Monday, March 03, 2008

The Grove -- pleasing many, exciting none

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.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree. The room/setting is amazing, the food is so safe and average. Why bother, when I can eat at Mark's or Da Marco and not be dissappointed.


rr said...

sorry to post off topic but i thought you might enjoy a peak...


anonymouseater said...

Hi Randy. Nice site. Some of the photos in the last two photos are not loading. But the photos that do load make me hungry.

Anonymous said...

Hi- I read your review of the Grove the day before I went and wish I had listened to you and gone somewhere else! It was such a horrible dining experience that I have gone over to B-4-U-eat to post a review for the very first time.

Here it is in case anyone is interested:

Four of us ate at The Grove last Saturday night for dinner. It was one of the WORST meals I have ever had. Here are the highlights:

1. We arrived 20 minutes early and thought we'd have a drink at the bar. It took 20 minutes to receive our drinks and it was not even that busy. "Julian" the slacker bartender, had to be waved down to give us a wine list and then waved down again to take our order. The latter time, he was off having a lengthy chat with customers seated at the Bar. My boyfriend literally had to get up and walk over to Julian's attention.

2. Within 5 minutes of being seated at our table, our waiter "Steve" announced that he had just gotten over strep throat. (!?!) Gross- visions of him breathing on our food were a little unsettling.

3. My ceviche was nothing more than raw fish swimming in lemon juice. No apparent attempt to season it. Served with stale, room-temperature plantains.

4. My $29 plate of seared tuna was almost inedible. It clearly had been frozen and was an unappetizing greyish color. It was just plain bad. My boyfriend eats anything and everything and he took one bite and scrunched up his nose and pushed the plate back at me. I left more than 1/2 of the tuna on my plate, and Steve the waiter never even asked if anything was wrong with it.

5. My fellow diners had the red snapper w/ Meyer Lemon jam and reported it to be very bland. Another had the deviled eggs as a starter and said they were just "ok".

6. Way overpriced. For the 4 of us, the bill before tip was $190 (and that was with a $29 bottle of wine). For that kind of money, I so wish I had gone to Pesce or Trulucks!!

7. No choice but to valet park - which is $7.

CONCLUSION: I cannot believe that the Schiller-Del Grande restaurant group would have such a poorly run, poor quality restaurant. I am so irritated that we spent so much money on such awful inedible food! I will never go back and am warning my friends not to go either.

anonymouseater said...

To the last commenter: It sounds like the quality of your food was lower than mine. The quality of my food was perfectly good, just uninspiring.

Alain said...

I agree with the prior comments regarding the pleasant ambiance and aggressive pricing for small portions of competent but uninspired food offerings.

The restaurant offers a variety of creative spirits that set the mood for an urban relaxed lunch. One of the only places in Houston to offer a Clear Spicy Bloody Mary, The Grove has recently added a Banana Margarita to its drink list, which includes herradura silver tequila and coconut crunch, accentuating a fruity kick to brunch.