Before the name Topwater stuck, the new restaurant on Pine Street was going to be called “Ca-Tenn.” A little bit California. A little bit Tennessee. With a mix of Southern flavors and style plus the West’s fresh ingredients and vibes, the menu at Topwater Cafe offers traditional favorites made with integrity.
While many in the culinary world strive to go organic, have gluten-free options that tastes good or be sourced locally, Matt and Katie Halecky decided that trying wasn’t enough. When the twentysomethings opened their first restaurant, they just did it. They — along with James Smith, their culinary school peer, friend and daughter’s godfather — created a menu that has mostly gluten-free options.
Each of them work in the kitchen. Matt Halecky cooks and butchers the meat. James Smith, who battles his own gluten intolerance, is the pastry chef (“pastry assassin,” as he is unofficially known at Topwater). Their produce is mostly local, provided by a 20-year-old organic farmer in Lodi, who also picks up the restaurant’s compost each week. The wines are local and include a selection of family wines form Hunters Oak Winery. When it comes to the trendy farm-to-table concept, Topwater is doing it.
“It’s different talking to your farmer,” says Halecky, who at other businesses spoke solely with a food distributor. Now, the question is, “How long has this been on the vine versus being in the truck?”
It’s a new operation in Downtown, but they are going all out — and quickly.
It was at New York’s Culinary Institute of America that Lodi native and 2002 Lodi High School graduate Matt Halecky met and fell in love with Katie, a country girl and foodie from Clarksville, Tenn., where her mom, grandmother and two aunts still live within walking distance of each other. The duo excelled at the institute, and have since worked in restaurants and catering companies. It had always been a dream for Matt Halecky to run a pizza shop, but he completed that goal by the time he was 18 and had managed Pizza Factory in Lockeford.
The dream kept growing, and he had his eye on Downtown Lodi. With family support and an idea for a restaurant, they went to work.
After getting the keys to the doors of what was formerly La Fuente Mexican Restaurant on Mother’s Day this year, they started on the remodel. Smith, who also studied carpentry, built an entirely new bar. Local artist June Sand painted murals on the wall depicting the homey country feel of Southern swamp land — complete with cattails and fireflies — that reminds guests of rustic back-home barbecues.
Their name was painted on the door: “Topwater.” Few people know that Topwater is the name Katie’s 91-year-old grandmother calls her and her own daughter, a title of beauty and magic.
“It’s the shiniest, prettiest little fish that swims close to the surface,” Katie Halecky said.
Their goal for the restaurant was to have an eatery where people can go and feel comfortable, while enjoying a great, affordable meal. Katie Halecky wanted her customers to find a homey, family atmosphere. Every Sunday, her family would eat at her grandmother’s house, and she wanted to bring a little of that tradition to Lodi.
It’s not unlike her to hold customers’ babies in the restaurant while their parents eat. Halecky’s 3-year-old daughter helps around the restaurant, greeting other young guests and giving orders in the kitchen while wearing her own chef’s coat.
“We’re down-to-earth people, and this is a down-to-earth place,” Matt Halecky said.
Though California and Southern — each laid back in their own way — are the restaurant’s theme, the tables are topped with white linen and the food showcases an unique gourmet twist on comfort foods. Take the tri-tip sandwich, which Matt Halecky believes is a California staple. He smoked it, Southern-style, and added a homemade jalapeño heirloom tomato jam before topping it with Swiss cheese. It is served on one of Smith’s fresh-baked baguettes, which is deceptively delicious despite being gluten-free, and made with Smith’s own blend of flour that gives it a crunchy crust but chewy, soft center.
Though meatless, the vegetarian grilled cheesesteak sandwich packs flavor. Sandwiched between two chunks of fresh bread are layers of grilled portobello mushrooms, sautéed sweet peppers, caramelized onions and provolone cheese.
Even the simple grilled cheese gets dressed up with a layer of sliced heirloom tomatoes.
Topwater offers tapas, for guests wanting to share a variety of small plates: Crimson lentil cakes with herb mascarpone, Southern style collard greens (sautéed with pork, garlic and shallots) and stuffed mushrooms. Katie Halecky’s personal favorite is the shrimp and grits, which is a traditional dish of sautéed shrimp, peppers and onion in a white wine marinade served with creamy smoked gouda grits.
Though their doors have been open not even a month, their burgers are already becoming the regulars’ favorite. They change regularly, and are never average. One of the favorites recently was the bacon mushroom burger with house-cured bacon.
When you dine at Topwater, always ask about the specials; that’s where they have fun with new recipes. One regular special is a half-rack of Memphis dry rub ribs
The desserts are Smith’s works of art, and vary on the season. With summer fruits sticking around, they offer a tart that combines fruit and a decadent mascarpone cheese. The BP&J dessert it a take on an upscale version of a classic childhood meal. Instead of using peanut butter, he made a cake out of almond meal and topped with fruit and whipped cream. Like most of the menu, everything is made with freshness and a little imagination.
“If there’s a way to make it in-house, we do,” Matt Halecky said.