By MARK NIXON
We arrive on a week night shortly before 6 p.m., eager with anticipation. This is the place I gushed about in a 2013 review, a Williamston restaurant overflowing with piquant sauces at every turn.
Gracie’s Place is now Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro, shepherded by Nick Gavrilides, whose Soup Spoon Cafe in Lansing remains a consistent favorite.
Tonight, the dining room is dimly lit, quiet, almost funereal. Our presence doubles the entire customer population to four. But soon friends Derek and Jesse join us, and we begin.
We choose the smoked salmon pâté and a charcuterie plate for starters. The pâté ($12) gets good marks, with the requisite smokiness smoothed out by a dill-based sour cream. The charcuterie ($15) is ho-hum. Derek notes that it needed a few slices of cheese to balance out the meat.
The rest of the meal is a mixed bag, at least in the opinions of our four opinionated diners. My shrimp and crawfish étouffée ($22) is a mess, a thin gruel with microscopic bits of crawfish. Derek tries it and wishes he’d ordered it. His parmesan encrusted pork chop topped with a chutney-like apple sauce ($25) is splendid, though a bit overdone. Note to management: Your online menu says the apple sauce is “house mad.” Anger management issues in the kitchen?
Judy’s Bistro Steak ($18) is correctly done rare, and it gets high praise. Jesse, however, summarizes his steak as “tough” and “meh,” and there is an unspoken chorus of “mehs” about the dry fingerling potatoes and that the promised “complimentary bread service” failed to reach our table. Dessert, however, gets raves. The mascarpone cheesecake ($8) hit all the silken, decadent notes worthy of any self-respecting cheesecake.
I leave Gracie’s about two hours later, not disappointed but decidedly underwhelmed. A Paul Simon lyric pops into my head: “All right in a sort of limited way, for an off-night.”
It’s a week later, the day after Valentine’s Day, and tables are filling up quickly. Someone has adjusted the dimmer, and I can make out the wood grain pattern of the floor and admire the slightly psychedelic portraits of women on the north wall.
Lindsay is our server, and she is firing on all cylinders. Sharp, witty, knowledgeable, toying with our culinary desires. We sense we are in for a treat, and we are not wrong.
I go for a cup of gumbo ($4). The must-have gumbo staple, filé powder, announces its presence from the get-go. A bowl of this hearty, sausage-enhanced soup would constitute a meal. Friends Bruce and Jan share a bowl of ale-steamed mussels ($15) with garlic, butter and Andouille sausage. Says Bruce, “I would never have thought of doing mussels with Andouille, but it worked.”
I order the duck. (Have I told you that I can say “Look! There’s a duck!” in 11 different languages?) This $35 entree has the crispy sheen of a well-roasted duck, with plenty of dense, dark meat on the inside. Perfect. Bruce’s pan-fried walleye ($21) was, in his words, “done to perfection.” Agreed. The grain mustard tarragon vinaigrette on the side reflects a welcomed pattern this evening: Many dishes are backed up with an array of solid sauces and vinaigrettes, just like old-time Gracie’s.
Jan describes her venison meatloaf ($18) as “pleasantly spicy, moist and very satisfying.” For me, what makes this dish stand out is, once again, the sauce. It was toasted cumin, sour cream and mushrooms.
For Judy, it is not a stellar night. The roasted beet and feta appetizer ($10) was good, she says, but the beets were barely roasted, if at all. A rich, smoky Black Forest Linguine ($16) hit some high notes, but it’s off-putting that the menu doesn’t provide full disclosure.
“Why is the linguine black?” Judy asks.
“I believe it’s squid ink,” Lindsay answers.
Judy correctly notes that the menu should tell you that.
While waiting for dessert, Bruce attempts to pour Jan a glass of wine from the bottle. He finds it difficult because the cap is still on. We have a good laugh. I mention this because it’s Wednesday, the day Gracie’s offers discounts on select bottles of wine.
Bruce orders donut bread pudding ($8) with fresh strawberries, chocolate and — sauce again! — bourbon caramel sauce. This is one of those dishes you want to dive into, swim around in and drown happily.
It’s fair to say Gracie’s is a work in progress. But so are relationships, democracy, life. I urge Gracie’s to keep working, exploring, inventing. And feel free to tell customers that the wine tastes better when the cap is removed.
Mom! The Meatloaf!
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE
Both of our weekday dinnertime trips to Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro had us wondering how exactly the Williamston restaurant is making any money. On our first trip, there were three tables of diners. On our return visit, we were the only people in the place.
It makes me wonder if people have taken note of Gracie’s steady decline over the years and aren’t willing to give the place another chance. Or maybe people went down to the next block to have my favorite shrimp and grits at Tavern 109. Or perhaps Williamstonites just like to eat at home during the week.
