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.
A plate of the tapas du jour eased us through this difficult moment. Four or five piquant morsels -- stuffed squid, grape leaves with red pepper and onion, lemony beef tenderloin, mussels with cilantro and chile -- were artfully presented with several species of olive, unidentified pickle and a spicy cucumber salad. Each succeeding burst of flavor -- the chubby, fetching mussels were my favorite -- was unexpected, making this an ideal appetizer for the short attention span.
Patience, however, must be exercised in other areas, until Grenache works out its freshman kinks. Rapid-fire timing is not yet among their many talents, and the service, though gracious, is a tad wobbly. Our excellent bottle of burgundy was too warm and had to be iced. I also sensed an occasional struggle for equilibrium with the food. An apple galette, promised warm but arriving at near-room temperature, suffered from a paucity of fruit and a pastry so persnickety we took a knife to it, yet its partner of voluptuous vanilla ice cream was bliss.
A more poignant example of imbalance commenced with a misunderstanding about the filet mignon. Though ordered medium-rare, the steak arrived looking more like the lump of coal I deserved last Christmas than the star of a $22 main course. It was fist-thick, but abuse on the grill had reduced it to a state of gray and listless infirmity. Paradoxically, its elegant wine sauce with balsamic onion was first-rate, especially when sopped with the accompanying mushrooms. I was also vastly entertained by the garnish of minty shredded carrot, whimsically wrapped in a leaf like a little pillow.
This brings me to the potato incident. I refuse to believe that the refined sensibility and sensitive hand responsible for that carrot pillow had anything to do with a vexing object we later identified -- by process of elimination -- as "potato cake." Sabotage is the only explanation. I am emotional about potatoes and even now have difficulty confronting this harrowing memory. Haunted by a musty, mildewed presence that afflicts only the most inferior supermarket tubers, this visually beguiling side dish turned out to be an inedible anomaly that no chef would knowingly allow past his or her kitchen door. It took several swigs of wine and many bites from a handy plate of perfect sea bass to restore my spirits.
I am told that sea bass, unless modified by the word "black," isn't really bass at all but rather a species of drum or grouper. My own palate is too unevolved for such minute distinctions, so it was enough for me that Grenache's sublime fillet bucked current trends by arriving neither oversauced nor undercooked. Served in one of those oversized soup plates, it existed in a halcyon state with spinach, leeks, couscous and tiny olives, all exulting in the serene simplicity of a saffron-scented broth. After the potato thing, it was persuasively boffo.
Pursuit of the boffo, of course, is the fourth Cornerstone.
But certainly there's a computer lying around somewhere? One tap of the return key, and the specials list could be in my hand ...
GRENACHE, 7443 Forsyth Blvd., 727-6833. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner from 6 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and from 5:30 p.m. Sat.; closed Sun. Entrees: $13-$23.
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