Dayton Street Grille cooks up big-city class
By Susan Troller

There’s no question that chef Charles Lazzareschi has brought real style and panache to the recently revamped main dining room of that slightly dusty dowager, the Concourse Hotel.

A recent evening meal at the Dayton Street Grille showed all the imagination, graceful presentation and nuanced flavors one would expect of a great hotel dining room on the coasts. In fact, the dinner, with a nicely balanced mix of continent-spanning flavors, put me in mind of a favorite hotel restaurant in San Francisco.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Lazzareschi, the hotel’s executive chef for two and a half years, grew up in a family of restaurateurs in the Bay area, attended culinary school in California, and has loads of experience at hotels in larger cities.

But, despite the creativity of the menu, the high quality of the food and an understated, sophisticated decor that hit many right notes, the dining experience as a whole left us with some “what if” thoughts that made us contemplate just how difficult it is to move from very good to great.

What if the wait staff was as sophisticated as the cuisine? What if the wine list offered more complex complements to the menu? What if the hotel management and restaurant staff had paid just a bit more attention to perfecting the details of the restaurant’s elegant design?

The Dayton Street Grille, especially at night, is unquestionably a fine, interesting addition to the local dining scene. With traffic rushing past on Dayton Street and its proximity to the Overture Center, campus, State Street and the Square, it has a welcome big-city vibe. But the overall experience should be tuned up to bring it in line with the quality of the cuisine Lazzareschi is sending out of his kitchen.

The dinner menu is marked by a reliance on locally produced meats, fresh, seasonal vegetables, an unexpected juxtaposition of tastes and textures, and Lazzareschi’s dazzling array of 24 dipping sauces in three categories: sweet, savory and spicy.

The emphasis is on fairly straightforward dishes — for example, oven-roasted breast of chicken, trio of grilled lamb chops, grilled tenderloin of beef — that rely on the excellence and integrity of the ingredients. These unfussy entrees become surprising and multidimensional with the addition of the sauces and some very accomplished side dishes.

Two of us ordered braised calamari ($8) to share as an appetizer. The generous portion of very fresh tasting calamari was enlivened with roasted chiles and basil micro greens. While it was good, we didn’t love it so much that we wouldn’t be tempted by a range of other intriguing sounding starters that included mango mint spring rolls with Asian slaw, or black mustard seed crusted seared ahi tuna, served with wakame salad and a spicy mustard vinaigrette.

Our server encouraged us to order a spinach salad ($9) tipping us off that a shipment of fresh greens from a local farm had come into the kitchen that afternoon. It was excellent advice, but not just for the quality of the spinach.

This Lazzareschi signature salad features warm goat cheese croquettes, sourdough crostini and the strangely beautiful and wonderfully textured enoki mushrooms. Looking a little like sea creatures, they put the fun in fungi. The salad was dressed with a subtle roasted garlic-chive vinaigrette. It was simply salad heaven.

As I savored the flavor combinations of the spinach salad, I felt a little sorry for my husband’s choice of the pecan pie salad ($8). When we switched plates, it was clear he needed no sympathy.

This unusual combination of arugula, praline pecans, Carr Valley blue cheese and maple bourbon vinaigrette was wonderful, with the sweetness of the dressing and the praline pecans a fine foil to the spicy, sharp flavor of the greens. The blue cheese added its own note of creamy, pungent flavor to the mix.

For our entrees, we ordered the 5 spice breast of duck ($20), served with Asian fried rice, napa cabbage and the enoki mushrooms which I had learned to love during the salad course. My husband chose the Jordandal Farm grilled pork chop ($21) which came with chorizo rice and pancetta wrapped French beans.

Each entree is served with three dipping sauces, one sweet, one savory, one spicy and the chef makes a recommendation for which sauces would best complement each entree.

We went with the recommendations. With the breast of duck, the suggestion was a Thai sweet and sour sauce, a lemon lime vinaigrette and a habanero papaya sauce. The sauces Lazzareschi suggested as an accompaniment to the pork chop included a Carolina peach barbecue sauce, black pepper aioli and a salsa roja.

“The idea is to serve the entree just prepared fairly simply with its own juices you know, let the main ingredient shine,” Lazzareschi explained. “Then the sauces served on the side can provide a little different flavor with every bite. It’s kind of playful.”

Even without the sauces, both pieces of meat we ordered were very good, and expertly prepared. Pork chops, especially, are perilous if underdone, but dry out easily if overcooked at all. The sauces did precisely what Lazzareschi said; they made every bite a slightly different flavor. And the trading back and forth across the table was lively and fun.

The dessert menu is a winner, too, with every item made in the Grille’s own kitchen.

We shared a butterscotch pudding and fleur de sel oatmeal cookies ($4). And although we said we’d each just take a bite, we ate every spoonful, and ate the cookies, too. Start to finish, it was a memorable dinner.

But, unlike the food, the service left considerable room for improvement.

Throughout the meal, every question we asked about ingredients, wine or preparation elicited a puzzled shrug and a cheerful promise to ask someone in the kitchen. The mistakes and lack of knowledge were understandable; our server was a brand new member of the staff, being trained on a quiet night when we and a handful of other guests were the only diners, and she should not be criticized for inexperience.

But in general the level of service doesn’t match the quality of the food.

Unfortunately, at lunch the food was less memorable, with an indifferent black pepper fettuccini ($12) and a salad bar ($8) that is clearly very popular but basically undistinguished. Some of the salad greens tasted like they had spent too much time in a cooler with some unsavory companions.

During the restaurant’s bustling lunch period, with the white tablecloths off the tables, the elegant brown metal mesh curtains nearly invisible and the dining room filled with downtown lunch traffic in a hurry to eat and leave, the friendly but occasionally clumsy service didn’t seem so out-of-place, because the restaurant generally felt more ordinary.

If the Dayton Street Grille aspires to creating the kind of compelling destination restaurant that its highly talented chef deserves, it would be wise to put some polish on the staff. They need to bring the same attention to detail and creative energy in serving the food that clearly went into preparing it.

As for the wine list: Although the selections are a bit thin, my colleague Lindsay, the wine sage, said she is impressed by the Grille’s effort to keep prices for some very decent wines by the glass in the $7-8 range.

So despite any lapses, I’m eager to go back to the Dayton Street Grille, especially at night, for more of what Lazzareschi is dishing out. This local effort to create an urban, uptown hotel dining experience is exciting, and it deserves the community’s support.

Dayton Street Grille
3 stars
Address: 1 W. Dayton St.

Phone: 294-3030

Web site: http://www.concoursehotel.com
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Special events: Yes. Go to the Web site for information about upcoming wine dinners and holiday specials.

For more information contact Anne Leuman, Marketing Coordinator, at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 608-257-6000.