Not that it takes much sleuthing to figure out where all the former Christmas shoppers have gone: Less than a mile away, on North Court Street, the roadside is crammed with new shopping plazas anchored by Kohl's, Target, Wal-Mart, and the like. Still, scratch the surface of a Big Box shopper, and you may just find a sentimentalist at heart -- a resident or visitor who, having finally sated his or her appetite for Crock-Pots, DVDs, and Michael Graves' teakettles, may just decide to cap off the December shopping spree with a trip to the Land of Christmas Past. And as far as we can ascertain, there are few dining rooms where that old-fashioned holiday spirit lives on with more idiosyncratic charm than the Grand Market Grille.
Even when it's not the season to be jolly, the 12-year-old family-owned restaurant makes a cozy destination, with its warm but restrained Victorian decor, subdued lighting, and comfy high-backed booths. But add potted poinsettias, a decorated Christmas tree, gracefully beribboned swags, and an intermittent soundtrack of holiday music (including, I swear, a French version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"), and the vibe becomes nearly as snug as Grandma's parlor.
Just like Grandma, owners Chuck, Terri, and Scott Carter, and Executive Chef James Huth aim to please, offering up a dizzying array of lunch and dinner options, supplemented by half a dozen or so daily specials, an annotated wine list, and a multipage menu of beers, martinis, and spiked coffees. No time to sit down and dine? No sweat. An extensive carryout menu promises everything from a cup of homemade soup to a whole honey-glazed ham, while on-site bakers will gladly box up any one of an enticing array of pies, tortes, and particularly fabulous cheesecakes to go.
Of course, when a restaurant's two-page dinner menu includes 10 apps, 19 seafood entrées, six different versions of boneless chicken breast, three variations on a theme of pork tenderloin, half a dozen steak dinners, and two different combo platters, diners are right to be concerned that quality may lose out to sheer quantity. It is a happy surprise, then, to find that Huth and his staff rarely miss the mark.
If ubiquity is any measure, bacon, garlic, and creamy sauces rank high on the list of Chef's Favorite Things: One or more of them shows up in nearly every dish. Nor can Huth's use of seasonings be called particularly refined: "Big," "bold," and sometimes even "heavy-handed" seem more accurate. But for all that, Huth and his kitchen generally have the basics down pat. For instance, both a lunchtime burger and an evening steak were prepared precisely to order; an amply sized salmon filet was delicate and moist; and while they were nearly lost beneath a Mornay-sauce tsunami, twin chicken breasts yielded to our fork like brie beneath a hot Henckels.
(But try to ignore the plated examples of the evening's specials that are prominently displayed in a glass cabinet, as you make your way to the dining room. Suffice it to say that there is not a "creamy three-cheese bacon sauce" in the world that improves in appearance after an hour or so in the spotlight.)
After two visits, though, we have found much to like and have grown especially fond of the kitchen's homemade soups. Tomato bisque, for example? A mouthwatering balance of sweet and tart, with the haunting fragrance of basil and thyme. Seafood bisque? Slightly sweet, intensely rich, and filled to the brim with bits of shrimp and crab. And creamy ham-and-potato soup? Dense but not gummy, hearty as hell, and quite possibly the final word in winter comfort. Even the classic French onion soup showed marked potential, with its jaunty cap of provolone and dark, sweet broth; too bad, then, that it was salted within an inch of its life.
Ham-fisted excess spoiled a lunchtime Buffalo chicken wrap too. A generously filled cornucopia of crisp and crunchy chicken strips, diced tomato, and lettuce, it was rendered scarcely edible by hot sauce so unbearably peppery that its mere proximity made our eyes water!
But those were the low points. In contrast, a modest gustatory peak was reached with a midday chicken Waldorf salad, a toothsome toss of diced chicken, apples, celery, walnuts, and mayo, served with sliced pineapple and unseasonable but unusually good wedges of cantaloupe and honeydew, as well as two dark slices of freshly baked carrot-walnut bread so moist and full of flavor that butter seemed superfluous. And another small summit fell before one evening's unlikely-sounding baked-cheese "fondue," a starter-for-two served with lightly toasted slabs of herbed focaccia -- and raisins! Figuring out how to arrange the bread, melted cheeses (Swiss, cheddar, and blue), and peripatetic former grapes into something approaching a single, dignified mouthful was the hard part; relishing the cleverly contrapuntal sweet and savory flavors was a snap.
Most entrées come with a choice of soup or salad (pick the soup), and a choice of French fried, baked, or mashed potatoes (pick the mashed). A dense fog of those mashers, vigorously seasoned with roasted garlic, made a fine foil for a platter of surprisingly tender sliced and fanned chuck steak, cut from the most supple part of the roast, and the blue-cheese-piqued version paired up well with a plump eight-ounce ground Black Angus beef burger.
While the kitchen's pacing seemed to lag (the downtime between apps and entrées was long enough to induce a mild case of the fidgets in a younger posse member), friendly, enthusiastic staffers made sure that we knew we hadn't been forgotten and kept us well supplied with water, iced tea, and soft-drink refills.
Thus, we can willingly endorse the notion of sticking around for the homemade desserts. Disregard the weary, slightly desiccated examples that your server will display on a rolling cart, and rest assured that the real-life versions that she will subsequently set before you will prove enticing. Both the oat-and-walnut-topped apple cobbler (Apple Amanda, created by pastry chef/owner Scott Carter and named after his niece) and the crisp-crusted apple-cranberry pie, for instance, tasted fresh and homey. But the homemade custard puff -- covered with chocolate and large enough to share -- was an all-out celebration of vanilla-egg-custard magnificence, and the Old World-style cheesecake, capped with sour cream, was so sleek, so rich, and so over the top with honest dairy flavors that it almost made us weep.
Check paid, coats buttoned, and feet planted firmly on the sidewalk once again, we found the pace of downtown holiday activities had finally picked up. At a small Christmas-tree lot on Public Square, a young family scouted out the perfect pine. Moments later, we watched in cheerful amusement as a knot of giggly children emerged from the nearby candy shop, peppermint sticks grasped firmly in their sticky little mittens. Add a light dusting of freshly fallen snow, and the scene could have been lifted from a Hallmark greeting card.
Too bad about those folks stuck at the shopping mall.
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