A Slickster Among Slackers, Grill Art Café Tries to Stand Out in Hampden
The recent opening of Grill Art Café on the Avenue in Hampden represents a signal moment in the evolving gentrification of the once inveterately blue-collar neighborhood. If such restaurants as Café Hon, Golden West Café, and Holy Frijoles deployed the aesthetics of flea-market kitsch and grad-school hipness to ingratiate themselves to Hampden's new arrivals ("Hampden's so funky, just like us!"), Grill Art is content to be as pretty as it wants to be. It's the first restaurant on the Avenue that has nothing to do with either old or new Hampden--gallery-lit brick walls hung with pleasant oil paintings, sleek but comfortable furnishings--and if a place like Grill Art can succeed here, a Starbucks won't be too far behind.
We visited on a Saturday night, and Grill Art Café was hopping. Several times the staff let us know that the kitchen was being pushed to its limits, and when we left the man we presumed to be the owner asked us to come back when we'd be able to get more personal attention. Fair enough, and this is why reviewers try to avoid Saturday nights, when restaurants are seldom at their best. For her part, our good-humored waitress wisely prepared us for what turned out to be a long, but not insanely long, wait for our food. We brought along a few bottles of wine, too--Grill Art has a bring-your-own policy for wine and beer--and this gave our hands and mouths something to do while we were waiting for something else to happen.
The dinner menu is a little bit confusing. The "Salads" section mixes appetizer- and entrée-sized salads with a couple of char-grilled kabob offerings; and a section marked "Appetizers-Entrées" folds roasted vegetables ($5.95) into selections like chicken Alfredo ($14.99) and portobello pizza ($10.99). Grilled sandwiches are available on the dinner menu, too. A more coherently organized menu would help diners set their expectations here. As it is, the menu is not completely uninspiring. Everyone in our party of five found something to try, and the prices are moderate. The check for our party of five (remember, we brought our own wine) came to just under $100, so although it turned out there was nothing about the food that makes a visit to Grill Art Café a matter of urgency, neither can I come up with any reason why anyone shouldn't give it a try.
The best decision anyone made here was to procure the restaurant's breads from Atwater's Bakery in Belvedere Square. We loved the chewy crusts and the denseness of the sunflower, rustic white, and jalapeño cheddar breads served to us. An assortment of freshly made soups are available at dinner. A squash soup ($3.95) arrived looking hearty, vivid, and thick. Too thick, we thought--this soup was the consistency of mashed potatoes. On the other hand, roasted garlic soup ($3.95), the one soup served every day, was too thin and, to my taste not garlicky enough. Better was the mushroom soup, which had a good winey flavor loaded with a variety of fresh-tasting mushrooms.
An iceberg salad ($4.95) was an intriguing menu addition. Grill Art presents a wedge topped with crumbled blue cheese, along with roasted red peppers and a blue cheese dipping sauce. Here's where Saturday-night jitters might have come into play. For this simple assembly to work, every element has to be perfect, beginning with the perfect wedge of crispy, cool lettuce, and the centerpiece of the salad we were served was a sorry specimen. Nothing else about the presentation persuaded us to try it again.
The sweet and sensuous braised shallots that came with a scallops special ($14.95) were the best thing we found among our entrées, none of which were helped by curiously undercooked accompanying rice and so-so zucchini. A grilled tenderloin entrée ($15.99) arrived in slightly ragged slices. The fish in a salmon special ($14.95) was of good size but too dry. The grilled tuna ($8.95) and grilled chicken ($7.95) sandwiches were OK, not revelations, but sturdily built examples of their kind. Fresher avocado would have helped elevate the tuna sandwich.
We grabbed a brunch menu on our way out. Grill Art Café strikes me as a lovely place to indulge in Swedish pancakes, breakfast burritos, and eggs Benedict. It feels, too, like a good lunch spot. Without anything like a complete overhaul--just some heavy lifting--it could develop into a reliable dinner destination.
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