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Mountain Home Magazine

Orlando Rodriguez Crafts Graft

Oct 01, 2021 09:30AM ● By Karey Solomon

Orlando Rodriguez always knew he’d want to open a restaurant—someday. An award-winning chef at Glenora Winery’s Veraisons restaurant, where he was cited as one of the best winery-based chefs in a 2018 article in Food and Wine magazine, he planned on staying at a job he liked several more years before looking for a place solely his own. He knew he wanted it to be in Watkins Glen, close to where he lives with his family.

But in 2019 he was surprised to find a restaurant looking for him.

Begun by the Marks family, Graft, at 204 N. Franklin Street in Watkins Glen, already had an attractive industrial-chic style and a following. One wall in the deep narrow dining area is filled with mirrors; the pedestal tables are walnut and polished concrete, the seating is on benches and stools seemingly carved from venerable old trees. The concrete and walnut bar echoes the look of the tables, with an inset channel filled with small lake stones. Rodriguez liked its décor and found the building needed only minimal renovation. He re-opened in November 2019, only a month after buying the business, putting his own stamp on the menus he offers each day.

Having listened to his customers, he learned they wanted an option for heartier food, more entrees and tapas, so he added those while still keeping his menu varied and brief.

“Having a short menu is great,” he says. “I can rotate in whatever I want. You could come in today and eat and then come in tomorrow and the menu might be different.”

For instance, at this writing the menu features locally grown “Toybox” cherry tomatoes in one salad, oven-roasted shishito peppers with cilantro-lime aioli in another. A popular takeout item continued from the depths of the pandemic, the roasted half-chicken, is currently served with cauliflower and roasted potatoes, sides likely to change as the season progresses. Seafood offerings vary with availability. Garlic scapes and other unique seasonal specialties appear for a star turn and disappear when no longer freshly available.

“Last year people loved sides of squash,” he notes. “But we had a short season due to the drought. I love root vegetables. I think they showcase the area and bring out a lot. And I love duck. I run duck dishes and people love them.”

From the beginning, having a deep appreciation of the area’s growers, Rodriguez decided to put local products front and center. The food has to pass additional scrutiny—“I can tell the difference between a good product and a bad product,” he says. The food he plates needs to be flavorful as well as beautiful before it’s brought to the table.

The bar features local beers with a constantly-changing roster on-tap, plus wines and ciders. The menu board tells diners where many of their ingredients originated. Cheese plates feature local artisanal cheeses served with some of the best bread in the region.

He searches out specialty ingredients, like a particular fingerling potato grown on one farm, and celeriac, better known in Europe than here.

In the kitchen—so small there’s only truly room for Rodriguez, who is not a large person—all meals are prepared to order. In buying Graft, he moved from working as an executive chef in charge of an active crew of sous-chefs and other kitchen assistants to being his own sous-chef with limited equipment. And he loves it. “I don’t have a freezer here,” he says, so everything is cooked fresh, made the day it’s served—for the most part, minutes earlier. “What comes in goes out.” Only the locally-raised chicken, which has to be marinated for twenty-four hours before it’s cooked, is prepared ahead.

For everything else, he begins food prep in the late morning—“I try,” he admits. “A lot of times I’m here earlier!” to be ready for the early dinner crowd.

It works for his customers, some of whom were checking out the day’s menu and gazing longingly inside as we talked. At this time, Graft opens at 4 p.m. for tapas, drinks, and dinner, so they were going to need to wait. His customers are split between locals and tourists, with many repeats, including tourists who head for Graft each time they come to the Finger Lakes.

Server Jerakah Heady has known Rodriguez for a decade, having first worked with him at Veraisons. She became a server at Graft as soon as he reopened.

She says she likes the seasonally changing menu because “there’s always something fresh and unique.” And, “Not only is his food amazing but he’s an excellent boss and very conscious of the community. He’s built a great rapport in the Finger Lakes.”

Heady works with a local women’s charity organizing a special event for the group each year. Rodriguez helps by being one of the sponsors. When meatballs were on the event’s menu, he donated the ingredients, covered the bar with foil, and used that space after hours for a meatball-rolling work party.

“He’s a great guy, a great person to work for. He’ll greet customers and seat them if we’re busy; he’ll even carry plates of food to tables and talk to customers. He’s very hands-on. We’re blessed to have someone in the community so great at their craft and also invested in the community,” Heady sums up. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he makes crème brûlée each year for her birthday. Or that those who work for Rodriguez, as well as those who eat at Graft, are often treated to the sound of his booming, contagious laugh.

“People say my food has a lot of flavor,” he says, pausing before another contagious, booming laugh rings out. “I call it love.” Find a menu online at graftwineciderbar.com and find updates on their Facebook page and on Instagram. Seating is based on availability and arrival as Graft does not take reservations.