Even before the terrorist attacks, our weakening economy was starting to make us consumers ask some tough questions about dining out. Do we want to spend $35 on an entree in an upscale restaurant, or do we want to use that money to buy the baby's formula for the week? Should we take our spouses out to a very expensive dinner and order Veuve Clicquot for their birthdays, or should we cook at home and tap a bottle of Prosecco? How necessary is dessert, after all, when that same ten dollars could be saved for a rainy day?
Since the terrorist attacks, our restaurateurs have apparently responded to the prevailing penuriousness. Prices have been slashed. Menus have been trimmed. Special deals abound. Even the new eateries that had planned to debut are tailoring excess to fit the times, scrapping elaborate global cuisines in favor of American fare or rescaling price points.
Well, most restaurateurs have responded. At the Grill Room on Las Olas, apparently rational thought processes have gone through the food processor.
Grill Room on Las Olas
620 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Dinner Tuesday-Thursday from 6 till 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 till 11 p.m. Call 954-467-0671.
Granted, the Wells family has every reason to resist change and stick with what works: The clan has owned the historic Riverside Hotel, where the Grill Room is located on the ground floor, since 1936. The restaurant, which originally opened about five years ago and had achieved much local success, has been in the redevelopment stage for about a year. But while the digs have undergone pruning, the original theme of the place, a tribute to British Colonial rule, has been meticulously maintained. The double dining room now has carpets and shuttered windows and is done in hues of cream and green -- veddy, veddy British. And veddy, veddy attractive, clearly designed to do as the menu notes: "It is our intention to transport you to a gentler time when British officers enjoyed all the splendors of exotic locations under Colonial rule."
Forget for a moment, or forever, the snobbish implications of this little missive. Ignore the darker sides of occupation and colonization, which had little to do with cigars in drawing rooms and hands of cribbage and a lot to do with oppression of foreign citizens and the trampling of their rights to their own religions, cultures, and lifestyles. Pish and tosh! The real problem with the philosophy behind the Grill Room is that the place's puzzling Victorian revisionism provides hardly any sort of succor in these not-so-gentle times.
But the true feats of illogic are reserved for the pricing. Even if we do want to relive the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, we ain't going to be paying no $38 for no rib steak (18 ounces with the bone in), which is the least expensive meat item on the menu at the Grill Room. Veal rib chop? $38. Filet mignon? $38. Roast rack of lamb for two? Try $68. Ditto the Chateaubriand for two, supposedly carved tableside.
Had the Grill Room reopened last year rather than last month, I could see why the prices would be high. Then they would have been in keeping with the rest of our eateries, where the costs of main courses had been rising faster than a storm surge. And hey, the Grill Room has to make up some of the $25 million spent on hotel and dining renovations. But given all that's gone on since then, charging $48 for a pleasant-but-nothing-special 14-ounce New York strip steak that doesn't come with anything but a pile of stale, oven-roasted potatoes and a meager heap of sautéed vegetables is going to backfire. The Wells family might as well take a skeet gun and shoot the Grill Room in the foyer.
Perhaps the threat of a backside full of buckshot would improve the demeanor of the bartenders and servers, who are almost universally gruff and lazy. While we waited for the rest of our party at the hotel bar, we asked the bartender about Indigo, the hotel's other restaurant (a pan-Southeast Asian place where apparently you can savor the "splendor" of the locals who cooked under the British domination -- er, enlightened rule -- in those "exotic locations"). Rather than answering our question, she nudged a fellow bartender and pointed; he threw two menus in our general direction. The whole exchange was about as friendly as a slap.
Likewise, the hosts and servers don't seem to want to do anything that might entail extra labor. While we were claiming our reservation for four at the hostess stand, a couple came up and rudely interrupted us with a request to be taken to their table. Rather than politely asking them to wait while she sat us, the hostess took the easy way out and led them away, leaving us standing like so many stuffed elephant's feet. During the course of the meal, our waiter brought the "Lord Caesar" salad under a silver dome, as he did with the other starters. Only problem was, the menu boasts that this salad is "classically prepared tableside for two." Not only did our server assume that we wanted salad for one (based on the fact that we had ordered three other appetizers for a party of four), he didn't bother to make it for us -- instead, he gave us the leftovers from when another waiter had tossed a salad for a party of five.
While the beginning of our meal was more remains of romaine than it was Remains of the Day, a superb lobster bisque garnished with tender quenelles of lobster and a touch of sherry reestablished genteel order. We also enjoyed a warm skate salad, a delicately breaded fillet of skate placed on a bed of baby and field greens and topped with capers and roasted grape tomatoes. Some reasonably priced wine -- $26 for a Fleur du Cap cabernet sauvignon from South Africa, for instance -- is also a highlight and can almost make up for the beefy investment.
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Having ogled at the high prices regarding the meat, we were a little astonished to see an Arctic char carpaccio with Osetra caviar listed for $8. Of course, we promptly ordered it and almost as immediately discovered the reason for the cost-effectiveness: a total of maybe a dozen sturgeon eggs complemented the slightly smoky, salmonlike fish, glazed with a bit of lemon oil. Frankly, I'd rather pay the same $48 that we did for the steak for a reasonable portion of Osetra, but the char was a nice alternative to more typical carpaccios.
We had a similar experience with a special main course that evening, sea scallops with black truffles. In short, the scallops were rich with flavor -- their own -- but tasted nothing like truffles, a comestible so highly distinguishable that the tiniest bit leaves noticeable traces. On the other hand, a thyme-roasted duck could have exhibited more restraint. Though the slightly dry duck should have benefited greatly from the accompanying Suisse Kirschwasser sauce, the cherry-flavored reduction was overwhelmingly sweet.
All main courses came with the roasted potatoes, which had clearly been made earlier in the day, and a vegetable -- we had a couple of spears of asparagus and broccoli florets -- but the menu offers side dishes à la steak house just the same. Be warned, however, that the creamed spinach isn't the typical chopped, goopy stuff you'd get at Morton's or Capital Grille. Rather, the Grill Room sautés baby spinach with a touch of cream. Though not the traditional steak-house rendition, the spinach, like the lobster bisque and a tasty rendition of pan-roasted halibut served over a garlicky white-bean stew, demonstrated the kitchen's potential. Unfortunately, a tough, undercooked apple tart for dessert immediately undermined it.
Like the British government, the Grill Room has a decent shot at a lengthy occupation. But only if the owners take a look at the current political climate and at least make an attempt to give the people what they want -- and what they can afford.