Okay, diners, let's review: You're in a stylish Warehouse District restaurant. The lights are turned low, the house music is turned high. Your black-garbed waiter appears with a bottle of Moët & Chandon and skillfully fills two slender flutes -- one for you, one for your honey -- with shimmering effervescence. You raise your glass and flash that jaunty little half-smile for which you are justifiably famous; then you snuggle down to peruse the menu.
Now, based on the above data, which dish are you least likely to find on the bill of fare? Choose one:
1. Hangar steak and pommes frites ($29)
2. Gnocchi with basil-cream sauce ($27)
3. Mom's pot roast and mashed potatoes ($9.95)
All right, so it's a trick question: If you chose No. 3 (and we're betting that you did), it's obvious you haven't dined at Waterstreet Grill.
Open since November, the Grill is the newest addition to the Warehouse District's collection of trendy eateries, and like most of its neighbors, it has style to spare. But along with the candlelight, the colorful place settings, and the contemporary jazz trio mixing it up on the weekends, the grill has something that sets it apart from its chichi brethren: a big selection of homey, inexpensive food.
In fact, the menu of pork chops, mac & cheese, and meatloaf could just as well be propped up on a Formica countertop in some little diner as on a table in this handsome room. That it is not is due to the vision of proprietor Mick Cochrane, a former downtown club owner who wanted to create a neighborly little spot that would shine with both comfort and class.
Together with chef Heather Campbell (who previously worked in Ohio City, at Heck's and Fulton Bar & Grill), Cochrane has come up with enough home-style classics to please even the pickiest mom. For breakfast, the kitchen staff cooks up standards such as oatmeal, waffles, and savory omelets. At lunch, there are homemade soups, big salads, burgers, and sandwiches. And for dinner, "stick to the ribs" entrées include fish 'n' chips, chicken pot pie, and heaping helpings of that slowly braised pot roast.
While many of the dishes aren't trendy, neither are they campy or self-referential: There is no sense that the chefs are winking at us (or each other) as they mash those redskin potatoes, for instance, or assemble an open-faced turkey sandwich. Yet they aren't adverse to belting out a few creative riffs, either, whipping up out-of-the-ordinary combos like the Hawaiian Blue burger, topped with pineapple salsa and blue cheese; and Spicy Seafood Ravioli, with scallops, shrimp, and crabmeat in a zesty chipotle red sauce. Vegetarian options, too, go beyond the ubiquitous veggie burger to interesting-sounding dishes like soba noodles tossed with tofu, scallions, and mandarin oranges; and pudgy corn fritters, fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg.
All this is offered at prices that are deliciously modest, especially by Warehouse District standards. At lunch, for instance, a visitor would be hard-pressed to part with more than $10; and at dinner, no entrée is pegged at more than $14 -- and that includes a cup of homemade soup or a generous house salad of mixed greens, cheese, tomato, red onion rings, and carrots, in a well-rounded, housemade balsamic vinaigrette. (At these prices, though, don't expect a breadbasket.)
The same reasonable tariffs extend to the user-friendly wine list, with its small but well-chosen collection of reds, whites, bubblies, ports, and dessert wines: Most by-the-bottle prices are set at less than $30; the handful of by-the-glass selections ranges from $4.50 to $7.50. Among mixed drinks, a Tanqueray and tonic ($4.75) was impressively large, but not particularly potent. But Hoegaarden Belgian White Beer ($4 a bottle), poured into a tall schooner and garnished with the mandatory lemon slice, was so impressively refreshing that we had to order a second round. (The unfiltered wheat beer, tinged with hints of coriander and orange peel, has developed a loyal international following, and is considered by some beer nuts to be the best witbier on the market today.)
But if the unpretentious food and drink is plentiful and inexpensive, there is still some room for improvement. While fluffy mashed potatoes, for instance, were obviously freshly prepared, the thin gravy that topped them tasted tinny and oversalted. Likewise, although creamy chicken paprikash soup, filled with dear little dumplings, brought a smile to our face, those smiles faded after a spoonful of salty, one-dimensional French onion soup. The kitchen's aromatic corn fritters may have been sweet and delicate, but a portion of lemon-caper mayonnaise dip, on the side, tasted too much like tartar sauce and made an overbearing companion to the dainty fritters. And a side order of frozen sweet potato fries had been done up right, with soft, sweet centers and crisp exteriors, but the frozen mixed vegetables that came with our entrées were tough and tasteless.
During a weekday lunch visit, we decided upon the soba noodle "big bowl," only to find that the kitchen was out of the firm, nutty buckwheat noodles. As an alternative, we accepted our server's suggestion to have the dish made with the more flimsy angel-hair pasta -- and perhaps that substitution skewed the flavor profile. But for whatever reasons (and despite oodles of juicy mandarin orange segments, cubes of silken tofu, and a few bits of scallion), the dish lacked sass. Its "sesame glaze" seemed more like canned fruit juice, and the promised cilantro was indistinguishable. As a result, the dish called out for something -- soy sauce? sesame oil? -- to wake up the flavors; and something else -- chopped peanuts? toasted sesame seeds? -- to add some textural contrast.
Yet during a Saturday-night dinner, a pair of grilled pork chops, brushed with a scant amount of bourbon barbecue sauce, nearly achieved a state of grace: moist, tender, and so good-tasting that we actually picked up the bones and gnawed off every speck of meat. (We told you the place was homey!) Baked herb chicken, simply served on a bed of rice, was clean-plate-club good. And that pot roast? Mom would have been proud to claim it as her own.
Desserts, however, are limited to a commonplace collection of cheesecakes and tall tortes from an outside source. Predictably, mousse-filled chocolate bombe and multilayered chocolate cassata cakes looked lasciviously inviting, but it took only a few forkfuls to find that they were too sugary and greasy to be worth the calories. Perhaps at some point, the kitchen will consider adding simple homemade desserts to the list -- tapioca, brownies, or cobblers, say -- in keeping with the wholesome "comfort food" theme. (And while we're dropping hints, let's hope the day comes when cloth napkins replace the current paper ones, at least after dark.)
But even if the food isn't uniformly perfect yet, a visit to Waterstreet Grill feels like a treat. The wallet-friendly prices are obviously part of the charm, as are the pleasant servers. Beyond that, the vintage physical space itself plays a significant role; with its tall windows, high tin ceiling, and gilded mirrors, the room positively tingles with energy and warmth. During daylight hours, for instance, all is bright and airy, making the grill a refreshing getaway for workday lunches. And after dark, with tabletops, windowsills, and the mirror-backed bar washed in candlelight, the room is a suitably moody prelude to anything from an evening of clubbing to nesting at home in front of the TV.
Whichever you pick, you've made the right choice.