May 8 2013 12:00 AM

World class food and drinks make Gracie's the place to be

Hard to say good night to Gracie's

Ever read a glowing restaurant review and think, “The reviewer must be on the payroll — no place is that good.” 

Dear reader, if you are of the cynical persuasion, feel free to conclude I am bought and paid for by Gracie’s Place, which happens to be among the very best — if not, the single best — restaurant in Greater Lansing. But just to be clear: The only things bought and paid for were three meals on my own dime (OK, many dimes). Gracie’s had me at hello, and after each visit I regretted having to say goodbye.

There is so much creativity going on in this place that it almost seems like a culinary jam session, with each taste sensation trying to outdo the other. Let’s start with the master of the kitchen, Chef Rob Shipman.

“This guy knows how to make sauces!” my dinner companion exclaimed after sampling the Sauce Robert, a delicate brown mustard sauce. Not to be outdone was a sublime dill-ramp sauce accompanying a melt-in-the-mouth filet of skate.

On my first visit, I had seared whitefish with artichoke mashed potatoes, co-starring a tart, buttery tequila lime buerre blanc sauce that almost stole the show.  

The saucy showstopper was the butternut custard dessert. It arrived on a plate looking as though it had skidded to a stop, leaving a thin smudge of creme anglaise in its wake. They should serve this dessert inside a small pup tent, so you can stick your head inside and lick the platter clean without alarming other patrons.

Creativity comes in the glass as well. It seems a number of Gracie’s staff have had a hand in various concoctions, none more so than manager Paul Martin. A native Londoner with a keen wit, he is also a mixologist of the first order.  One of Martin’s creations, the Fakhir, is made with curry. I know, it sounds awful, but it’s amazing — as is the Outro, a rum-based drink made with allspice liquor and garnished with nutmeg.

Just reading the cocktail menu is pure entertainment. Fans of “The Big Lebowski” will surely appreciate the homage in the cocktail, “The Dude Abides.”

That inside joke says something about Gracie’s demeanor. I love a place that takes its craft seriously without being overweening. While it prides itself on holding to high standards — exacting preparation and presentation, devotion to using local and fresh ingredients — there is a laid-back, whimsical side to this restaurant.  

I saw people in sport coats, dresses, flannel shirts and blue jeans. A mother with a toddler sat near a group of senior citizens, and close by were a young couple looking very much in love. It’s not stuffy, and that may say something about Williamston, a boutique-ish town not far from its farming roots. 

Back to the menu. One dinner companion exulted in the orzo that accompanied his braised lamb shank: “The best orzo I’ve ever had.” Indeed, it had a warm but subtle butter flavor. An avid and experienced restaurant-goer, he raved about Gracie’s being a top-tier restaurant where “the chef drives the menu rather than the other way around.”

Another dining companion (I bet she hates being called my dining companion when the world knows her as Judy, my wife) raved about the grapefruit and salmon salad. Meanwhile, I wolfed down a steaming bowl of tomato-basil soup, with bits of a guarded secret cheese sprinkled in.   

For a special night out, I recommend going on a Thursday for the chef’s tasting. At $45 a person, it’s pricey, but we left full and happy, knowing we got our money’s worth. We feasted on beef tenderloins with spring garlic risotto, the aforementioned skate (a delicate white fish) and rabbit ragout with morel mushrooms. If you’re a wine drinker, consider pairings with each of the four courses for an additional $15. Gracie’s has an extensive wine list, and knowledgeable folks who can guide you. 

The one nitpick I had was an imaginative dessert, the house-popped caramel corn with house-made caramel and chocolate ice cream. The taste was outstanding, but the caramel’s heat melted the ice cream before it reached our table. Easy fix — set everything but the ice cream on the plate, then serve the ice cream from a cold container, right at the table.

In the grand scheme of what makes Gracie’s Place great, melted ice cream is picayune. This restaurant is an inspiration. Gracie’s abides.

Slammin' salmon

My favorite cousin and I stopped in to Gracie’s Place on a recent rainy Wednesday night. Our waitress dropped off a bread basket and told us about that evening’s specials — which included a T-bone, a porterhouse and a sirloin steak — but she didn’t tell us any prices.

We started with the guacamole appetizer, which was some of the best guac I’ve had. It was obviously made in-house and had big chunks of avocado. It was accompanied by crisp, salty tortilla chips and ramekins of chipotle- and garlic-infused dips, which I seriously considered sticking a straw into and drinking. I made short order of licking the plate clean.

I had to, because I was starving and no other food was forthcoming for the next 45 minutes. Please note — the place was virtually empty, and we were our server’s only table. We didn’t see her again until she finally brought out our entrees — the Spartan County Chicken for him and the Braised Beef for me.

The chicken came with a cassoulet of garlic scapes — the green part that grows out of a garlic bulb — and French flageolets, which are flat, white beans. It had a chasseur sauce, which is a brown sauce made with mushrooms, shallots and white wine. The chicken was juicy, the beans were tender and the scapes added brightness to the dish. My cousin loved it.

My dish was a little tough and could have used some heavy-handed seasoning. Cuz took a bite and said, “That’s really good pot roast.” It was really good, but the highlight of the dish for me was the pickled onion garnish. The meat was served atop halved new potatoes, but there were so many of them that I felt like the next heifer to be braised might well be me.

There was no salt and pepper on the table, which is my single biggest pet peeve. I requested some from the waitress and she brought over a mismatched set of shakers from behind the bar. She then disappeared for another 30 minutes while we enjoyed the live jazz.

I went back to Gracie’s a few days later with a different companion. We had a different waitress this time, who came to the table with a basket filled with a completely different kind of bread. Still no salt and pepper on the table. My date started with a cup of minestrone and was surprised that there was no pasta in the soup.

The service was head-and-shoulders above my previous visit, and when we told our waitress that we intended to order two entrees and share them, she was quick to bring out extra sharing plates. The Scottish Salmon came out first, medium rare, and won me over as being the best salmon in town. It was simply prepared and perfectly cooked. It gently flaked apart and was beautifully bright pink inside. The cardamom cinnamon rice was a little crispy, which I liked. The rice wasn’t powerfully flavorful, but with a piece of fish like that and the pastis (licorice-flavored liqueur) chervil (parsley-eque herb) cream sauce, you need a side dish that will play backup.

Our other entrée, a flank steak crusted with chilis, came out with the salmon, but as our server put the plate on the table she noticed that it was cooked well past the medium rare that I ordered and immediately took it back to the kitchen. That kind of service deserves commendation.

When our replacement steak came out (complete with non-serrated steak knives), I was sorry that we hadn’t just ordered more salmon. The meat was nothing to get excited about. The best part of the dish was the addition of sautéed spinach, which was wilted but still a little bit crunchy.

My date had a couple of Manhattans with his meal, which he said were “delightful.” And dessert was an easy choice — they only had one: Blood orange panna cotta with honeydew coulis. It was light and refreshing and not too sweet.

If you’re a salmon fanatic like I am, Gracie’s is worth the drive to Williamston. But don’t plan on making it to a movie or a show — you might be there for much longer than you intended.

Gracie's Place
151 S. Putnam St., Williamston
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues.-Wed.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.
(517) 655-1100
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