I had a very enjoyable dinner at Graham Elliot this weekend. There were four of us and with the exception of 4 entrees (2 land, 2 sea), we tried everything on the dinner menu.
Before our meal, we sat in the comfortable bar and enjoyed a few cocktails, along with some bar snacks. I liked the Pisco Criolla and the distinct hit of aromatic strawberry it delivered. But even better was the Rooibos Sour, which was delicious, refreshing and very well-balanced. I loved the Truffle-scented popcorn with parmesan fluff. It was hard to stop eating it. The Fried Pickles with buttermilk ranch were also very tasty. The pickle spears were substantial, as was the breading. They were definitely in the right proportion to each other and even though I enjoyed them, I think they would have been more successful if the entire combination had been scaled down just a bit, size-wise. Spicy Buffalo Chicken wings with bleu cheese were also delicious and our reactions to them reflect just how hard it is to 'get something right,' when it comes to creating a dish. I thought the spiciness was pretty fiery and just about perfect. My wife couldn't handle the heat at all. 2 others in our party thought they were not hot enough. 'Nuff said
The first dishes to arrive at our table were the Cold appetizers. My favorite of the lot was the GE Caesar salad. It reminded me a bit of the deconstructed caesar salad that chef Bowles used to serve at Avenues, only more evolved. It was pungent and intense. I loved the white anchovies and the decadant brioche twinkies. For me, a close second was the Slow Roasted Beets, which were served with young arugula, hazelnut confit, beet paint and goat cheese. Not only was this a great combination of flavors but the textures -- including the perfectly toothsome beets -- were very satisfying in combination with each other. I liked the Kobe Beef Tartare but the smoke just didn't really work for me. The Cucumber Gazpacho, which I tasted last, suffered because of it. After the explosive flavors of the other 3 cold appetizers, the subtlety of this dish was lost on me and it came off as somewhat bland. Had I tasted it first, which I regret not doing, my reaction would have probably been different.
Next up were the hot appetizers, which constituted my favorite "course" of the evening. The Truffled Potato Gnocchi were near perfection, IMO. Not only was the combination of flavors, aromas and textures stellar but the execution was immaculate. The gnocchi were nothing short of sensational -- light with a perfect density. Creamy Spring Risotto with pearl onion, fava bean, forest mushrooms and homemade bacon was also excellent. This dish delivered great, intense flavors and a wonderful texture that was just slightly al dente. I also enjoyed the Spicy Buffalo Chicken with celery slaw, bleu cheese, hot sauce and budweiser bubbles. This was an elaborate and successful reprise of the bar snack we'd enjoyed earlier. The skin on the chicken was supremely crispy and the bold flavors -- based on the traditional combination -- worked very well together, naturally. Our Seared Sea Scallops, served with pea tendril, pickled carrot, mint leaf and greek yogurt were perfectly cooked, with a crisp, golden-brown sear on both sides. I liked this dish but I'm not a huge fan of mint and that subtle but aromatic note didn't work for me.
My favorite of the 4 entrees was definitely the (Brontosaurus) Pork Prime Rib. I'm not sure that it really sang for anyone else at the table, though. That was fine with me because I got the lion's share of it. I personally love grits and thought the accompanying serving of them, along with the collard greens and watermelon chutney was a fine combination. What I liked most about this dish, however, was the pork itself. As others have posted, it was extremely moist, very well cooked and and nicely fatty. Lean pork is such a bummer. Apparently, chef Bowles agrees with that sentiment. The Hawaiian Mahi Mahi with forbidden rice, bok choy, mango salsa and peanut froth was my second favorite entree. This was a nicely balanced plate and it was very well-executed. I normally am not a big fan of fruit and savory together but the mango salsa was restrained and it highlighted the fish nicely. Unfortunately, that was not the case with the Pan Roasted Skate with baby spinach, polenta cake, raisin chutney and brown butter. I loved all the components of this dish, save for the raisin chutney, which just didn't work for me. But the bites I created of the skate, polenta and spinach were just excellent. I very much enjoyed the Pistachio Crusted Lamb with Israeli cous cous, shaved fennel, kalamata olive and pepper coulis. I thought that maybe it was a touch salty but considering the inclusion of kalamata olive, that made perfect sense.
I insisted that we try all four desserts on the menu, reminding the 3 resistant folks (i.e. amateurs) at our table that we didn't need to finish them but owed it to ourselves to taste them. In the end, I was vindicated because we enjoyed them and pretty much finished them all. I found myself unnaturally attracted to the Gooey Chocolate Brownie with roasted banana, peanut butter and malt ball. I was delighted when the others at the table gave me the green light to finish it. The banana did not blow me away but the other components were delicious together and delivered the satisfaction of a truly comforting dessert. The Roasted Peach Cobbler was outstanding, too and possessed a notable depth of flavor beyond the sum of its parts -- great execution, again. Creme Brulee is such a litmus test for a restaurant because it's so ubiquitous and many renditions are perfunctory and forgettable. This was not the case with the delicious Vanilla version served at Graham Elliot. It was delightful and not only was the creme properly bruleed (to coin a malapropism) but the topping of stewed pineapple, candied ginger and toasted coconut was delicious in its own right. While I enjoyed the Spice Krispie Treats with marinated strawberries, condensed milk and rhubarb essence, I didn't think it was anything to write home about. I'm not sure why this didn't speak to me but it didn't. Oh well, I'll live
All in all, it was a great dinner in a very comfortable setting. I love the concept of Graham Elliot, which is stated on their business card as 'fine dining redefined.' The casual approach, along with a refreshing absence of fussiness or pretention, immediately distinguish it. Entrees are all served on the same 13" round plates, which were sourced at Ikea. White and Red wine are served in the same glasses. The music, as others have posted, is not what you'd typically hear when dining out -- it's upbeat and fun, and last night was coming right out of chef's iPod, which was interfaced directly into the restaurant's sound system. I think prices are quite fair but not necessarily what one might associate with casual dining. But, given the level of cooking, the quality of ingredients and the location of the restaurant, I didn't feel they were out of line at all. This is a place where one would be equally comfortable in a sportcoat or shorts. It's a neighborhood spot with a great attitude that serves delicious food with a serious pedigree. It's a unique combination of attributes that create a truly distinctive spot, and one that I'm guessing others will soon be rushing to emulate.