The Praising of Grill House
Contrary to popular belief, I don't judge a restaurant by its glitches. I judge a restaurant by how it responds to or tries to correct its glitches.
Indulge me in a for-instance or two. Several years ago at a popular fine-dining restaurant in southwestern Broward County, my husband and I waited 30 minutes for our table, despite the fact that we had a reservation. Finally we were seated at a table for two in a smaller dining area known as the wine room, where the stock of alcohol was stored. Loving the vino the way that I do, this would have been fine with me, except that the other 20 or so patrons in the vicinity were all in the same private party, celebrating a birthday or some such event. Naturally we felt like awkward gatecrashers and asked to change tables. But instead of acknowledging she should never have seated us there in the first place, the grump of a hostess agreed to move us only if we waited all over again as she accommodated other customers, those both with and without reservations, first. After another hour, and several expensive glasses of wine that we bought ourselves at the bar, we were eventually reseated at the worst table in the house -- the one adjacent to the restroom door.
Then there was the outdoor cafe on South Beach's Ocean Drive that used paper lanterns as table accents. The busboy insisted on lighting ours despite the fact that it was a particularly windy evening. Of course the damn thing went up in flames in a matter of seconds. But even though the busboy was at the table filling our water glasses, he declined to pour agua on the mini bonfire that was our centerpiece. "Oh, it'll burn itself out," he said. "This happens all the time." At which point the wind blew it off the table and against the wall of the eatery, and we had to step on the flames to put them out. Lesson learned? Nope. The busboy brought a fresh lantern to the table along with his Bic, which we adamantly refused to allow him to flick.
Needless to say, perhaps, I didn't give either restaurant a very good review.
On the other hand, sometimes an eatery, especially a new joint like the Grill House in Pompano Beach, can impress me by handling minor irritations properly. When we didn't like the table near the entrance where the host wanted to seat us, we were invited to choose any table or floral-patterned booth in the long, narrow room. When we complained that the gleaming, high-temperature stainless steel grill, positioned grandly in the open kitchen, was kickboxing the air conditioning's ass all over the ring, the manager checked the system. Because it had already been serviced several times during the restaurant's six-week-old existence, he thought it likely the repair workers had forgotten to turn the vent back on. He was right: A cooling draft won the night in a unanimous decision.
The back of the house also was refreshingly willing to work with patrons to improve the dining experience. One of my guests wanted the angel hair Lucia, a main course comprising sautéed Gulf shrimp, freshly torn basil, and teardrop tomatoes, cooked without the Pernod that was billed on the menu. The waiter said no problem, but when the pasta arrived the tomato concasse that dressed it reeked of the licorice-flavored liqueur. That was when executive chef George d'Jesus got involved. He came out of the kitchen to explain that the Pernod had already been added to the concasse, so while he couldn't redo the dish he would be happy to toss something similar together. Would that be OK? Indeed it was more than OK -- the olive oil-garlic sauce accented the plump shrimp nicely, and we were pleased with both the overall quality of the ingredients and the breadth of the portion.
In fact many aspects of this place are much better than OK. Smokers aren't banished to the terrace outside or allowed to blow their residue in the direction of nontobacco fans; instead they have a whole dining room to themselves, complete with a bar and fireplace and separated from the nonsmoking dining area by a hallway. Staff members assist with directions to the spotless restrooms without being asked. A familiar but solid California-dominated wine list was, on the evening we dined, augmented by specials (made possible by shipping mistakes), which our waiter recommended over the higher-priced bottle we had previously selected.
Such courtesy, from my point of view, goes a long way toward encouraging return visits as well. For a variety of reasons, we didn't care for several of the items we had ordered. A fried-oyster caesar salad was big enough for several people to share as a starter, but the torn romaine was coated with a Parmesan mixture that had no real anchovy or garlic bite, and the oysters were flat and tinny. Another appetizer, a small stack of fresh mozzarella and sliced tomatoes, was overpriced at $11. Side dishes like the spinach infused with pan-roasted garlic and steamed baby asparagus were bitter and overcooked, and if the latter were babies then they had a serious hypothyroid problem. But I'm betting that the Grill House takes a closer look at these dishes with an eye toward resolving the problems.
There's no reason to fix many of the offerings, such as the mussels superbly poached in white wine, garlic, and basil. Other seafood was also outstanding, like the baked scallop main course, a casserole of delicately flavored sea scallops richly enhanced with a combination of butter and white wine. A similar sauce, this one spiked with key lime, moistened a fillet of flaky Chilean sea bass, which had been encrusted with a coarsely ground mixture of Brazil nuts and almonds. Then there were the masters of the household -- those items cooked on that dominating grill, like the potent churrasco, a tender skirt steak studded with bits of garlic and parsley from a chimichurri marinade. And the dish destined to be a signature: double lamb chops, lightly grilled to a vibrant succulence and softened with a port wine-rosemary reduction.
As are many new restaurants, the Grill House is a work-in-progress. Desserts like the sabayon and berries are mislabeled -- though the fresh fruit it came with was commendable, the topping tasted more like whipped cream. The casual logo engraved on the windows and the architecture of the building, formerly a Ranch House, belie the more serious, white-linen, steak house atmosphere inside. And valet parking is a pretension, not a necessity, given the scope of the adjoining parking lot. However, considering the forthcoming and honest attitude found inside, it's safe to say that this work should continue to progress quickly.
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