The dining room of the Grove is a long narrow room that looks like it could have come straight out of Napa Valley. A sleek white banquette runs along the entire left wall. The wall on the right is composed entirely of slate. Warm unfinished woods, rustic iron chandeliers, and soft lighting give it a cozy feel, and the entire back wall is a giant glass case that allows diners to peer into the kitchen behind. The view, though, is somewhat limited because inside the glass wall case are row upon orderly row of boutique wines. From a distance, it's like looking into the kitchen with a giant abacus in the way.
My guest and I were seated in the corner against that back wall near the kitchen. Perfect, I thought to myself: prime location to watch whatever crazy molecular-gastronomy tricks were about to go down. Through the wine bottles, I spied tweezers and a whipped-cream canister.
The restaurant is the vision of chef/partner Michael Haycook, 28, and partner Paul Strike, 41, both of whom worked in Miami — Haycook as a sommelier at DB Bistro and Zuma and Strike in the front of the house at Area 31 — prior to opening the Grove in November. To round out the team, they brought in chef Meghan O'Neal, who at 27 is already an alumnus of Alinea and Next, two Chicago restaurants from chef Grant Achatz that are at the forefront of the American molecular-gastronomy scene. Haycook had known O'Neal from their days together at the Culinary Institute of America circa 2003.
Having read about O'Neal's background, I was expecting food that was over-the-top with foams, gels, and frozen whatevers made from liquid nitrogen. I was imagining dishes like Achatz's notorious Black Truffle Explosion: a ravioli-like exterior filled with liquid truffle that leaks out once bitten.
So it was a bit of a shock when house-made brioche — a surprisingly simple dish — was sent out to start off the meal. Perfectly baked, it was topped with flecks of dill and crisp bits of sea salt. After watching us tear it to shreds, our server — a young bubbly brunet whom we later learned was Haycook's sister — smiled and asked, "Isn't it amazing? It's one of our specialties. Would you like another order?"
Three orders later, we considered a fourth but managed to exercise some self-restraint. Later, I learned that O'Neal had learned to bake breads under another influential Chicago chef, Paul Kahan at Publican Quality Meats.
Just about everything is made in-house, from the breads to the ice creams, which is remarkable considering that it's just Haycook, O'Neal, and dishwashers in the kitchen, no line cooks or sous chefs in sight. Paul has three servers to help work the front of the house on Friday and Saturday nights but just two on weeknights. The team comes in sometime between 9 a.m. and noon each day and leaves at 1 a.m. The restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Ricotta gnocchi ($16), velvety but firm, was served over a fava bean purée with a hint of bacon and thin-sliced fresh burgundy truffle — a small but appropriately portioned appetizer. Briny Kumamoto oysters ($3 apiece), from the clean, cold waters of the Pacific Northwest, were topped with a refreshing and spicy blend of diced cucumber, banana peppers, and basil, plus a ball of watermelon with a small sprig of microgreens perched ever-so-perfectly on top. Aha! — so that's what the tweezers were for.
The last dish, though, stole the show: the chanterelle cappelletti ($24). The homemade, delicate stuffed pasta was filled with earthy chanterelle mushroom purée and a hint of thyme, encircling a slow-cooked egg with dainty micro arugula delicately placed on top. (Tweezers again.) I had imagined the egg yolk would ooze out and coat the plate, so I was a little disappointed when I first punctured it and it remained fairly intact. But with each bite, the buttery filling of the pasta mixed with the slightly runny egg. The savory combo was absolutely sublime.
It was about 8:45 p.m. when we finished, and the small restaurant was now packed. Strike thanked us for coming and bid us farewell, with a handshake for my date and a friendly kiss on my cheek as though we were old friends.
My next visit, on a Tuesday, was actually busier than the first: Almost all 26 seats were full. My guest and I opted to grab a small table outside. Because it was a hot winter night, Strike followed us to our tables with menus and offered us the use of a Dyson blade-free fan — a 2009 invention that added a cool touch of technology. He popped his head out throughout the meal to make sure we were comfortable.
Wine geeks will appreciate the selection, which spans from a $25 bottle of Brégeon Muscadet to a $1,800 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. We ordered a Vermentino, a lesser-known varietal of white wine from Italy.
There's less choice on the food menu, which changes every four weeks and includes four apps, four entrées, and four desserts.
We jumped to try the Hudson Valley foie gras ($23). Served atop house-made pain d'epices — a slightly sweet spiced bread — with enoki mushroom, dots of pear purée, balls of pear, and sprigs of microgreens, the dish looked like a deconstructed sculpture. Like most restaurants of this stature, the Grove sourced its foie from Hudson Valley, a farm that claims its method of producing foie gras is more humane, though animal-rights activists assert that force-feeding ducks for their livers in any capacity is inhumane.
"Florida Pompano heirloom carrots and beets, parsley" ($29) was not the most exciting depiction of a straightforward but beautiful dish. The fillet had a nice brown exterior with the slight essence of lemon and was juxtaposed with roasted baby orange and yellow carrots and pink and white beets over a bright-green parsley purée.
For dessert, Key lime pie and house-made doughnuts didn't sound overly exciting. But a molecular-gastronomy edge came through in the Hot Chocolate/Cold Chocolate ($8). Playfully presented on a plate, a teacup of spiced hot chocolate, topped with marshmallows, sat next to a bowl of chocolate ice cream with shaded coconut, everything made from scratch. I was surprised to discover Asian-influenced flavors in the drink: coconut milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, and coriander.
At the end of the night, I racked my brain for some criticisms of the place. Ummm... the lighting could stand to be dimmed? That's about all I had. At the end, we were sent on our way with a handwritten thank-you-card check — literally, a greeting card — a nicely wrapped package of dill corn bread, and a handshake from Strike. It was like leaving a dinner party at a friend's place but with better food and a significant credit card bill.