Friday, August 29, 2014

Is Grill 23 a Cut Above Rest of Boston Steakhhouses?

What do Morton’s, Capital Grille, Abe and Louie’s, Mooo all have in common? Steak and creamed spinach would be far too easy a response. Answer: they all allegedly aspire to live up to Grill 23’s gourmet greatness. Still going strong after its grand ushering into Boston’s fine dining scene over 30 years ago, Executive Chef Jay Murray’s establishment still serves up some of the most exceptional (and exceptionally pricey) cuts of beef in the city. What has distinguished this restaurant from its competitors, however, lies in its unique menu offerings that break away from traditional steakhouse fare.

While the cuisine continues to remain innovatively modern, Grill 23’s vast, yet outdated dining room screams for refurbishing. The mahogany panels, Corinthean columns, and tapestry-draped walls are no doubt impressive, but so Locke-Oberish circa 1983 (the revered Downtown Crossing restaurant whose interior and cuisine ultimately ran its course and has since closed). The vaulted ceiling for the massive space also makes for unbearably loud acoustics and are better suited for business meetings, not intimate dates (most couples are awkwardly seated side by side, divided by a small partition).

Back to the cuisine, though. Fresh bread baskets and prompt water-filling have always been considered pillars for a solid meal. Grill 23 knocks both elements out of the park. Cordial white-tuxedoed servers work effortlessly and in synch, polished and attentive while not overly intrusive. The bread basket is the finest I’ve sampled since Cambridge’s Bondir, consisting of an ultra-thin sheet of crispy cracker laced with red pepper and cheese, rye bread plush with sweet dates, and cheesy focaccia with a wonderfully fluffy interior and perfectly charred crust.

Cocktails are in my estimate overpriced ($15-$25), but admittedly, well crafted. We gravitate to more seasonal, refreshing options such as the Goombah Smash ($16), which contains a variety of rums (one of which was a housemade coconut rum) mixed with fresh pineapple juice, while spiked iced tea ($15) is a much more potent, upscale version of Snapple. There is also an eye-opening number of wine selections (roughly 1,500 bottles) from which to choose.

While steaks are always the order of the day at Grill 23, we ventured to sample the three course prix-fixe menu ($38) during Dine Out Boston week, one which veered away from the cow. A grilled wedge salad struck just the right balance between chewy and charred crispiness. Smoked bluefish pate was creamy and meaty, although I found the baby carrots and turnips superfluous and the toasts upon which the pate was spread rather limp. While the espresso brined chicken was tender, I barely detected a trace of espresso flavor, while the accompanying wild rice and peach pilaf was underseasoned. Short rib risotto, however, was incredibly hearty and comforting, if not a tad oversalted, the tender meat sliced razor thin into the risotto, which packed nice heat due to horseradish cream and charred scallion.

Desserts were different, decadent, and on the whole, enjoyable. While the ‘Candy Bar’ Brownie Sundae came with a rather small, non-descript brownie, far too chewy dabs of peanut nougat, and a barely discernible orange yogurt panna cotta, make no mistake: the toasted marshmallow ice cream topped with cocoa nib puree, with its incredibly light texture and subtly sweet flavor, was the star of the dish. More fluff, and less nutter, please. My wife, who has a dairy allergy, was allowed to order off menu and sampled a blackberry sorbet infused with fresh coconut, whose creamy texture resembled gelato, and which we agreed rivaled, if not surpassed her favorite chocolate version at Mistral.

While Grill 23 certainly has its flaws, they are easy to overlook when its kitchen continues to experiment with and largely succeed preparing dishes aside from steak. A steakhouse whose innovative menu manages to stay relatively fresh 30 years later? Rare, indeed.

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