Monday, January 26, 2015

The Curious Case of the Grandview Grill

In 1996, when I became a Minnesotan, The Grandview Grill was one of my regular haunts. The breakfasts were basic, hot, and comforting. There was no aggressive trendiness. Nothing was too shiny or too stylish. It was a welcoming, semi-divey breakfast joint, and I loved it.

Then, as so often happens, someone got the idea to take something that was in no way broken and "fix" it. Now the Grandview is shiny and pretty. But it's not warm. Or particularly welcoming. And the food that I once loved feels very much like an afterthought. Call me old fashioned, but I still think a good meal is step one in the art of running a successful restaurant. I will put up with a great deal if my eyes are closed and I'm trying not to make yummy noises out loud.

On the face of it, The Grandview should have everything going for it. The location, at Grand and Fairview, is a dream. They have a whole corner of Saint Paul virtually to themselves. The menu is varied and more interesting than most. Parking isn't even too big a problem. There's no reason you should ever be able to get a quick seat. But you can. Without fail. On the weekend. Nice if you're in a hurry. Less nice if you're waiting to be wowed.

I returned to The Grandview for breakfast recently, after giving them several years to straighten everything out. I had a concert to catch over where Summit falls into the river, and it seemed like the perfect spot to grab a bite with a friend.

The first thing you notice is the feel of the place. Okay, it's the first thing I notice. You may of course sort out your own priorities. They've gone for a Shiny Diner sort of look, but the space is too big, and too open, and it misses any sort of coziness. The booths are okay, but there aren't many, and the small tables that fill the rest of the room lend it all the ambience of your junior high dining hall. One peculiar thing was a pervading aroma of chicken gravy. "Okay," I thought. "Must be the lunch crew gearing up for the day's specials." This did not turn out to be the case. More on that in a bit.

The menu promises good things. All of the usual suspects are represented. There is an extensive omelet menu. The combos and house specialties guarantee that, whatever your breakfast favorites, you'll find something here to take care of the craving. The centerpiece is a collection of specialty "Benedicts," from the traditional version to the Spicy Cajun with Andouille sausage. If all of this worked as well as it was described, I would never go anywhere else. Not for breakfast, anyway.

But this is where we get to the head-scratching part. Because, for whatever reason, The Grandview seems to have forgotten the importance of making good food. My pal, Miss Brittany, went for the Florentine Benedict. I ordered the biscuits and gravy, because when there are biscuits and gravy on the menu, I have no free will.

The spinach on the Florentine was rubbery and flavorless. The "crispy hashbrowns," in a word, weren't. They were brown on the outside, weirdly mealy and undercooked on the inside. Crispy nowhere. The sausage gravy was on the see-through side, like a cornstarch gravy more than a flour gravy. That's a choice, I suppose, but it was a disconcerting one. The flavor was okay, and the biscuits were good and fresh.

The unintentional irony of the whole meal was that the Benedicts were listed in their own section under the heading, "The Art of Hollandaise." Sounds great. Sign me up. If the Hollandaise is good, you don't have to feed me much else. Only it wasn't good. In fact, it wasn't Hollandaise. Not in anyone's book. Remember that chicken gravy smell I mentioned earlier? Yep. That turned out to be the sauce. Now I'm no chef, but if your Hollandaise comes out looking, smelling, and tasting like chicken gravy...Houston, we have a problem.

The Grandview wants you to believe that they are among the new breed of ingredient-driven, made-to-order restaurants that are everywhere in the Cities these days. Quotes like, "Every entree has been delicately crafted by our kitchens," show up on the website. (Speaking of that website- whoever thought the auto-loading mp3 was a good plan should be pilloried. Seriously. "How Fast Can I Find The Pause Button?" is not a game I enjoy playing when I'm trying to learn more about a restaurant.) Another favorite: "Our hot, organic, fair-trade coffee is picked, roasted, and flown in directly from Brazil." Is it, now?

This is the problem with the whole Heartfelt, Soft-focus, Sensitive Ingredient movement. You can start with whatever you want. It doesn't make you any less likely to screw it up. That poor jet-lagged Brazilian coffee? It's awful. Like church basement bad. And not cheap. Coffee is 95% technique. With my own equipment and a can of Folgers I could make you a better cup. So, congrats on responsibly sourcing your beans. But so what? That's not enough if you don't know how to brew coffee.

Diners don't hold grudges. Our memories don't extend beyond the last thing we tried. If you treat us well, and feed us like we matter, we will come back. And we'll tell our friends. The Grandview needs to make maybe half the things, and make those things beautifully. Okay, and maybe have someone Google Hollandaise. There is no reason they shouldn't rule the world, at least their little corner of it. I'm going to go on liking the idea of The Grandview. Because I'm an optimist, and I remember what it used to be. But until they work out this whole cooking business, I will meet you somewhere else for breakfast.

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