On both visits, Mr. She Ate and I were immediately struck by the unappetizing view of plastic food prep containers stacked high on the kitchen pass-through. Imagine the containers of pre-chopped ingredients and cold cuts at Subway, where you go down the line and tell them that you want banana peppers on your sandwich. It’s not something that I expect to see in a high-end bistro, and it doesn’t inspire confidence that my food is being prepared fresh. It’s certainly not something that I expect to see with such an in-your-face presentation — and on both visits.
On our first trip, we noticed that the waiter didn’t write down our orders. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this if there hadn’t been a mistake in the order. My husband debated with himself about ordering a bowl of soup versus a cup, and while the waiter stood and listened to his monologue, he decided to order a bowl and share it with me. A cup of soup was delivered to the table. Not an egregious error, to be sure, but something that cost the restaurant money and annoyed the diner (or his wife, to be honest, since the actual diner is a lot more easygoing than yours truly.)
The good news is that the steak and ale cheddar soup ($6 for a bowl, $4 for a cup) was delicious, with a lingering hit of spice and a hearty texture. In the colder months, we eat soup by the gallon, and this one struck the right balance between luxurious and fresh.
I started with a side salad ($4), which included dark leafy greens, red onion, cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes. It’s exactly what I want in a side salad. Save the iceberg lettuce, shredded prepackaged cheese and store-bought croutons that so many places throw on the table. Well done, Gracie’s, on a little thing that counts for a lot.
My intrigue with the venison meatloaf ($18) on the menu won out, and I ordered the dish but replaced the mashed potatoes with goat cheese polenta. The meatloaf came in a personal-sized loaf, not a slice, which meant more caramelized edges for me. If you don’t think that’s the best part of meatloaf, you’re crazy. This meatloaf was spicy, tomato-y, velvety in texture and topped with mounds of crispy fried shoestring onions. The goat cheese polenta had no discernible goat cheese flavor, unfortunately, and the asparagus on the side hadn’t been trimmed at all. I gnawed my way through one woody end before I gave up and trimmed the remaining spears myself.
Mr. She Ate had the burger ($13). While discussing his burger a few days later, I remarked that I couldn’t remember anything about it. “There’s a reason for that,” he quipped. A restaurant burger, we believe, presents a blank slate. It’s an opportunity for a professional kitchen to take an everyday item and make it extraordinary. It should come on a unique bun, like a pretzel bun, for example, and should be topped with fresh, crunchy vegetables. The cheese should be something flavorful and a little bit fancy — smoked gouda, Muenster or my preferred aged, stinky blue cheese. It should be built to order. The meat should be high quality. The best burger he’s had in town, he remembers fondly, is the Kobe cheeseburger at the State Room. They focus on quality of ingredients and put a unique spin on it. It’s an example that Gracie’s would be wise to follow.
On our return visit, we started with mussels ($15), which are steamed in ale and served with Andouille sausage. Through no fault of Gracie’s, I learned through this experience that I don’t like the taste of ale. He gobbled them up.
I ordered the Bistro Steak ($18), medium. The steak was tender and properly cooked, savory and salty. It was topped with a fried onion ring and a thick pat of butter with chopped fresh sage leaves. The scent of sage leaves me weak in the knees. They could package and sell this butter. The mashed potatoes, flavored with herbs and garlic, were good, if you like that sort of thing. Much to the chagrin of family members who want me to prepare them for holiday meals, mashed potatoes are not a priority for me and are never my preferred potato dish. Give me a crispy, roasted fingerling with olive oil and salt any day of the week. My asparagus was, again, untrimmed. I knew before I took a bite that the ends wouldn’t be edible. That is an oversight that shouldn’t be happening — ever — let alone when the entrée is $18.
He had the shrimp and crawfish étouffée ($22). He removed the bay leaves that had been left in the dish (seriously, chef, just pull them out) and was then free to concentrate on licking the plate clean. This stuff was excellent. The server was right when she assured him that it wasn’t tongue-sweatingly spicy, but it had layers of flavor.
For the sake of research, we tried the bread pudding ($8). I had high hopes that it would be at least comparable to the bread pudding at the Soup Spoon Café, since Gracie’s new owner is the brains behind the Eastside favorite. Unfortunately, this bread pudding was a mess. It’s made with a mix of donuts from Williamston’s Groovy Donuts, an interesting thought but one that isn’t executed well. I had several bites that tasted of the artificial fruit flavor of the donuts. There was too much happening in this dessert — fruity donuts, salted bourbon, caramel, chocolate bits. It wasn’t a cohesive dish, and I yearned for the simple decadence of the bread pudding at the Soup Spoon.
I like the size of the menu at Gracie’s. It is limited and not overly ambitious. I like the portion sizes, in that I could eat my whole dinner and didn’t have to wonder what to do with the leftovers. I hope that it can find its groove, but for now, when I head to Williamston, I’m still heading to Tavern 109.
Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday
151 S. Putnam St., Williamston
(517) 655-1100, graciesbistro.com