There is a point at which last night's events begin to get extremely fuzzy for me. I know that some time around 10:30 p.m., I ended up on the back porch at Grand Prize Bar (1010 Banks, 713-526-4565) smoking cigarettes -- I don't smoke -- and yelling at Justin Basye for interrupting a conversation I was having with a ladyfriend of mine about bra fittings. I blame the four successive shots of Fernet Branca that came after dinner.
What I do know is this: Grand Prize has some of the best food in town every other Monday night, and you're a fool not to brave the cans of PBR and roving bands of hipsters to get some.
"I've never seen Grand Prize this crowded on a Monday night," said my friend Hala as we both tucked into our skirt steaks last night. She's a regular at GPB, as it's often abbreviated, and seemed amused by the influx of people on what is normally a quiet evening on Banks. "I blame Ghetto Dinner."
Ghetto Dinner is a biweekly, exceptionally loose "meal" that cranks into gear every other Monday night around 8 or 8:30 p.m., serving up one appetizer and one main course for $5 and $10 respectively. Your meal is served on plastic plates, with plastic utensils and a paper towel for a napkin. You can eat it at the bar or at one of the many tables scattered throughout the vast space that used to be Ernie's. But don't expect burgers or any similarly casual fare. This is serious cooking.
The chefs responsible for the dinners rotate out, and last night's dinner of black trumpet mushroom and potato gnocchi with roasted shallots, local greens and radishes, and salami di Sant'Olcese in truffle oil (appetizer) and Hereford "Frankenstein" skirt steaks with grilled endive, onion and okra pickles and salsa verde (main course) was served by Will Walsh and Adam Dorris. One is a chef, the other cooks for fun.
Walsh, the non-professional of the two, explained the "Frankenstein" portion of the steaks' nomenclature before the effects of the Fernet began to take hold. "We cooked them sous vide," he said proudly, "and we glued two pieces of skirt steak together and cooked them with half a stick of butter and some thyme." That would certainly begin to explain why the steaks were so incredibly rich.
I have had my misgivings about sous vide when used purely as a technique for showing off one's expensive immersion circulators and making a menu sound fancier than necessary. But used here, simply and judiciously, it resulted in a wonderfully cooked steak at the perfect boundary between rare and medium-rare that oozed juice with every bite.
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"We didn't expect to sell out tonight," Walsh continued. "We only bought 70 skirt steaks, and those went really fast." The gnocchi -- handmade, of course -- had sold out even faster. People ordering the gnocchi past 9:30 were met with a shake of the head from one of GPB's bartenders, and the skirt steak's buyout followed shortly thereafter. I saw GPB owner Brad Moore contentedly munching on what looked like the last steak toward the end of the night; there are perks to being the owner, after all.
And after the food runs out, the party begins.
Monday nights are the equivalent of Saturday nights for many industry people, a large majority of whom made up the dining patrons last night. When chefs and other restaurant personnel are coming in droves to eat food served behind a bar, you know it's good. And when industry gets involved, Fernet often gets involved too. Between the free-flowing Fernet, bellies full of amazing food and a bar full of friends, inebriation was an almost surefire scenario at that point.
On the other hand, if you didn't end up at least a little toasty after eating a "ghetto dinner" from a slightly shady bar surrounded by kids in skinny jeans, well...where's the ghetto in that?