Imagine an airy, contemporary dining room with a complex, seductive-sounding menu -- an upscale sort of spot, where a well-dressed couple's tab can easily soar above the $100 mark. Now take that dining room and plunk it down in a sea of asphalt in the middle of a suburban industrial park, leave its menu execution in the hands of high schoolers, and turn over the entire costly evening to an eager but clueless waitstaff.
If you can wrap your mind around all these dichotomies, you'll begin to have an idea of the types of problems that plagued The Grille Above the Valley, a wannabe fine-dining venue in Garfield Heights, during our recent visits.
For nearly a decade, the boxy, nondescript building on the corner of Granger Road and Transportation Boulevard was home to The Czech Inn, a bastion of paprikash and roast duckling that, not coincidentally, was a pretty good fit for its blue-collar neighborhood during most of its tenure. Times change, though, and in a region with an increasingly sophisticated dining scene -- as well as fewer and fewer collars of blue -- the market for Eastern European food just isn't what it used to be. So it was that late last year, when owner Charles Lavicka turned over the reins of the operation to his son, John, the younger man eagerly began the process of reinventing the restaurant's identity, slowly morphing the name from The Czech Inn to The Czech Grille, and eventually to The Grille Above the Valley; hiring a potential break-out chef in the person of Rob Stauch, former sous chef at the Warehouse District's Blue Point Grille; and casting out the Prague travel posters and woodcuts in favor of sleek cherry woodwork, halogen lighting, and pastel oil paintings reminiscent of the Napa Valley.
The dinner menu was transfigured too, gradually converting from Czech to the present gathering of such au courant staples as cured salmon carpaccio, jerked ahi tuna, and hanger steak. (Still, to this day, if a diner comes into the restaurant demanding Wiener schnitzel, Wiener schnitzel he or she will get!)
Along the way, of course, prices went up substantially -- to the point that dinner for two became every bit as expensive as anything found in Tremont or Ohio City. Not that we mind paying big bucks for a cool little night on the town. In fact, like most hard-core food fans, we'll happily open our hearts -- and our wallets -- to any place that delivers creative, consistently well-executed food; gracious, professional service; and a certain titillating frisson.
But alas, at The Grille Above the Valley, the requisite bang for the big bucks was sorely missing. For one, the industrial park location simply is not a happenin' place. For another, service was awkward and gauche. And third, while Stauch displays flashes of true inspiration (in an improbable sounding sweet-corn crème brûlée, say, that turned out to be not only cleverly conceived but truly delicious, as well as in an appetizer special of mozzarella-filled, prosciutto-draped figs, pan-seared and drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction), too many other dishes missed the mark.
Some, like the Summer Vegetable Bouchée (a slightly stale pastry cup, filled with a blandly seasoned toss of artichokes, leeks, and asparagus), lacked sass. Others, like the tender but profoundly gamey hanger steak, plated around a pile of French fries, lacked class. And still others, like the $35 Colorado "rack" of lamb, seemed marred by delusions of grandeur. For while the lush meat was undeniably excellent, attaining a sky-high flavor quotient by way of a savory crust of dried kalamata olives, calling this a rack of lamb was gross overstatement: The entire serving consisted of only three chops, perhaps nine mouthfuls of meat.
And that wasn't the only problem with this pricey dish. The lamb's accompanying fingerling "boulangère potatoes" (by which we assume someone meant to say "roasted," the menu writer continuing to display a marked propensity for obfuscation) were undercooked and slightly crunchy. A portion of well-seasoned, tender-crisp green beans was served not on the plate with the rest of the meal, but in a little bowl on the side, à la the high school cafeteria. And it took the kitchen a tedious 45 minutes to prepare the dish, at a time when no more than half of the dining room's 16 tables were occupied.
"Why the delay?" we asked our apologetic waitress. "Oh, the chef took off for the Labor Day weekend," she answered, "and there's nobody in the kitchen over 18!" Probably, under those circumstances, we should have been thankful to get a meal at all, let alone grousing over underdone potatoes. But while such amateurism could be forgiven in a modest neighborhood tavern, where prices never venture beyond the teens, it's far less tolerable in an ambitious spot, where dining comes at premium prices.
Service, too, was uncomfortably unprofessional. For instance, a Saturday-night server consistently delivered and cleared dishes by leaning across the width of the tabletop, her elbow in my companion's face. Wine presentation was slow, clumsy, and -- predictably enough -- included a full complement of spills and splashes. And on a weeknight visit, when we were the only party in the dining room, we didn't know whether to laugh or cry when our server, then a diminutive busboy, and finally the hostess appeared within mere seconds of one another to ask the identical series of questions: "How is everything?" (Still fine.) "Is there anything else I can get you?" (No, thanks again.) "May I take away any of these dishes? (Again, no.) "It's like a Twin Peaks episode," a freaked-out companion whispered after the third appearance. "But at least nobody is talking backward!"
What makes this all the more vexing is that, beneath its rough chaff, The Grille contains the seed of a pretty good restaurant. Stauch obviously has talent, and his team did a fine job, for instance, with basics like risotto, sometimes dressing it up with bits of juicy grilled pineapple, other times seasoning it with fresh herbs. Sautéed scallops also had been attentively handled, arriving at the table nearly as soft and sweet as custard. And if we weren't able to detect the promised jerk spices on slices of rare ahi tuna, at least the fish itself was well prepared, with a delicate sweetness and the texture of velvet.
The wine list, too, is a relative strength. Although it's not particularly informative, it nevertheless contains lots of solid choices at a wide range of prices. We rejoiced, for instance, over the discovery of the obscure 2002 Woop Woop Shiraz. A big, jolly Aussie red, packing loads of jammy, black-fruit flavors, the $18 bottle (which retails for about $11) paired beautifully with our lamb and was an excellent value to boot.
So our suggestions to management are these: Lower your sights. Preserve the menu's contemporary leanings, for instance, but simplify preparation so that results are consistently good, even when Stauch takes a night off. Train, train, train the front-of-the-house staff, so that everyone knows the menu, the wine list, and the fine points of the job. And finally, adjust menu prices to better reflect the neighborhood as well as the ongoing shortcomings of service and cuisine, at least until those problems are corrected.
And remember: All the halogen lighting, Gerbera daisies, and highfalutin menu descriptions in the world can't take the place of reliably well-prepared food and knowledgeable staffers in the creation of a truly fine restaurant.
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