Class Recital

Few waiters are great orators. The career waiter is the exception, but he is a dying breed; his impending extinction should be combated with candlelight vigils, civil disobedience and "Save the Waiters" bumper stickers. More commonly, waiters are off-duty tattoo artists or rock musicians, or are perhaps working their way through nursing school. None of these noble pursuits necessarily accredits them in the art of soliloquy, yet restaurant owners are always insisting that they make speeches.

I allude to the ritual recitation of off-the-menu specials, the kind where "the soup today is chicken noodle" has mutated hideously into a lecture on global culinary arts. The practice is absurd. The servers always seem awkward, or distracted, or perky, and their litanies are getting longer and more convoluted. I do not relish being forced to employ mnemonic devices so that I may evaluate from memory the relative merits of conceptual dinners. Nor do I visit restaurants in order to fidget through clumsy monologues intoned by the nurses of tomorrow. Interest wanes. Just give me a printout, already.

I am pleased to report that our waiter at Grenache acquitted himself more gracefully than most. His elocution was distinct, his sincerity within acceptable limits, his grasp of foreign terminology solid. If he failed as a public speaker, let the blame rest with the author of his unwieldy script. Encumbered with copious descriptions of each ingredient, sauce and garnish, it was a byzantine tangle of foodie rhetoric.

Then suddenly, like all waiters, he was gone.
Grenache, its menu gleaming with tantalizing gems pirated from the Mediterranean's more exotic shores, is the 2-month-old progeny of Cheese Place proprietor Amos Kedmey (the two concerns occupy back-to-back storefronts in the old Famous-Barr building on Forsyth) and chef Bryan Carr (formerly of Bryan's). To get to Grenache, you must traverse a cold, imposing corridor much like the one that leads to your attorney's office. Once this stygian journey is behind you, however, all thoughts of lawsuits past and future mercifully desist.

The restaurant has sprung from a space recently vacated by an art gallery and retains much of the spare, elegant ambience of the former tenant. An entire wall is given over to a collection of pleasant minimalist paintings, although it is difficult to see them, owing to an architectural peculiarity.

This peculiarity is a trio of undulating walls that bisect the room lengthwise. The structures add a muscular, postmodern interest to the interior but have an isolating effect on the tables placed along the narrow aisle they create. Many diners will enjoy this sort of insularity; I do not. While seated in these shadows I was plagued by an unyielding sense of banishment, rather like I was being made to eat out in the hall.

Fortunately, there are tables grouped more sociably in other parts of the room, one of which I will request when I make my next reservation, which I intend to do very soon, for our dinner was the very essence of civilization, intrigue and peril -- three of the Four Cornerstones of the Swell Life, a condition to which I unflaggingly aspire.

While our waiter was giving us the obligatory "few minutes," it was discovered that, as usual, none of us had retained anything but the vaguest gist of his off-the-menu prologue. My ears, in unison with those of my friend Nancy, had pricked up at the mention of duck, but we suspected we'd gotten the sauce confused with something else. Everyone else was pretty much in the same boat; cries of "What was that about the scallops?" echoed all around. Truth, as is so often the case, ultimately eluded us. Unable to reconstruct the details, we were forced to call the waiter back for a reprise.

This second oratorio led to my father's ordering the swordfish nicoise just to get things rolling. The eminent patriarch would later rate this dish an astonishing 5 on a scale of 1 to 5, and we'll just have to take his word for it, because he never would give me a bite.

My duck, however, was conspicuously absent from the second speech; could it possibly have sold out already? I was about to pick something from the printed menu, but Nancy, who was valiantly bouncing back from a grueling wine-tasting mission in Burgundy, persisted.

"Didn't you mention a duck confit?" Her dead-on pronunciation of the name of this ancient dish of preserved waterfowl ("kohn-fee") was impressive.

On learning not only that the confit was still at large but that it would be prepared with a fig sauce, we rejoiced and ordered it at once. I shudder to think how human error nearly prevented my encounter with this succulent sonnet of a duck leg. The molasses-hued meat effortlessly fluttered forth from its blanket of crispy skin to melt like fondant on the tongue. Expertly sauced with a smooth whisper of figgy sweetness that was neither too torrid nor too timid, flanked by a cloud of ethereal potato gratin, the dish was a triumph.

Grenache has revived a custom of which I am very much in favor, the amuse-bouche (our server called them "ahm-yoo-zays"). These are savory little bonbons the chef sends around before the first course to rev up the salivary glands. Our table was the fortunate recipient of shiitake caps no bigger than buttons, warmed and topped with smoked Gouda; they were so auspicious a beginning that we felt moved to actively mourn their passing.

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