The Grove is a new upscale restaurant downtown in the Discovery Green Park. The menu is designed by two of Houston's best chefs -Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie and Ryan Pera, formerly of 17.
Despite remarkably simple food, the Grove took me a while to figure out. My first meal there last Saturday was full of contradictions:
Contradiction 1 - informal atmosphere vs. not-so-informal attire
I entered the Grove from a valet parking circle where all the very best cars were parked -- Bentleys, Maseratis, and Jaguars.
Yet once I walked in the door, the atmosphere felt informal. The restaurant space is like a giant solarium, with a high ceiling, glass walls, and no obstructed views. From anywhere in the restaurant, you can see all the other customers. I liked the space, but my wife was uncomfortable. She felt she was on display inside a fish tank.
For such a casual space on the edge of a park, the crowd was dressed quite conservatively. Most men wore sports coats. Most women wore their Saturday dining out finest.
Contradiction 2 - Downtown location vs. Memorial-area crowd
Because of the Grove's location, I expected an eclectic, urban crowd. Instead, the crowd was almost uniformly white and suburban. Most diners were between 40 and 60. And most women had that Memorial-style hair.
It looked like a Post Oak crowd had been bussed downtown.
Contradiction 3 - Casual menu vs. not-so-casual prices
As I read the menu, I began to wonder, "Am I in Benigan's?" The Grove's menu includes a cheese burger, a grilled pizzette, BBQ baby back ribs, tortilla chips with guacamole and salsa, fried shrimp, and grilled skirt steak with chili cheese fries. Yet the prices are not Bennigan's. The burger, for instance, is $12, and the skirt steak is $24. A number of items are $30.
To be fair, there are some classier and healthier items. For instance, the menu includes a section that lets diners match their grilled protein (such as salmon, swordfish, scallops, fillet mignon, and lamb sirloin), with a sauce (aioli, olive oil and herbs, steak sauce, spice chili, or tapenade), and a side (mashed potatoes, spaetzl, green beans, and corn off the cob).
In another section labeled "American Rustic Cooking," the kitchen chooses the pairing of protein, sauce and side. For instance, a gulf red snapper is served with spicy mustard broth and a roasted lemon jam. Those dishes looked a little more interesting. But overall, the Grove's menu is geared to the upscale diner who does not mind paying $20 - $30 for an unadventurous main course.
Contradiction 4 - fine execution vs. uninspired recipes
My wife and I tried hard to find something interesting to order, and ultimately we settled on three dishes:
1-Gulf Coast crab cocktail with endive and spicy remoulade;
2-watercress and citrus salad;
3-grilled ahi tuna on a bed of grits with leeks and pancetta.
All three dishes were well prepared. Consider the tuna. I ordered it grilled rare, and arrived exactly as ordered. The side of grits gave me déjà vu -- the same flavor as the classic grits Del Grande has served at Cafe Annie for decades. In short, no surprises whatsoever.
The crab cocktail was not just safe; it was positively retro. Although the remoulade had some spice, it was the sort of dish that you might have found in country clubs in the mid-20th century.
Only one dish showed serious innovation. The watercress salad was served with a variety of unusual citrus fruits, including some candied, preserved fruit that reminded me of marmalade. I was blown away contrast of the bitter greens and the sweetness and acidity of the fruit and dressing.
The nicest thing I can say about the Grove is that the kitchen has done a remarkable job in just three months of serving a capacity crowd and executing every dish flawlessly. These are the signs of experience.
Resolving the contradictions
Is there a way to resolve these contradictions? Perhaps, the explanation is that Del Grande and Pera have decided to go safe -- very safe. The Grove is calculated to appeal to a particular crowd:
-diners who have a precise expectation about their meal and demand it be fulfilled;
-diners who want a casual setting where they can see and be seen by others in a well-dressed crowd;
-diners who are willing to pay for precise execution of ordinary American dishes; and
-diners who value competence and consistency over innovation and surprise.
In short, the Grove will appeal to many Houstonians, who will return again and again.
But I will not be one of them.
I can't justify driving all the way downtown, when I can make most of these dishes at home. I can't justify spending $80 for casual food, when I can spend $40 less, and get more interesting food in a casual environment -- or spend $40 more, and get truly elegant food in the elegant setting of Cafe Annie.