Restaurant of the future still has some work to do now

Sunday Gourmet

April 17, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Think of the new Greystone Grill as the restaurant of the future.

You can take that literally: A second Greystone Grill will open in Hunt Valley next fall, and others are to follow in the Annapolis and D.C. areas.

Or you can take it figuratively: My guess is that we're going to be seeing more and more of this restaurant concept, located somewhat uneasily between casual and fine dining. The food and prices are upscale, but white tablecloths, dress codes and formal service are missing from these places. After all, the reasoning goes, why do you have to be stuffy just because you're enjoying fine food and great wines?

In principle, I agree. The reality is Greystone Grill.

A great deal of money has been spent here on granite, handsome wood tables and chairs, stacked stone columns, muted colors, track lighting, stylish table settings and contemporary appointments. But one thing would be guaranteed in the old-style fine-dining rooms: If you were paying $32 for a steak, your seat would be comfortable, not a beautiful but very hard wood chair. In other words, if you go to the Greystone Grill, get one of the tables along the wall and beat your companions to the banquette.

Then, too, at the old-style expensive restaurant the service would probably have been dotingly attentive. The Greystone Grill is typical of the new upscale-casual hybrids. The owners have hired personable college kids and trained them pretty well. But when the kitchen was slow to produce our food, we couldn't catch their eye -- even to get our water glasses filled. Maybe they were afraid we'd holler at them. We were there a very long time, longer than you would expect when a place is half full.

All this wouldn't even be worth mentioning if the Greystone Grill were just another moderately priced, unambitious restaurant.

On a more positive note: Wine is a priority here. There's a wine room, personal or corporate wine vaults, a wine list for the masses with a concentration on California, and the "innkeeper's private cellar selections," which -- surprise -- are noticeably more expensive.

The menu is designed to please. Steaks and chops take center stage, but there are seafood choices as well. At its core the food is solidly American, but these days that means there is plenty of room for Asian and Latino accents.

One of the house specialties is a 24-ounce porterhouse, a manly hunk of rosy-centered beef that comes topped with either sauteed mushrooms or a fat swirl of whipped butter flavored with steak sauce. This is a fine piece of meat, and I like the fact that you don't pay extra for the side dishes, such as the fabulous mashed potatoes with bits of roasted onions mixed in, perfectly steamed broccoli decorated with pimento confetti, or mixed grilled vegetables. You also get a Caesar salad, a house salad, or a wedge of Americana -- iceberg lettuce with blue cheese, chopped tomatoes and crumbled bacon.

Even better than the steak, and considerably less expensive, are the braised short ribs. The flavorful meat, with a sort of caramelized glaze of molasses and mustard, falls off the bones at a touch of the fork. Beef really is the way to go here. If you start with Greystone's version of beef satay, you'll get deliciously charred bits of tender filet. My only quibble was their peanut sauce, a sort of mayonnaise with only a lingering suggestion of peanut.

Give the seafood its due, however. Sweet little bay scallops in a fresh tomato salsa spill over crusty pieces of baguette to create an extravagant bruschetta. Lump crab is treated lovingly in a silky soup, nothing much more than cream, crab and roasted corn. It makes a successful appearance again with artichoke hearts in a creamy cheese fondue. A fat, snowy fillet of red snapper would have been just about perfect in its pecan crust if it hadn't been topped with a too-sweet mango chutney. A bad idea to begin with, like the sweet orange butter that comes with the good bread.

Lobster linguine, a signature dish, has the ingredients to be great. Who can fault lobster meat, red peppers, mushrooms and cream? But it didn't have all the ingredients. I didn't taste any of the promised brandy, or for that matter salt or any seasoning. It was pretty bland. I'm guessing that may have been a one-time lapse.

Some of the desserts are made in house and some by the respected (by me, certainly) Sugar Bakers. A "molten chocolate lava bomba" soared because of the warm, souffle-like cake that surrounded the hot fudgy center. Our waiter downplayed the fresh berry napoleon by saying it was layered with vanilla wafers. The reality was much better: crisp cookie wafers, whipped cream and mixed strawberries, blackberries and blueberries. An apple walnut crunch cake, a highly successful variation on the carrot cake theme, would have been even better if it hadn't come straight from the fridge. Dinner ends with good coffee served in cups that are works of art in themselves. (I should add that left-handers will find the handles uncomfortable to use.)

By the way, the Greystone Grill has what it calls its GreystoneGrill at Home service. Call in your order, and they'll bring it to your car. Now that's a restaurant-of-the-future concept if ever there was one.

Greystone Grill

Food: *** (3 stars)

Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Where: 8850 Columbia 100 Parkway, Ellicott City

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers $8.50-$14, entrees $17-$32

Call: 410-715-4739

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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