking oil to 350 F. Coat chicken breasts in seafood breader, then remaining buttermilk, then back in breader. Fry chicken until meat temperature reaches 165 F.
In small skillet, saute onion, peppers, celery and sausage. Add wine; continue cooking over medium heat until sauce reduces slightly. Add garlic, cream and seasonings. Bring to a simmer; thicken sauce with roux.
To assemble, cut biscuit in half. Put bottom half on plate, and layer with mashed potatoes, fried chicken breast, wine gravy and top of biscuit.
Simply Southern Bistro
65 W. Wesmark Blvd., Sumter | (803) 469-8502 | simplysouthernbistro.com
Hours: Sunday–Tuesday, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5–9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m.