The crab cake Benedict on the Sunday brunch menu at Hollister Grill is my new favorite version of the old-fashioned egg dish. It starts off with two slices of salty prosciutto on two buttered English muffins. The ham is topped with two modest-sized but meaty crab cakes. Then come the poached eggs and your choice of regular or chipotle hollandaise. We got the spicy, smoky chipotle sauce, of course. It added just the right zing to the stack of rich crab, prosciutto and egg.
By all rights, the eggs Benedict, no matter how interesting, should take a backseat to a dish of coconut-marinated halibut served with melon seed pasta over a bed of wilted baby bok choy and cabbage. The halibut was a special deal.
The restaurant's owner, Chuck Pritchett, is a well-dressed gentleman with a goatee who has worked in retail stores selling men's clothing most of his life. He always dreamed of having a restaurant. He hovers over every table pampering his patrons.
He told us when we sat down for brunch that Sunday afternoon that he had four portions of the fabulous coconut-marinated halibut left over from the previous night's dinner. The halibut sold for twenty-something dollars the night before, but rather than throw it away or eat it all himself, he was putting it on the brunch menu as a special for $12. With a sales pitch like that, I couldn't resist.
When it came to the table, he pointed out that he had actually given us a double portion. The fish was gorgeous — the corners were charred, and the outside was extremely crispy, while the inside was snow-white and very moist. The oversize layers of white flesh came away seductively and the bok choy added a wonderful bitter crunch to each bite. But when I tried to shove the second piece of halibut over to my tablemate in exchange for the second tower of crab Benedict, she balked. She cut me off one more modest bite and told me to eat the rest of the halibut myself.
"Halibut is bland," she pointed out. The crab Benedict was anything but.
A giant fluffy pancake served with bacon that might have normally gotten a lot of attention was ignored in favor of the seafood items. Dessert, a house-made banana brownie topped with ice cream, was atrocious. The brownie was so dry, you couldn't even chew it without glugging coffee or water to moisten it in your mouth.
"My father was having a midlife crisis, so he opened this restaurant," our waiter, Chuck Pritchett's spiky-haired son, told us one night when we stopped into the Hollister Grill for dinner. The restaurant has had a bumpy first six months. A sign on the corner says "CJ's American Cuisine/Hollister Grill." CJ was a partner who has since dropped out, the waiter said. There has been some turnover in the kitchen, too. What keeps the venture afloat is the extraordinary service paid to each and every customer. How can you complain when the owner is fawning over you?
The place is small but comfy, with a half dozen booths up front and a gaggle of tables on the side, all decked out in white linens. There is a bar, but they don't serve alcohol. Bring your own wine if you like; the corkage fee is $8.
The place was crowded on a Wednesday night, and we waited a long time for our appetizer, a bowl of mussels cooked in broth. The mussels smelled so bad, we couldn't eat them. Both the waiter and his dad came by the table to apologize. They said the mussels came in fresh that morning, but the cook had tried something new that didn't work out. We got some giant calamari that had been breaded and fried instead.
Shrimp and scallops with risotto was the most popular item on the menu, the waiter said. I asked him what kind of rice they used in the risotto. I was hoping he was going to say it was Arborio, the premium rice for risotto, which is actually more of a barley grain than an Asian-style rice. But he threw me a curve. He said it was rice-shaped pasta. Orzo pasta is often cooked in the style of risotto, and it tastes fine, but to call it risotto on the menu is a mistake. I got over it. Thanks to the perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp and tender medium-rare scallops, the dish was very good anyway.
We also got the fish of the day, golden tile fish dusted with salt, pepper and herbs and simply sautéed so it remained moist. It was served with skinny French green beans and sautéed tomato slices. There was also a bizarre chunk of spinach tart on the plate — it was made with spinach, fruit and pine nuts baked in a sweet pie crust. "Our chef was feeling creative," the waiter said by way of explanation.
For dessert, we tried a house-made "chocolate cheesecake bread pudding." The dry, flavorless concoction was possibly even worse than the inedible brownie. I am sure we could have sent it back in exchange for another dessert, but we just asked for the check.
Two of the five dishes we ordered that night for dinner were awful, and yet we walked away quite happy.
Stop by the Hollister Grill for lunch and you might wonder what happened to all the fancy fish. The lunch menu — which features burgers, chicken-fried steak, meat loaf and pot roast — seems to belong to a different restaurant.
The chicken-fried steak is tasty, but it's not thick enough to qualify for CFS status in my book — it's actually more like steak Milanese. Two smallish steak medallions are pounded flat, dipped in bread crumbs and fried, then served with cream gravy on the side. I'm not saying I didn't eat it all. The homemade mashed potatoes were excellent, too.
I wouldn't call the pot roast pot roast either. Bite-size chunks of beef simmered in gravy with onions and carrots is beef stew in my book. Whatever you call it, the beef in gravy was served in a hollowed-out round of crusty bread that made a delicious bowl.
"Why does this taste British to me?" I asked my tablemate.
"Because there's Worcestershire sauce in the gravy," he said.
I got a Hollister's signature burger to go. It featured an eight-ounce, hand-formed beef patty on a toasted bun with lettuce, tomato, purple onion and pickles with mayo and mustard on the side. It came with lots of chunky steak fries. It was from that fancy restaurant school of burgers — tasty, but a little short on greasy soul. The meat was cooked evenly to a boring shade of gray all the way through, and there wasn't any crust on the outside — it tasted like it had been steamed.
Explanations about why Hollister Grill is such a great place are bound to sound odd. The best dishes are no better than those served at dozens of other slightly upscale American cuisine restaurants. The flops, especially the house-made desserts, are horrendous. The prices are not especially cheap either. But I'd go back in a heartbeat.
The place succeeds on sheer hospitality. Chuck Pritchett is excited to be in the restaurant business, and he is genuinely thrilled to meet each and every soul who walks in the door. And that's a rare and wonderful thing — for as long as it lasts.
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