That's what makes the success of the Grand Street Café so remarkable. Not only did it open on the less fashionable side of the Plaza but it's also one of the city's least visible restaurants. Tourists who don't know that it's tucked into the first floor of an unassuming office building (one practically hidden by the flashy and fabulous Winstead's) have been known to drive around the block several times before catching a glimpse of the demure Grand Street sign pointing to a back parking lot.
Before co-owners Bill Crooks and Paul Khoury opened their stylish restaurant in 1991, friends said they were taking a wild gamble. Crooks admits they had their doubts. The development they thought they were moving into had a very different concept. "The blueprints we first saw had a Nordstrom's department store in the plans and a big fountain where the parking lot is now," says Crooks. "But those things never manifested."
It didn't matter, because Grand Street caught on fast, thanks to a sophisticated menu and designer Hal Swanson's interior, which combined earthy tones, oversized botanical-print wallpaper and fabric, jagged-edged panels of glass and willow branches that reached up toward ductwork splattered with leafy, impressionistic strokes of autumn colors. The setting evokes different responses from diners. One friend of mine likens it to a soothing, leafy glade; another describes it as "the jangled chaos of insane Mrs. Venable's lush garden in Suddenly Last Summer." And then there's my beautiful friend Carmen, who likes to show off her most handsome new boyfriends in the restaurant's see-and-be-seen dining room. "It's looking dated," she says. "It needs a new décor."
There's a rumor (I even heard it from a Grand Street waitress) that Crooks and Khoury are working on a remodeling plan, but Crooks adamantly denies it. "What would we do to change it?" he says. "The décor is part of what we are. Our customers love the way it looks. Other than replacing fabric and paper occasionally, we're keeping it just as it is."
The menu, on the other hand, gets frequent makeovers from charismatic executive chef Michael Peterson. The culinary facelift taking place this week, for example, eliminates the popular Thai chicken pizza and bone-in rib eye and introduces a flatbread topped with chile-seared tenderloin and a grilled Kansas City strip on foie gras-baked potatoes.
Some of my favorite dishes from earlier menus managed to make the latest cut, thank heaven, including many of the appetizers I frequently order as dinner fare while sitting at the copper-covered bar. That's a great spot for a restaurant voyeur, with terrific views of the open kitchen, the lively dining room and the attractive serving staff, who unwittingly drop gossipy tidbits about their customers as they pick up goblets of wine and cocktails from the bar.
It's great dinner theater, and some of the appetizers make excellent props -- especially The Raw, a mound of cured salmon and a pile of tuna tartar overshadowed by a visually startling tower of cracker bread and a sheath of crispy rice paper. I was tempted to applaud when a server swept into the room carrying the dish as if it were the winning model in an architecture contest -- but it turned out to be much more about show than taste.
Far more deserving of an ovation was the sensual jumble of calamari, unfairly titled Pick-up Sticks. Sticks? These are firm yet slightly chewy ropes of squid dipped in a translucent buttermilk batter, quickly fried and tossed in mild red chile and grated Romano cheese. The accompanying wasabi aïoli could use a little more punch, but this is a starter that's just as good without a dipping sauce. Somewhat more traditional creations include a short stack of potato pancakes; though they're called "Grand" Ma's Cakes, these airy discs of seared potato batter are no homespun concoction -- they're sophisticated affairs topped with a chive cream and salty pancetta. And the mustard gnocchi, made of little potato dumplings that resemble bite-sized soufflés more than the standard pasta, come swathed in herb cream sauce and shaved artichokes.
I finished my meal long before my friend Bob, who was savoring the night's pasta special: cavatappi noodles with beef tenderloin and onions in a tart blue-cheese sauce. So I watched the bartender chilling sleek new martini glasses made of shiny stainless steel.
"It was a necessity," he told me. "We get a big crowd on Martini Mondays, and they were breaking too many of the glasses."
The staff at Grand Street prefers that the only things getting broken in this restaurant are culinary traditions. Take, for example, Peterson's robustly masculine version of chicken and dumplings. The white china bowl arrives with two succulent chicken breasts floating on a sea of amber juices, jazzed up with roasted onion, carrots and celery and a splash of sweet Madeira. The glossy dumplings aren't the usual doughy lumps but fluffy balls made from sweet potatoes -- the kind of homestyle dish that Grandma didn't used to make. And even when Peterson veers closer to the stylings of a typical Midwestern matron, such as with his sautéed 18-ounce pork chop drizzled with caramel-colored pan juices, he adds a touch like the house-made applesauce that comes on the chop: It actually tastes like fresh apples instead of a sugary mush.
Peterson's eclectic and often daring blends of textures and flavors aren't to everyone's taste, but I challenge anyone to find fault with, for example, his superb presentation of tender, ruby-red roasted duckling, each jewel-like slice lightly glazed with a potent black-fig sauce and a dash of freshly grated garlic. One of my friends couldn't decide which was more seductive: the moist duck or the sculpted timbale of unexpectedly smoky chive-scented basmati rice. Even more provocative was the Chilean sea bass under a golden pan-seared crust, served with those delectable puffs of mustard gnocchi.
I know I'm in the minority, however, when the dessert tray comes around. I have never warmed up to this restaurant's "signature" gooey, gloppy, fudgy faux-brownie baked in a crisp phyllo pastry. (I'm happy to say that the serving staff is less aggressive about promoting it.) I was recently seduced, however, by a new variation of the old-fashioned Swiss roll: chocolate cake wrapped around an ice cream filling, heaped with crunchy threads of flash-fried phyllo. I wish it were a regular feature. It's a grand finale for a restaurant that lives up to its name.