While it may be true that you only have one chance to make a good first impression, history has shown that bad first impressions can be overcome. Further, given a second chance, someone making a bad first impression may go on to make a lasting positive impression. In 1988, a charismatic young governor was widely jeered during the Democratic National Convention, his first national stage. After an uninspiring 32-minute-long opening night address, political pundits predicted the demise of the man heretofore considered a rising star in the party. Four years later Bill Clinton was elected the 42nd President of the United States.
Feedback to a surprising number of my reviews has a palpable tone of negativity–sometimes even anger–based on a first and only visit to a restaurant which made a bad first impression. Diners should expect, perhaps even demand, tasty food, reasonable portions, good service and fair value for their hard-earned dollars. It’s our prerogative not to return to restaurants which don’t meet those expectations, however, before making a hasty judgment, consider that the restaurant may have had an uncharacteristically bad hair day. That’s especially true if that restaurant has been widely recognized by trusted sources as a high-quality, high-performing paragon of deliciousness.
Our inaugural visit to Graham’s Grille by Lesley Fay was more a case of high expectations not being met than it was the restaurant having a bad day. It seems every national and local source to visit Graham’s Grille–from Bon Appetit Magazine to the Taos New–has touted it as THE place to dine in Taos. In 2010, Graham’s Grill garnered “best restaurant” (for the third year in a row) and “best ambiance” accolades in the Taos News‘ annual “best of Taos” balloting with chef-owner Lesley Fay earning “best chef” honors. In 2010, Graham’s Grille also earned Wine Spectator’s award of excellence as well as a “diner’s choice” award from Open Table. It’s understandable that most visitors come to Graham’s Grille with high expectations.
To be clear, our inaugural visit was far from a disappointment. It just didn’t “wow” us to the extent that a restaurant with its sterling pedigree should have been expected to wow us. Some of that might be attributable to the fact that we visited during brunch, not dinner when Graham’s Grille is reputed to shine brightest, but there were other factors contributing to the lack of the wow effect.
It’s easy to see why Graham’s Grille is so popular. As we passed the uncovered patio and approached the stairs, the host greeted us with not just a cordial welcome and smile, but by introducing himself and offering a firm handshake. He escorted us past the open kitchen into a long and narrow dining room that includes an attractive bar area, a showcase for the Fays who, prior to moving to Taos, worked in winery businesses for more than a decade. Lesley, in fact, created private label food lines for many of Napa Valley and Sonoma’s famous wineries.
Graham’s Grille has a uniquely Taos vibe. Though considered a fine dining establishment, it has a casual, almost laissez-faire feel without being “out there” Bohemian yet it’s also cosmopolitan in an understated sort of way. During brunch, the entire wait staff and even Lesley herself, are nattily attired in balloon pants, some sporting the type of psychedelic color and design schemes found on the hippie buses which traversed the highways and byways of Taos county. It’s hard to believe the restaurant occupies the former digs of J. C. Penney’s downtown store.
A quick perusal of the menu reflects the peripatetic chef’s varied culinary influences. The “California” influence is apparent in the freshness of the ingredients and the abundance of vegetables. Other menu items pay tribute to Lesley’s travels to the Middle East, Mexico, Cyprus and of course, her move to New Mexico. Playfully, she even names menu items for previous tenants at the location. There’s the El Miramon Combination Plate named for a bar at the location in the 1910s. Then there’s the J.C. Penney Burrito.
Ever the unrelenting purist, I’m not sure what would influence (possess) anyone, much less a heralded chef, to use the accursed demon spice cumin on dishes in which the star of the flavor profile should be New Mexico’s incomparable red and green chile, but Graham’s Grille uses it copiously (perhaps the California influence). As a result of the cumin contaminant, the multi-page menu becomes a bit more limited for those of us who will never go over to the dark side. In addition to the New Mexican dishes, cumin slithers onto other items we might otherwise have enjoyed–including the vaunted El Pequeño baked macaroni and Cheddar cheese with mild green chile and hickory smoked bacon.
