It was a tale of two starters:
One was a velvety-rich squash soup topped with a dollop of Greek yogurt. The bright flavors of carrots, celery, and onions in the stock emboldened each bite. Even if some of the ingredients, such as the squash, were locally sourced as advertised, the $9 price seemed a bit steep. But it was a welcome warming bite on a blustery day sitting outside of Grille 401 on Las Olas Boulevard in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale, amid towering buildings full of lawyers and bankers who are clearly the restaurant's intended clientele.
The other starter was a salad that gives salads a bad rap. Pale, limp greens, all Romaine, came undressed in a wide-rimmed bowl. The promised charred corn looked and tasted more like canned corn, and the black beans looked canned as well. Unseasoned, torn strips of roasted chicken tasted more like the bird had been boiled, chilled, shredded, and set aside. There was none of the cheddar cheese or ranch dressing that the menu description had promised. My guest and I nibbled on only the corn tortilla strips. All of this disappointment for only $14!
Grille 401 is the Boca Raton-based Rainmaker Restaurant Group's third project. It opened October 14 on a now-infamous corner in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The space was once home to Bova Prime, which collapsed after owner Tony Bova succumbed to slumping business and his partner, Scott Rothstein, was shipped off to serve a 50-year sentence for running a $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme. It then morphed, with limited redecoration, into Rare, a high-priced steak house where a nearly naked woman once served as the platter for dozens of colossal shrimp. That venture folded in early 2012.
A nine-month overhaul transformed the space from a stark, black-and-white eatery into a far more welcoming setting. Oversized blue and gold banquettes now fill the space; earth-toned drapes cover the windows, enticing patrons to sit and enjoy a leisurely meal. The lone aisle that runs the length of the restaurant is illuminated by massive cylindrical lamps wrapped with gray mesh suspended from two-story-high ceilings. Small oil paintings depicting country scenes hang between each table.
The steak is still here. The restaurant is a registered certified Angus beef provider, but we veered away from the pricey cuts toward the 12-ounce prime rib ($24). A thick slab of meat, with a glorious crust of salt and rosemary, came perfectly heated to the requested medium rare. The accompanying au jus was flavorful without being overly greasy, and our server had the good judgment to bring horseradish sauce without request. As we polished off the last bite, we couldn't help but wish we had ordered the 16-ounce portion ($30).
Rainmaker also owns Pinon Grill in Boca Raton and Brimstone Woodfire Grill in Pembroke Pines. Many items were carryovers from those two locations, like the grilled tuna burger ($9) and the New Orleans pasta ($24). On its website, Grille 401 brags that its food is "local." The tag line is "Local Flavors, Local People," and there's a whole section on the site under the heading "locally sourced." But specifics are hard to come by; no kinds of seasonal produce are listed, and no local producers are named. On the menu, only one dish, the stacked tomato salad ($9), is advertised as having locally grown ingredients.
Yet we didn't quite taste the promised flavor of fresh, locally grown tomatoes in that dish. Two towers made of disks of sliced, red tomatoes were layered with somewhat dry mozzarella cheese and whole basil leaves scattered throughout. The tomatoes were less sweet and more mealy than we were hoping for. Florida, with its backward growing seasons, produces a sizable share of the nation's tomatoes during the winter months, and this is one dish that should have sung.
We were pretty sure the Chilean sea bass with pesto ($30) wasn't local either. This species used to be known as the Patagonian toothfish (sounds much less appetizing, huh?) until the name Chilean sea bass was invented by fish wholesalers in the late 1970s. Overfishing nearly drove the breed into extinction in the late 1990s and 2000s. It's now found in the southern Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and still appears on menus but is about as sustainable as a 1972 Ford Pinto. The presence of the fish on the menu at all made us question whether this restaurant has any serious commitment to the local food industry or if it's just throwing the term around as a trendy marketing tactic. Using locally sourced ingredients can elevate the image of a restaurant's cuisine, as well as the price.
Asked later about the sourcing of fish and produce, Rainmaker Group Managing Director Kevin Blair danced around the issue, saying, "It's not that we have a strict practice. It's got to make sense, the availability has to be right, and it's something that we're interested in doing because I think it's something that's important to people if you can do it."
He said the company sources produce through Fresh Point, a national food distributor based locally in Pompano Beach. He added that some Homestead farms, such as Fresh Gardens, help stock the kitchen.
Instead of the sea bass, my guest and I opted for the cedar plank salmon ($26). A thin, well-cooked fillet of Atlantic salmon had a bright-orange hue with a flaky and juicy texture. A coating of whole grain mustard butter was a perfect, vinegary foil to the rich fish. The accompanying kale salad, with greens cooked just until tender, was tossed with a fresh lemon vinaigrette flecked with Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes that helped make the salad rich and spicy.
Osaka-style pressed sushi, however, left us wondering why a New American restaurant would try its hand at Japanese. A hefty $16 bought us four two-bite rectangles of rice, avocado, and tuna. The rice was ice-cold and underseasoned, and there was simply too much of it, making each bite unpleasantly chewy. Instead of the expected ruby-red strips of tuna, each rice-and-avocado rectangle was topped with pale, translucent slices of fish that tasted a bit oily and past their prime.
The Rainmaker team has long experience in the corporate food industry, and it shows. Blair spent much of his career with PepsiCo and worked with California Pizza Kitchen franchisees. His partner, Jeffrey Anderson, worked on the real estate side of the restaurant business, scouting locations for the Wendy's fast-food chain and Chi-Chis, a Mexican chain that operated in the U.S. until it filed bankruptcy in 1994.
As at any corporate restaurant, managers prowl Grille 401, and it's obvious that servers have been trained to answer questions about the menu. On one visit, our server forgot to replace silverware after clearing appetizers, but that was the only slip-up. Staff were also kind enough to provide a dish of water for my small dog on the patio one early evening.
Although businesslike efficiency has its upside, it came through on the menu. Dishes seemed soulless, no different from any massive corporate chain. Some plates had Asian themes but little connection to any authentic flavors. The locavore mumbo-jumbo seemed like marketing BS, rather than a true, guiding philosophy. Prices were just as high as you'd find at a true farm-to-table joint, though the product didn't taste special. We left wondering whether we paid for the restaurant's redecoration or its high-priced location, because we know we could have found similar food, with better execution, at a cheaper price, at any Darden-owned eatery.