That's surprising, too, since Bender apparently knows something about the world of commerce, having run a successful area travel agency before deciding to veer off in the direction of restaurant operation. Still, with no previous experience in food service, she admits she has been taken aback by the difficulties that she has encountered -- especially in securing good help -- since she opened the doors in May.
Bender designed Café Grace's menu and the recipes for what she calls her "casual elegant" food and has daily hands-on involvement in the kitchen. However, the large combination breakfast-lunch-and-dinner menu is perhaps overly ambitious for a spot still struggling to master the basics. Lunch and dinner items alone include 2 soups, 8 entrée-sized salads, 23 sandwiches, and, after 5 p.m., the addition of 4 pizzas, 4 "Gracie Classic" entrées, and 5 pasta dishes. The detailed descriptions of each item are mouthwatering and had us dying to dive in when we made our first lunch stop in September.
The neat appearance of the little restaurant affirmed our optimism: Situated in a vintage house just east of downtown Chagrin Falls, the café is bright and clean, with two casual dining rooms and a snug one-table "Garden Room" overlooking a large deck. Walls are painted with naively rendered Parisian street scenes, adding a bit of whimsy to the space, and tall windows let in attractive views of wooded and residential East Washington Street.
But it didn't take long to discover that all was not well in Café Grace's kitchen, with our lunch's nadir arriving in the shape of an inexcusably bad Salad Niçoise. Typically, this savory salad includes tender boiled-and-chilled potatoes and green beans marinated in a rich mix of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and Dijon mustard, as well as hard-boiled eggs, fresh tomato, spicy capers, canned tuna, and zippy little Niçoise olives, all tossed together with a bright, satiny dressing. In a variation on the theme, Café Grace's menu description called for charred tomato and grilled potato, and kalamata olives instead of the namesake Niçoise -- changes which we considered possibly amusing departures. Also promising was the substitution of freshly grilled tuna for the more mundane canned fish.
But menu descriptions aside, the salad was a dud. While the undressed greens were fresh, the little stack of undercooked green beans and the two or three chunks of boiled (not grilled) potato that were arranged upon it were unseasoned and insipid. Specks of chopped raw (not charred) tomato, a few salty black olives, some shreds of Parmesan cheese, and two halves of a hard-boiled egg added little zest to the bland assemblage. A small plastic cup of housemade balsamic vinaigrette was served on the side, but, while tasty, it was woefully inadequate to the task of infusing this mélange with flavor.
But saddest of all were the slices of criminally overcooked grilled tuna that topped the salad -- so incredibly dry and tough, with a weary gray coloration, that my dining companion will go to her grave insisting it must have been well-done roast beef!
Desserts are delivered fresh daily, a waitress told us. But there was nothing fresh about a slice of tiramisu cake. Instead, it was so desiccated that one side of the cake had developed deep fissures, and a nibble of the whipped-cream-like frosting stuck in our molars like paste.
The dining rooms were nearly empty when five of us returned on a Saturday night to give Café Grace another shot. Despite our pleasant table in the Garden Room, we quickly established that nothing much had changed since our first visit. Rather, the parade of overcooked, underflavored foods prompted one companion to note that our dinners were "like something a mediocre home cook might turn out on a bad night."
However, soon after this visit, Bender told me that she had finally secured the services of two professionally trained chefs, CIA graduates Carey Brady and Herbert Epps, to help revamp the menu and rework some of the recipes. Ever the optimist, I voluntarily delayed this review and scheduled a few more trips to Café Grace, in the hopes that things might turn around. (Brady has since left, and chef Bobby Borders has joined up.)
Alas, improvements seem minor. While entrées now include a side salad, and a few of the more poorly conceived menu items have been eliminated, the basics of food preparation still seem to elude the kitchen.
An entrée of New England-Style Pork Roast featured five slices of pork roast that were so dry, it took a gulp of water to wash down each sawdusty bite. A sweet, moist "apple coulis" -- a thick sauce of finely chopped apples, brown sugar, and stick cinnamon -- beneath the sliced meat wasn't enough to make it edible. On one side of the plate was a small serving of good, chunky, garlic-flavored "smashed" red-skinned potatoes. On the other was a pile of unseasoned, room-temperature green beans that added color but no flavor to the dish.
A filet of salmon atop a mound of white and wild rice was only marginally better. The salmon, sprinkled with a spoonful of what seemed to be straight-out-of-the-jar capers, was overcooked but not entirely dry. However, it cried out for the "lemon-scented caper sauce" that the menu had promised would flavor it; unfortunately for us, that sauce -- if it existed -- was completely imperceptible.
Once again, the Salad Niçoise was disappointing. This time, the slices of unseasoned red-skinned potatoes were, indeed, grilled; however, beyond a smoky scent from the fire, they were still flavorless. The promised eggs were entirely absent, and the greens included more than a few leaves that had turned to slime. And as before, the thin, room-temperature tuna filet on top was profoundly overcooked, tough, and dry.
For a dressing, we requested the balsamic vinaigrette. However, when we went to pour it out of its little plastic cup, we noticed that it was swimming with poppy seeds and had a slight scent of soy sauce. Curious, we asked our waitress about it. "Oh," she 'fessed up. "The cook said we were out of the vinaigrette, so I went looking through the refrigerator and found this in the back. Gee, I thought it was balsamic vinaigrette, but now I'm not sure what it is! Would you like something else?" We opted for plain vinegar and oil, straight from bottles if necessary. But even that was not to be. "Sorry," our waitress told us. "The kitchen doesn't have any vinegar or oil."
Sandwiches seem to be the restaurant's relative strong suit. Gracie's Own Vermont Burger, cooked, as ordered, to medium-well, was entirely acceptable. While the ground meat was dry, it retained a pleasant, moderately beefy flavor. Two cold slices of crisp cooked bacon on top of the burger were obviously straight out of the fridge, but a thin layer of Cheddar cheese was meltingly warm. A creamy, mild horseradish sauce helped provide some much-needed moisture.
A Fall Salad Wrap was also good, with thin slices of lightly grilled turkey, a few leaves of greens, grilled and diced pear, crumbled blue cheese, and a sprinkling of dried cranberries, in a fresh, whole-wheat wrapper.
The sandwiches came with colorful tortilla chips and a pickle; we also opted for french fries and a side of french-fried sweet potatoes. While the sweet-potato fries on an earlier visit had been dry and tasteless, this time they were fat and flavorful. Likewise, the white-potato fries were thick-cut and hearty. However, both types of fries were greasy.
As for desserts, the shipped-in pastries continued to be a waste of calories: The crust on a slice of peach pie was so soggy that it turned to goo beneath our fork. But a housemade brownie was better -- thin, dense, and fudgy, it could satisfy a sweet tooth. Probably the best bet for a dessert at Café Grace is one of the specialty coffees or flavored cocoas. But be warned: Drinks are listed on a beverage menu that we never even knew existed until our fourth visit. If you want to see a list of what's available, you probably will have to ask.
It seems that Bender needs to keep a critical eye on what is going on in her restaurant's kitchen and take steps to ensure that the food, at the least, is properly prepared. More training for the servers is also essential. And securing a liquor license, so patrons could enjoy a glass of beer or wine with a meal, wouldn't hurt.
In a town of sophisticated diners and reliably good alternatives, like Rick's Café and Gamekeeper's Tavern, Café Grace needs to make some rapid progress on the culinary front in order to survive.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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