In an inordinate number of the thousands of newspaper restaurant reviews I’ve read over the years, the savvy, sophisticated restaurant critic is typically accompanied to the week’s anointed dining destination by a nameless and faceless “dining companion.” In some cases, the sole purpose of the dining companion seems to be serving as a “foil” for the sage critic. Where the critic will order the most mellifluous sounding, multi-syllabic mélange on the menu, the bumpkinly dining companion usually orders something so uncultured it horrifies the critic. Naturally, this makes for a “balanced” review in which accolades are lavished on the critic’s astute choice of cuisine while the dining companion’s slovenly selections are treated sympathetically.
When Carrie Seidman, the Albuquerque Tribune’s brilliant restaurant critic, asked me to review a restaurant with her, I didn’t quite know what to think. Despite my nom de plume of “thriller,” perhaps only my four-legged children would describe me as a thrilling guy. I wasn’t sure I was up for witty repartee with the iridescent and gifted Ms. Seidman–and worse, I feared she’d uncover me as an amateurish restaurant critic wannabe.
In her refreshingly droll and wonderfully anecdotal reviews, Carrie imputes intriguing personas to her dining companions–the arrogant rogue and charming man of honor who dined with her at the Gruet Steakhouse, for example. To whom would she ascribe my alter-ego, I wondered–the monotonous Ben Stein, the ultimate straight-man Bud Abbot, or someone even more mundane.
I need not have worried too much about impressing Carrie who turned out to be one of the warmest, most genuinely down-to-earth people I’ve met in years, a real joy to finally meet after having been a fan of hers for a long time. Perhaps out of deference for my chosen Web sobriquet, she did call me “thriller” on her review, but caveated that it is a bit of a misnomer.
One of the great things about dining with a respected restaurant critic is immediate validation of your opinions when it comes to the restaurant’s cuisine, decor and service. When the conversation did focus on our meal, we expressed similar sentiment about the Gruet Grille, a much anticipated bistro-style restaurant launched in October, 2005 at the site of the defunct Cafe Bodega. Much of that sentiment was in the form of disappointment laced with nostalgic pining for the Bodega, a classy establishment lovingly tended by the late Matthew Brewer.
Brewer had somehow managed to transmute a building that had once been an International House of Pancakes restaurant into a fine dining establishment renown for its soothing ambience, impeccable service and mostly, the captivating flavors of inventive cuisine prepared exceptionally well. The Gruet Grille has regressed that ambience to a weird, somber masculine theme without the rich, dark woods; leather appointments and rustic brick of a fine gentleman’s club or chophouse. Instead, the Gruet Grille has an impersonal industrial feel to it. Where Brewer’s open kitchen once resonated with sonorous peals of bustling activity, the Grille’s kitchen seemed business-like in comparison. Worse, the intoxicating aromas that defined the Bodega were clearly absent.
Although expected to be a more casual restaurant than the Gruet Steakhouse, its high-end, fine-dining sibling, the Gruet Grille’s menu is replete with high-end comfort foods and seafood at greater prices than you’d expect to pay at a conventional bistro. The house specialty, a Cioppino, for example goes for nearly $25, a price that’s bumped up by $5 if you want the version in which Gruet’s signature Pinot Noir (Cio-Pinot) is added to what is essentially a fisherman’s stew. The Gruet Shellfish platter, which serves two to four people and includes a selection of fresh seafood and shellfish, goes for $34.50.
When sticker shock hits you at a restaurant about which you’ve got reservations (pun only slightly intended), it’s often a good tactic to order something relatively inexpensive–a menu item that will hopefully provide a representative sampling of the quality of the restaurant’s cuisine. In theory, if it’s good, you can always come back and try something more pricey next time. After finishing my chile rubbed tuna sandwich with chipotle aioli, I thought it might be a while before there’s a next time.
The sandwich evoked memories of Clara Peller’s immortal utterance, “where’s the beef?” from the legendary 1980s commercial for Wendy’s restaurants…only in this case my question was “where’s the fish?” A meager portion of tuna (maybe it was really dwarf fish) went into a black hole that was the sandwich’s bun, never to be seen again. The combination of a red chile rub and a dollop of aioli made for a messy sandwich, the ablutions of which were transferred to a napkin that by meal’s end was ready for industrial strength detergent (Tide sounds appropriate).
My dining companion (I’ve always wanted to say that) had a catfish po’boy which bore little resemblance to one you’d order in Louisiana. The term po’boy originally referred to striking streetcar conductors then eventually to the austere sandwiches they ate while on strike. Carrie’s lettuce, tomato and dill pickle dominated po’boy was austere only in the paltry pieces of catfish housed on a thick baguette. Tartar sauce did nothing to improve the sandwich.
The meal’s saving grace was breaking bread (and as you’ve read, there was a lot of it) with a great restaurant critic who turned out to be an even better person.
During my second visit to Gruet Grill, I was accompanied by my other favorite restaurant critic, my lovely bride of more than 20 years. For months she had been urging me to give the restaurant a second chance, positing that my first experience may have been an anomaly. I hadn’t thought it possible, but our cuisine choices during my second visit made the sandwich I so disdained seem like exquisite haute cuisine.
Reasoning that the restaurant’s starters might be better than the entrees, we ordered three appetizers, the best of which was barely mediocre at best. The parade of middling appetizers led off with an order of “sizzling black mussels” served with a broth of white wine, lemon, butter and herbs. Our waiter squeezed a whole lemon onto the mussels, an action it turned out akin to adding gasoline to a fire. The acidity and bitterness of the wine-infused broth made it difficult to taste any of the naturally briny flavor of the mussels. The broth was vaguely reminiscent of Greek lemon soup but not nearly as good.
Worse (if possible) were the Manila clams in a spicy chorizo broth. Similar to the mussels, the clams were swimming in a bitter, vinegary broth that totally subsumed the native flavors of both the chorizo and the clams. For someone who spent two years practically subsisting on New England clam bakes, the tragedy of this appetizer was nearly on the scale of a virus on my computer.
The most palatable (albeit still mediocre) appetizer were the deviled eggs served with “a little surprise.” The surprise turned out to be a half piece of shrimp atop the eggs, but we weren’t surprised at all because our waitress had told us what to expect. You might think that the deviled eggs might have a bit of a tangy, mustardy taste, but there was very little tang at all.
On the recommendation of the Albuquerque Journal’s luminous critic Andrea Lin, my entree was the Gruet Burger, a bacon-bleu burger on a sweet onion bun with garlic aioli. The burger was perfectly broiled to my specifications (medium) with a beef patty that had to be at least eight ounces. My only complaint was that the bottom bun could barely contain the moistness and size of the ingredients and the burger turned out to be a messy thing to eat.
Kim had the 12-ounce Rib-Eye Steak, which the menu described as having “the most marbling.” This slab of beef actually crossed the line beyond marbling into fattiness. We took more of the steak home to my mom’s dogs than my Kim actually ate. Her assessment of the steak, “It’s the kind of steak you might expect at Shoney’s.” Not wordy, but certainly accurate.
It doesn’t take a professional restaurant critic to conclude that the Gruel Grill falls very, very short of expectations. Two strike’s and this restaurant is out! We don’t plan any return visits.
4243 Montgomery, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 20 April 2006
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: The Gruet Burger