Restaurant Reviews

Packed at Saks

I was enchanted when I first set foot in Grille 5115, the Ruggles offshoot in Saks Fifth Avenue. The place was hopping. Lots of people; lots of noise. It made the pulse race. How uninhibited it seemed; how communal. Breughel's scampering peasants came to mind -- minus the Chanel No. 5, of course. I'm a sap for this sort of thing. Mention jollity, and I long to share in it.

I longed for 35 minutes -- the time it took to get a table. Too long to long? Well, not really. Because the moment I sat down, the spell broke. This was too communal. There was barely room to move. The tables are just inches apart and deeper than they are wide, which means you're closer to those at the tables to the right and left of you than you are to your dining companion. Eating cheek-by-jowl like this creates all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the small matter of privacy. Let me put it this way: If it's your intention to take someone to lunch for the purpose of discussing your tendency to ejaculate prematurely, Grille 5115 is not for you.

The interstices between the tables here are so narrow, I feel sorry for the wait staff who must negotiate them. It has to be like squeezing through a mail slot. Bumping is inevitable. When the waiter brought the woman next to us the pork chops she'd ordered, he clipped our table and dislodged the bread basket; and when he brought her dessert -- a lemon-meringue tart, by the way; and very delicious, to judge from her expression, which, as close as we were, we couldn't help but notice -- he'd have knocked over my water glass were my reflexes not lightning fast. And something else that should be mentioned, though it gives me no great pleasure to do so: Because the work of a waiter, by its nature, involves some bending at the waist and, because at Grille 5115, waiters perform this bending while crammed between tables, it happened more than once that an uninvited bottom was thrust in my face. I have nothing against waiters' bottoms, I should make it clear. Or the bottoms of any other group, for that matter. I just don't care to contemplate them while trying to eat.

The general lack of space doesn't make for easy dining. When our entrees arrived, there wasn't room on the table for them, and the result was a lot of shifting: Glasses were rearranged, a butter dish was removed, the salt and pepper shakers were relocated. My suggestion to Grille 5115 is this: Buy larger tables or, failing that, invest in smaller plates.

Is there anything good about this congestion? Well, yes, I suppose there is. In most restaurants, you have to lean out of your seat to see what others are eating. Here, you need do nothing more than shift your eyes slightly.

Despite looking like the kind of supper club Fred Astaire was always turning up in, Grille 5115 is very uncomfortable. (Did I mention that the tables have a tendency to slide, making it necessary to anchor them with your feet?) Does Jeffrey Beers, the man who designed this place, disapprove of people who eat, not for sustenance, but for the pleasure it gives them? ("Let them chew cheese rinds!") Or is this near-totalitarian dismissal of privacy part of a bold experiment: an attempt to forge a New Man, one for whom public and private are indistinguishable? (We're lucky, I suppose. Beers might have insisted that all of us sit at a single, communal board and eat from a single plate.)

I'm bothered, too, by the restaurant's name. Isn't Grille 5115 a bit generic? ("5115" is a street number.) "What's next?" one has to wonder. A restaurant called "A Room with Tables and Chairs in Which People Pay to Allay Their Hunger?"

I regret Grille 5115's physical shortcomings not least for the fact that they make life for the kitchen so much more difficult. It isn't enough that Chef Frederic Perrier turn out good food; it must be so good, you forget you're uncomfortable. And to his credit, much of the time he succeeds. We ate two meals here, one of which was superb and the other somewhat uneven. I'll begin with the latter. The highlight? That's easy: marinated pork chops ($15.95) with sauteed spinach and a corn-Cheddar casserole. Too many chefs plate meat as if it embarrassed them to serve it. Not this one. These chops were unapologetic: as proud and self-assured as the San Jacinto Monument. But after that, the meal got spotty. The veal scaloppine ($15.95) was burnt and had absorbed too much oil. Even worse, it was served with crabmeat. A spin on turf and surf, I suppose, but it left me cold. There are felicitous combinations and infelicitous ones, and this belongs with the latter. One of our appetizers was a ravishing risotto ($8.50), pieces of grilled asparagus peeping through it like crocus shoots in spring snow. But the accompanying prosciutto was sliced much too thickly; I felt I was eating a glove. Disappointing, too, was the baked beans and duck quesadilla ($8.75) which not only tasted chalky, but had been brushed with a citrus caramel, of all things. Perrier's judgment, normally so sound, failed him here. Western civilization has been having a hard time of it lately. These quesadillas don't help.

This kitchen has lots of talent, which makes the lack of evenness hard to explain. The tough things -- the risotto is a good example -- it does well. Why then would it stumble over something as simple as scaloppine? A lack of concentration, perhaps?

I can't offer the excuse that the kitchen was overwhelmed that night, because the restaurant was even busier the first time we ate there, and that meal couldn't have been better. It was all worth it, I thought, paying my bill. Worth the crowding, worth the table-jiggling, worth having to confine ourselves to topics unlikely to offend our neighbors. The crab cake ($8.95), an appetizer, was wonderful. Moist and sweet and golden brown, it's served with a tomato-shrimp coulis studded with rock shrimp. The ravioli ($9.50) were even better. Filled with wild mushrooms and truffles and served in a sage-butter sauce laced with vermouth, their pungency was exquisite. Quite divine. Eating my third, I'm almost certain I saw the face of God. The salmon steak ($17.95) loomed out of a red-pepper sauce and asparagus spears crossed like the swords on an ancient escutcheon. Equally memorable was the grilled red snapper ($18.95). Served on a bed of ratatouille, it was topped with what looked like a hat: a round piece of phyllo dough dusted with pistachios. That hat gave me quite a turn. Set at an angle, it made the fish look jaunty. I'd almost swear it winked at me.

Grille 5115, 5115 Westheimer (in the Galleria Saks), 963-8067.