Perusing the menu is like reading a fine novel you don’t want to put down. It’s a voluminous compendium of interesting and ostensibly delicious items. Audaciously, page one of the menu is dedicated to desserts and dessert beverages, obviously in deference to American writer Ernestine Ulmer who wrote, “Life is uncertain…Eat dessert first.” Alas, not all the desserts are available during brunch, that leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something…as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before the main entree.
The brunch menu is replete with tempting sweet treats such as vanilla orange French toast with fresh strawberries and blue corn blueberry pancakes as well as fresh French donuts and a basket of buttermilk biscuits with homemade jam. We opted for the latter two. Having lived in the Deep South for eight years, we grow lascivious at the mere thought of melt-in-your mouth, tender and flaky buttermilk biscuits. Alas, the biscuits at Graham’s Grille were neither tender nor flaky. Expatriated Southerners would probably compare them to hardtack. Both the orange marmalade and the strawberry jam are more than a bit on the sweet side and neither showcases the flavor of the fruits ostensibly used in their creation as does the miraculously good orange marmalade at Gutiz.
The menu describes the fresh French donuts as having “5 spice cinnamon sugar,” but neither five spice nor cinnamon sugar were in evidence on our taste buds. That’s a pity because either would have enlivened the otherwise bland donuts. Powdery white confectioner’s sugar is fine on beignets, those small, square puffs of fried doughy deliciousness, but it didn’t do much for the French donuts which in addition to being bland, were slightly on the tough side.
Our disappointment with the buttermilk biscuits and French donuts were tempered somewhat by the Mexican XXX Hot Chocolate (Ibarra chocolate, Kahlana, agave wine, whipped cream and cinnamon), a Mexican hot chocolate with a kick. It’s one of the very best hot chocolates we’ve ever had, a rich and flavorful elixir with a lively flavor. It’s not a teetotaler’s cup of tea, but it’s perfectly fine for someone who indulges ever so infrequently on adult beverages.
Our third strike–a salad composed of winter spinach, goat cheese, julienned carrots and strawberries–can be attributed to the bane of my culinary existence, the demon spawned spice cumin. Both the salad dressing and the walnuts normally found on this salad included cumin, a revelation made upon the salad’s delivery. While the blue cheese dressing was good, the vinaigrette with which this salad is normally served was more tailored for the flavor profile we wanted. On the positive side, the salad ingredients were fresh and delicious.
“Graham’s Famous Burgers” are available for both lunch and dinner. Save for the lamb burger, they are served with Lesley’s “special burger sauce,” a tasty amalgam of mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup and are served on a housemade bun. On each burger plate is tomato, lettuce, sliced onion and a housemade dill pickle. Peter’s Big Boy, an eight-ounce angus burger with green chile, Cheddar and Swiss cheeses, frizzled onions and bacon is a very good burger, a burger worthy of consideration for inclusion on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. The angus beef is hand-formed and prepared to your exacting specifications. What the green chile lacks in piquancy, it more than makes up for in roasted flavor perfection. The frizzled onions, a tangle of deep-fried onion strips, are piled on. Burgers are served with your choice of Cajun fries, New Mexican slaw, house greens, Caesar salad or soup (hopefully not the cumin cursed posole).
Barbecue aficionados might be drawn in by a tempting sandwich offering showcasing a passion fruit barbecue sauce on a generous mound of pulled pork. Alas, the passion fruit is wholly understated lacking the sweet richness and aromatic flavor that titillates the taste buds. The pork is tender and delicious, but would have been something special had the passion fruit flavor come across more prominently.
On the whole, our inaugural visit to Graham’s Grille had some hits and it had some misses, but what it didn’t have was that “wow” factor we crave from the vaunted restaurants anointed as something special. Lack of wow factor not withstanding, we look forward to future visits when we hope to discover for ourselves why Graham’s Grill is widely recognized as the very best in Taos.
Graham’s Grill by Lesley B. Fay
106 Paseo del Pueblo Norte
Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 March 2011
# of VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Peter’s Bigger Boy, Passion Fruit Barbecue Sandwich, Mexican XXX Chocolate