I hate it when the people are so much better than the food.
Niceties do matter to me now, which means I’m getting old. When I was a restaurant critic (13 years ago, thanks for asking), my editors were constantly reminding me to describe service and setting. Warm? Cozy? Pretentious? Hostile? All fair questions that I routinely ignored in favor of what was on my plate. That was the reason for being there, after all. If the walls suggested a greasy grocery sack and the maitre’d smirked when I asked for a table for one, all could be forgiven if the tomatoes were dead ripe. (Ah, youth.) Now I’m a few days away from 39, which means I’m remembering my visit to Larchmont Grill with some affection.
Larchmont Grill, on Melrose just east of Vine, is in the space that formerly housed House. And the eastern portion of Melrose is on a roll. Just west of Highland there’s the just-opened Red Pearl Kitchen (formerly Meson G) and the Nancy Silverton-Mario Batali juggernaut Mozza is soon-to-open. Then there’s Providence, wine bar-bistro Lou and La Buca, soon to undergo a much-needed expansion.
Silverton gave me a tour of the Mozza construction site last week and it’s going to be an enormous operation, one that will bring attention from the national food press and the entertainment community. Lou’s has the city’s best wine bar (and, more importantly, frisee-bacon-egg salad). Providence has taken residence on the city’s best-of lists. And La Buca is my new favorite Italian restaurant – kickass homemade pasta, killer thin-crust pizza and you can bring your own wine! Pretty heady stuff for a once-skanky stretch of street.
So now, Larchmont Grill. Cute space – as the former tenant’s name suggested, it’s an old house, one with a wraparound porch. Inside there’s a (working) fireplace, the walls are an airy beige, the chairs a sharp shade of green. (Special shoutout for the chairs; they’re the same kind Neal Fraser has at BLD’s bar and that Ammo has outside. Made of a plastic-leather material that’s somehow firm, giving, comfortable and washable. They’re going to be the new must-have restaurant accessory for people who don’t cook.)
And the service – charming. The waitress was cute and enthusiastic, with the fresh-scrubbed look of a college student (as opposed to, say, the polished praying mantises who are often stationed at our city’s hostess stands). Jay (the owner) came by to introduce himself to the restaurant’s only inside customer (others were on the porch). He was a little giddy, as the owner of a week-old restaurant is wont to be.
Then I get the menu and it goes to - well, hell’s too strong a word. Does hell have suburbs, nice ones with wide sidewalks and pretty landscaping? The restaurant has a (charming!) slogan - “Food from the neighborhoods of America’s great cities.” However, that manifests in a menu that’s one of my least-favorite breeds, uninspiring comfort food that looks to love and serve all. (I recognize that quality may also be its saving grace – there’s already a few raves for Larchmont on the board.) Me, I’ve never been to a restaurant that can pull it off. It’s like watching a movie that wants to be a mystery-thriller with romantic dramedy.
There’s steamed mussels with chorizo, crab cakes with garlic-basil aioli, macaroni and cheese with Gruyere and cheddar, veal sausage with Parmesan polenta and pork belly braised in sherry and honey. There’s a Caesar, an iceberg wedge with blue cheese or 1000 Island and crab-and-avocado with “gazpacho salsa.”
The entrees read like the last 15 years’ of Bon Appetit covers: Pasta with spicy chicken, black beans, corn and cilantro cream, “vegetarian pasta” with broccoli rabe, Kalamata olives and sundried tomatoes and penne with chicken, broccoli and “lots of Parmesan.” Then there’s chicken (grilled, roasted), steak (flatiron, strip), short ribs (Korean, not), thick-cut pork chop, a burger, tuna “nicoise style” and a salmon that sounds like it has the same sauce as the aforementioned pork belly.
Oh, woe. It’s like meeting a guy who seems swell online, only to discover that in person he squeaky-horselaughs at things that aren’t all that funny. (Married seven years, but I remember it well.)
Full disclosure: I’m a full-fledged (a)vocational food snob. I go to a lot of restaurants. I eat well. And I recognize there’s nothing terribly wrong with this menu -- but there isn’t a whole lot that’s right.
I love mussels, but here they make me nervous. The restaurant is almost empty (no criticism meant – it’s their first week), which ups the odds that the mussels will be less than fresh. Those suckers demand a lot of turnover. It’s the same logic that makes me edge away from seafood altogether unless a restaurant is known for it, which usually means a menu that shows some dedication to it and that’s not this. (Not to mention that while steaming mussels is easy, treating a piece of fish well is a lot harder than it looks.)
I really don’t get pork belly – I know it’s trendy, but it seems like a lot of fat for little reward. Veal sausage with Parmesan polenta - maybe in a couple of months; it’s still warm enough to wear sleeveless dresses. Stack of heirloom tomatoes – hope they plan on changing the menu soon; their season’s almost over.
Finally, I order the soup of the day (gazpacho) and rigatoni Bolognese that claims “plenty of gravy.” It’s a no-expectations sort of dish, hard to screw up; I really want to give this place the benefit of the doubt. Bread comes; two uninspiring baguette-shaped rolls with the dull, hard outside/cottony interior that I recognize from cheap restaurants in France. I remember what Craig Claiborne said about the bread basket being an indicator of the meal to come. Then I push it out of my head – he was a total crank in David Kamp’s “The United States of Arugula.”
So, soup. And it’s tomato juice with a lot of nicely chopped red and yellow peppers and, incongruously, what appears to be a whole balsamic-roasted shallot plopped in the middle. As it turns out, the shallot is kind of delicious (if clumsy) against the tomato juice. And I like peppers, so I eat it all -- but it ain’t gazpacho.
The rigatoni comes and it’s nice rigatoni – good ones, not the cheap stuff, topped with a flurry of Parmesan. The sauce doesn’t look like Bolognese - more like finely ground Sloppy Joes and I don’t see the gravy – but if it’s homemade, I’ll be happy enough. Really, pasta with meat sauce; what’s not to like?
I’ll tell you what: undercooked pasta. Not so it’s crunchy, but enough so that if you bite a noodle in half you see the ring of white all the way through. This isn’t al dente; it’s tough and it sticks to my teeth. And pasta water does more than boil noodles; it’s a silky, starchy substance that rounds out a sauce and gives it a texture that lets it coat the pasta without overloading it. Great stuff, and there’s nowhere near enough of it here. The meat sauce would have been much better with a good hit of it and the poor pasta has none to give. So the dish is cranky and at this point, so am I. (A glass of wine might have mellowed me out, but on the night I visited their list needed real help – a lot of Trader Joe’s wines like Mountain View and Rock Rabbit. However, their website now shows an improved list that includes Andrew Murray, Plumpjack and Hitching Post.)
I ask for the pasta to go; Titus will get it for breakfast. Then I get the bill and I feel guilty. It’s $27 – and that includes my 20% tip.
Twenty-seven dollars? I haven’t had a bill that low at a restaurant this nice since... well, since I was a critic. And that was Dallas. And these people are so nice. They’re so nice that when I forget my leftovers (as I often do), they saved them for me. (I know this because a couple left right after me and told me so. I thanked them, but at that point I was getting in my car and was too tired. Sorry, Titus.)
So, now what? Based on service and sincerity, I’ll probably give it another shot. And a week in is a work in progress; I was really surprised (and pleased) to see the sea change in that wine list. But for now, it’s a nice restaurant with mediocre food.