By Wendy Lemin
I don’t eat meat. My Significant Other doesn’t eat seafood. I’m picky; I like my food locally sourced and artistically presented. S.O. doesn’t care as long as it tastes good and there is enough of it. Deciding on a restaurant at which to dine together can often be a challenge.
But not always.
On a recent trip to Boston, we had the pleasure of dining at Grill 23 & Bar, a Back Bay icon that is still packing them in, winning awards and accolades after 33 years of popularity. A classic steakhouse, which rightly brags about sourcing 100% of its all-natural, humanely raised beef from Brandt Beef in Southern California, Grill 23 also touts sustainably and locally raised produce and dayboat seafood in several menu selections. So, even though I usually tend to avoid meat-centric eateries where it seems that anything else is merely an afterthought, the seafood choices swimming through the meaty menu were sufficient to entice me.
In San Diego, where I live, it seems that almost every month there is a new “highly anticipated” restaurant opening, many of which barely make it past their first year. Most reflect the youth-obsessed, beachy SoCal culture—contemporary, hip, and colorful in décor, the generally small portions of each dish striving to be visual works of art. Grill 23 is nothing like that. It has grace and maturity—after all, it is 33 years old, which in restaurant years, is almost ancient. In San Diego, Grill 23 would definitely be considered “old school”, with its dark mahogany paneled walls, marbled Corinthian columns and white tablecloths, but in historic, more serious, Boston, it fits, in a “grown up” classy kind of way.
After spending the day exploring much of Boston by foot, we were happy to settle into our seats in the restaurant’s large dining room, and began perusing the bar menu. Neither one of us are big wine aficionados (yes, I know, I’m a very strange food writer who doesn’t eat meat and can’t tell the difference between a Chardonnay and a Pinot Grigio and doesn’t care), so we bypassed the very extensive wine list and started with cocktails chosen from the “Contemporary” section of the bar menu. They were each delicious and refreshing, although on the high-end, price-wise. My girly, but not too sweet, Big Crush, made with Stolichnaya razberi vodka, Chambord, housemade orange liqueur, and citrus, was pink and fruity, and $18. S.O. chose the Steel Magnolia, concocted with Don Julio Silver tequila, Del Maguey Vida mescal, St. Elder liquor, cucumber and lime for a slightly more reasonable $17.
When the basket of fresh baked breads arrived, my resolve to “be good” apparently decided to go sit at someone else’s table, because it certainly was nowhere to be found at ours. Wonderfully crispy flatbread, with a touch of spice, chunks of herbaceous rosemary/ olive oil bread, dark, slices of slightly sweet Boston brown bread, and a beautiful crusty Viennese-type roll —yes, I ate them all.
Because we finished every last crumb of those breads, we skipped the appetizers and went right to the entrees. I chose the Sashimi Grade Tuna, the slices of fish perfectly seared on the outside and raw on the inside—exactly the way it should be—perched on a bed of creamed leeks, saffron spelt, and wild mushrooms. The leeks provided a lighter, more contemporary take on traditional creamed pearl onions, and the spelt (an ancient grain in the wheat family) , with it’s nutty flavor and chewy texture, was a wonderful alternative to the more common rice or quinoa found everywhere these days. The dish was delightfully rich and flavorful, and while I initially thought the portion somewhat small for the $39 price, in the end, it was more than I could eat and I took the remainder home to be enjoyed the following day for lunch. So, amortized over two meals, not too bad a deal!
With high recommendations from both our very knowledgeable waiter and the restaurant manger, my S.O. ordered the signature 18 oz 100 Day Aged Prime Ribeye from the Best of the Best section of the A la Carte menu. He ordered it medium rare, and that was exactly how it was served, always a good sign. The steak was lightly doused with a port wine gorgonzola sauce and accompanied by a pile of grilled onions and a small watercress salad, but mostly it was a straight forward carnivore’s delight: a big piece of deliciously tender, expertly cooked, uncut meat on a plate. What the $54 dish lacked in “presentation”, it made up for in flavor and texture, according to my S.O., who declared it the best piece of meat he had ever eaten, and blissfully devoured the entire 18 oz steak.
Because S.O.’s dish was a la carte, we decided to order a couple of the side dishes. Our waiter recommended the truffle oil Grill 23 Tots instead of the mashed potatoes with garlic butter my S.O. was yearning after. For $13, they were just okay—yes, golden crispy outside, creamy inside—but somewhat salty, and I really didn’t get much truffle flavor, which is what attracted me to the dish to begin with. Basically, they were just high-end tater tots, which I’ve never been a huge fan of. If you are, though, you will probably love these. The Blistered Shishito Peppers, also $13, were much more successful, with a good sized dollop of fluffy herbed goat cheese that paired excellently with the smoky peppers.
It doesn’t matter how full I am, I always crave something sweet, preferably chocolate, at
the end of my meal. To feed my addiction to that dark lusciousness, we shared the Valrhona Chocolate Layer Cake, one of Grill 23’s signature desserts. A cylindrical confection of layers of rich dark chocolate cake and malted crème anglaise, topped with thick chocolate sauce and accented with praline crumble, it was every bit as decadent and wonderful as it sounds.
So, can I recommend Grill 23 to fellow pescetarians? Absolutely. I could probably eat that tuna dish every day of my life. There were also halibut and salmon entrees, lobster and swordfish on the a la carte menu, three seafood appetizers, and a nine item raw bar. From what I saw and tasted, the quality of the seafood was every bit equal to the beef for which this restaurant is so renowned. Non-seafood eating vegetarians wouldn’t be as fortunate, and have few options on the regular menu other than the side dishes and salads, but hey, this isn’t a vegetarian restaurant. It’s an upscale steakhouse that also serves really good fish. It’s not trendy, it’s not hip. But after 33 years, it’s still a Boston favorite, and that says it all.