Gruber makes his own pizza, but he buys his Tuscan bread from O'Brien's Boulangerie. It was the first thing we tasted when we returned for dinner with our friends Marcus and Erin, and it set the up-and-down tone for the evening. Grace liked that the bread had plenty of body to go with its crisp crust; I admired the density but thought it bordered on dry. I complained about too much garlic in the butter; Marcus praised the rosemary.
Our waiter swooped in to check on us; he would continue to do so throughout the evening. "You guys are going to eat well tonight," he assured us. "We've got a really imaginative menu." He made lots of recommendations and took a moment to give us glimpses of various dishes as he brought them to other tables. When I asked about a suitable wine for our entrées, possibly a Pinot Noir -- his reply was immediate and judicious: "Adelsheim. It's awesome, and we've got it at 54 degrees." Later, he put on a show for everyone seated outside, balancing a wire newspaper rack on his chin. "It's a circus," said Grace. "How Americana."
Our appetizers arrived on plates that acknowledged the spot's diner history -- white-ringed with twin stripes of green. Grace's spinach salad was topped by a round of chèvre wearing a tattered coat of cornmeal. "Sort of Depression-era," she murmured, before praising the cheese itself. But while the roasted tomatoes sang in our breakfasts, here, in the roasted-tomato vinaigrette, they mumbled. Erin also had a salad, and if her poached-then-grilled pears yielded sweetness and anise, the accompanying radicchio brought too much bitterness. "There should be less of that and more of the endive and arugula," suggested Marcus. The darkness of the fried batter on my shrimp hinted at its heaviness on the palate; the underlying risotto mingled with Jack cheese and pepper to happy effect, though bristled with basil.
(We recalled that bitter radicchio after our entrées arrived. The produce was spotty: here, a stalky broccoli rabe; there, beans that were cooked right but not that flavorful. That may change soon. Says Gruber, "I'm building our own organic garden," like the one at Estia. "We'll probably start harvesting in the spring. We're going to grow our own carrots, zucchini, squash, lot of different tomatoes, rhubarb, all sorts of stuff. It's something that I've always wanted to do.")
Nobody complained about Marcus's appetizer, baby lamb chops, which he called "pretty exceptional." The chops -- Gruber marinates them in "garlic, thyme, rosemary, soy, Worcestershire, and teriyaki," then grills -- would have been enough to start any appetite singing. But julienned strips of roasted eggplant, oil-slick and dark brown with balsamic vinegar, made this dish a perfect mini-entrée, a promise of good things to come.
Marcus scored again with the evening's star entrée, seared duck breast with fig sauce; Israeli couscous studded with golden raisins, dried cranberries, and pine nuts; sautéed string beans. "It's almost like thinly sliced beef," marveled Marcus, then he added, "It's clearly a wild bird, but it's not gamey." The meat took to the fig sauce the way a duck takes to water, and the BB-sized pearls of couscous made me wonder why I don't see this side more often.
Erin liked the gob of Gorgonzola atop her New York Strip, the cheese warm, running at the edges, but solid at the center. Big cheese, big meat, good times. While she was enjoying the steak, the rest of us glommed her pommes frites -- maybe the best I'd ever had. We stopped the waiter to ask about them, how the kitchen achieved the harmony of fried exterior and mashed interior. "Oh, they're frozen," he admitted. "We cook 'em, then toss 'em in a bowl with some seasonings. Aren't they great?"
They were great, and I later asked Gruber what the secret was. "When I opened, I was making my own fries, and I just couldn't get my guys to do them consistently. Before we started serving dinner, I took my wife to Napa, and we ate at Bouchon," famed chef Thomas Keller's casual joint. "We had mussels and pommes frites, and they were awesome. I asked one of the cooks, 'How do you do your fries?' He said, 'You know what? We buy frozen fries.' If Thomas Keller can serve frozen fries, I can serve frozen fries." Gruber found a fry he liked, reached back to his days at Biba for a rosemary-thyme-salt-pepper tossing mix, and bingo -- happy customers. Again with the American theme: you go with what works.
Grace and I ordered seafood (the Pinot went along with our decision). My pesto-glazed halibut floated above the plate on another column of pepper-Jack risotto (this time minus the prickly basil), surrounded by asparagus spears that proved the best vegetable of the evening. Gruber favors baseball cuts, and he knows how to cook thick hunks of fish, but seasoning a block of light-bodied halibut can be tricky. Provided I plunged my fork in deep and took away a full cross-section, I was okay; the salt and pesto on top worked to flavor the whole. But if you took away a chunk of the top without enough underneath, the salt was too much.
Grace's sesame-crusted tuna -- the mix of dark and light seeds forming a layer of faux scales -- handled the baseball cut with more success. She could roll each bite in the surrounding soy-miso broth for seasoning. Sautéed baby bok choy swam alongside the tuna like a bulbous cephalopod among udon-noodle kelp. There were plenty of combinations to play with; only the cherry tomatoes seemed out of place.
Three of the four desserts made for happy endings. The one hiccup came from vanilla ice cream and strawberries marred by too-tough figs and an overabundance of vinegar. Molten chocolate cake offered few surprises but plenty of chocolate pleasure. Marcus had to force his fork through the crust on the lemon tart, but everybody liked the way it countered the quivering filling and the bite of the mint-vanilla syrup. Grace melted over the caramelized banana tarte tatin with dulce de leche ice cream. Puff pastry and bananas and dulce de leche are favorites, but it was the caramel sauce that won her heart. Gruber shared the secret: "I'm a big fan of condensed milk. I boil it for two and a half to three hours at medium heat, and that caramelizes it. I cut that with cream, and it becomes my caramel sauce." Coffee shop, meet fine dining.