Ain't Life G/r/a/n/d?
This Stamford eatery conceals good food behind a stylish, lounge-driven atmosphere.
By Philip Innes
Hopefully, encouraging people to be adventurous and appreciate quality food isn't an elitist undertaking, but sometimes it seems that way. Fortunately, there's evidence that people's tastes are improving, fueled, at least in part, by the culinary schools churning out well-trained chefs.
Nevertheless, it has been clear to me for a long time that the way to make the most money in the restaurant business is to sell the worst food--to pander to lowest common denominator tastes. Serious restaurateurs will back me up. Start your way at the world's most popular restaurant (McDonald's), move over slightly to the diners, chain restaurants and fried se afood houses, and gradually work your way over to high-quality food, noting the diminishing number of customers. Can a good restaurant get away with charging enough to recoup its high food costs and offset its smaller customer base? It's a delicate balancing act that drives many restaurants into the ground while innumerable bad ones seem to hang around forever.
So I take heart from restaurants that have successfully been bucking the trend. An increasingly common method is to get people in the door with an atmosphere that appeals to a drinking crowd, then gradually let them discover the superior food behind it. This approach is working for trendier places like Bleu Café and Match and more traditional establishments like Amberjacks and The Ginger Man. G/r/a/n/d in Stamford, brought to you by Steve Montello and Rob Cooper of ART BAR and Violets, is the latest restaurant to conceal surprisingly good food behind a stylish, lounge-driven atmosphere. Sleek and minimalist, G/r/a/n/d's high-ceilinged main floor fills with happy folk with drinks in hand. Tall glass panels behind the bar change color periodically, like a communal mood ring, except the panels lead the change in mood rather than reflect it. Orange produces a Halloween nightmare worthy of Tim Burton, while blood red lends Gothic vampire overtones. Other colors are more soothing. The changing panels give the illusion that it's still light outside, long after it isn't.
We are led up a curving steel staircase by a hostess, whose figure and apparel, respectively, might also be called sleek and minimalist. The glass rail by our table on the upstairs balcony allows us to look down on the attractive people clotting around the bar. Some mount the stairs and stroll by to a second floor lounge behind us. We toast Britney Spears--not for her music, of course--but for the bare midriff trend. Then we mourn our own middle-aged midriffs, which we won't be baring anywhere public. G/r/a/n/d's wine list ($26-$200), more stylized than instructive, lacks information about vintage and winery location. But we are pleased with our '99 Eshcol Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California ($10/$36), for the price of a rich, elegant Cab. And we're delighted with a wave-shaped tray holding cornichon pickles, olive oil with herbs and crushed red pepper, and terrific marinated olives. Long thin rolls, piping hot, are tonged onto our plates.
We like G/r/a/n/d's small plate concept, so we order only one dinner--honey-glazed duck breast ($24) served with traditional (which we infinitely prefer), not Israeli, couscous. Eight roseate slices of duck are splendid, hinting of anise, their crisp fat skin lightly salted to elicit flavor and contrast with the natural sweetness of poached Bing cherries.
The rest of our meal we draw from the small plates. A warm mushroom salad ($12) with dandelion greens and a big triangle of toast comes in a sauce so lovely that we use up our toast and bread mopping it up.
"We haven't had mushrooms like this since Zanghi's on Summer Street," Bob observes prophetically. We later learn that Executive Chef Bill Taibe comes to G/r/a/n/d via Baang Cafe, Wildfire, and yes, Zanghi's on Summer Street.
We are brought steak tartare ($12), rather than tuna, by mistake, but before it's cheerfully replaced I get to taste the perfectly formed round of seasoned beef garnished with potato gaufrettes. The tuna tartare ($12), featuring bright red little cubes of tuna in a sweet glossy soy-based sauce, is served with a seaweed salad. Macaroni and cheese ($10) is comfort food--significantly upgraded. When we break through its light crumb topping, the unmistakable smell of white truffle oil rises from tiny elbow macaroni glued together by a Gruyère white sauce. Wow!
Much-maligned iceberg lettuce ($8) can be a treat when it's treated with respect. Two wedges of crisp lettuce are topped with a creamy bleu cheese dressing and bits of bacon, applied perfectly. In a Middle Eastern riff, shrimp kebabs ($10) join tomato, purple onion and mushrooms on metal skewers--impaled for our pleasure. The shrimp are well-marinated, the pita bread properly toasted and a creamy, minty, cucumber-yogurt sauce ideal accompaniment. Another hint of the Middle East can be found in chilled foie gras in a port sauce ($14) served with a "chutney" of whole almonds and golden raisins.
There may be Middle Eastern touches to the menu, but few of the desserts ($6-$12) are the usual Casablanca suspects. Desserts include chocolate fondue, cardamom crème brûlée and ice cream cones. Vanilla panna cotta ($8) with mixed berries is a slight creation--quivery and silky but, apart from the fruit, lacking in flavor. A warm chocolate cake ($7) with cappuccino frozen yogurt is perfectly rendered. Taibe is subtle, continually avoiding overkill. Food this spectacular in an environment that doesn't seem first and foremost about food makes his performance seem effortless. We know better.
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