It's said that you can judge how good a restaurant truly is by how well they cook a rotisserie chicken. If that actually is the case, The Grove should be one of the best restaurants in town. Their rotisserie chicken was a masterpiece of simplicity.
The skin had the crispy, buttery texture of phyllo dough, melting in my mouth with each bite. The white meat was as juicy and tender as the dark, and parted easily with only a fork. It was subtly seasoned with a refreshing lack of rosemary. The roasted Yukon gold potatoes that accompanied the chicken were a triumph in and of themselves. Coated with the drippings from the chicken underneath which they'd roasted, they were delicately flavored with only a little salt and thyme. This was a simple yet brilliant dish.
Unfortunately, the old adage doesn't hold true for all of The Grove's meals.
The Grove is the newest venture from Robert del Grande, one of Houston's landmark chefs. Responsible for institutions like Café Annie and the omnipresent Café Express, del Grande and his partner, Lonnie Schiller, have been instrumental in crafting our local dining scene. The Grove was anticipated partly because of its location in a brand-new, stunning park — Discovery Green, which filled a gaping void downtown — and partly because the city was eager to see what new concepts del Grande would introduce.
Billing itself as "rustic American dining" (a twist on "modern American dining"), The Grove is a welcome departure from the Southwestern- and Tex-Mex-inspired food at other del Grande joints. The menu, by executive chef Ryan Pera, reads like something from a modern lodge, if a lodge could be located on the lush banks of Buffalo Bayou: wild boar and St. Arnold's Winter Stout stew (although this will soon be off the menu), Colorado lamb sirloin, wood-grilled vegetable skewers and seared ahi tuna with braised oxtails.
The interior, too, evokes a certain lodge-like quality with its prevalence of warm wood, high ceilings and expansive views. Comfortable low-slung seating and a jovial attitude emanating from the crowd only add to the feeling that a ski lodge got lost in Texas on its way from Vermont to Vail. The only thing missing is a fireplace, but the open flames from the wide-open kitchen are a passable imitation.
The quail bites and deviled yard eggs I had on my first visit fit perfectly with this aesthetic. Succulent, smoky pieces of local quail speared on bamboo skewers were served with a pineapple bourbon sauce, nectar with a kick that I could have poured straight down my throat. The deviled eggs — also local — were divine, each plump bite bursting with freshness and a lip-licking salty finish, courtesy of the chorizo and olive tapenade that decorated the top of each egg.
As I sat at the bar and enjoyed my quail, I marveled at the gorgeous scene arrayed in front of me. Downtown was bustling and vibrant as Discovery Green played host to countless families and couples strolling along the lake and poking through the farmer's market directly outside the windows. If it had been slightly warmer, I would have happily sat on The Grove's wide wood deck under the shade of the oak trees outside and sipped my martini until dusk chased me away. One thing is certain: The Grove has ambience in droves.
The lunch menu is limited compared to the dinner menu, but its small selection pays off: My lamb burger was a fascinating marriage of a hamburger and a gyro. The fragrant lamb patty was redolent with garlic and marjoram, while the cucumber sauce and ample handful of goat cheese oozed lasciviously from between the buns. Thick red onions and tomatoes gave the burger a perfect amount of bite. It seems that lunches are the way to go at The Grove, with a generous selection of salads, burgers and sandwiches that are easy on the wallet.
Dinner is where The Grove falls short.
If you have dinner plans at The Grove, I recommend starting out with a drink at their bustling bar. The cocktails are unparalleled; I've yet to have a bad one, from a spicy ginger margarita to an expertly muddled mojito to a refreshing Meyer lemon martini with a sprig of thyme. Unfortunately, this prowess doesn't extend to the dining room.
Dinner at The Grove is a noisy affair, as one would expect in a restaurant with such high ceilings and such a large dining room. Perhaps this makes it difficult for anyone to concentrate, from the harried, often clueless waiters to the kitchen staff.
Our waiter seemed to vacillate between two odd extremes: overexplaining simple concepts like what risotto is, but being unable to cope with the intricacies of upscale dining, such as suggesting a wine from The Grove's bewilderingly busy wine list to pair with their filet mignon or correctly identifying the cheese that came out on our artisanal cheese plate. To make matters worse, he had a bad habit of walking away from the table immediately after asking how things were, leaving any comments that we had hanging awkwardly in the air.
The food ranged from brilliant to uninspired, beginning with the artisanal cheese plate that contained only two good cheeses (Cheesy Girl Buff and a Maytag blue) out of five. The complimentary olives and salted almonds at the table helped to sate our hunger while we awaited our orders.
My dining companion's filet mignon was ordered at the impatient urging of the waiter, who claimed it was the best dish they served. After such a forceful proposition, however, he quickly disappeared without even asking how my companion wanted his steak cooked. Luckily, the kitchen sent it out a respectable medium-rare. Despite the earlier ravings, the steak was painfully average. The only thing that set it apart from any other steak was a woodsy flavor and slight char from being cooked over an oak pit. The puny, wilted broccoli and wholly flavorless mashed potatoes that accompanied it made for an utterly underwhelming and disappointing dish.
The roasted Brussels sprouts with savory chunks of pancetta that accompanied my duck meat loaf were divine. I gave a bite to my protesting dining partner — "I hate Brussels sprouts!" — and he became a sprouts convert within the span of only ten seconds. The meat loaf itself was actually quite good, too, with carrots lending the dusky duck meat a nice sweetness. But the dish was entirely ruined by overly peppery cream gravy that had nothing whatsoever to do with anything else on the plate and — unfortunately — liberally coated almost every surface.
Dessert was the last straw: key lime pie and pecan pie squares on a plate that had been scrawled upon haphazardly with sickly-sweet raspberry puree. The puree gave the pie squares an unwelcome tartness. Even without the abhorrent puree, however, the pies were mediocre at best and tasted bleakly of cold, dank refrigerator. Make-ahead food at its worst.
Ultimately, The Grove suffers from the exhausting theme-park mentality wherein you as a customer are paying for an established brand (the del Grande name, in this case) in a highly marketed, overhyped location. The restaurant ends up almost becoming a cartoon of itself. Indeed, its own Web site even advertises The Grove as "an attraction."
This isn't to say that a restaurant like The Grove doesn't have its place in the panoply of Houston restaurants. Downtown needs destination restaurants, and The Grove does a good job of catering to the crowds that have come for a night at the Alley Theatre or an evening concert at Jones Hall, businessmen entertaining on expense accounts, visiting out-of-towners and convention-goers, and suburban types who've come to experience urban living for an afternoon.