Aging Hip

Getting old is a bitch.

Take Grass, for example. When it first sprouted two years ago, the open-air space in the heart of the Design District was the hottest, coolest kid on the block. It became instant flypaper for all the self-anointed hipsters -- the celebrities and big shots, models and hangers-on, the glittering party-boys and girls about town, the folks who spend their nights swimming in an endless sea of Cristal and parting velvet ropes with a wave of a freshly manicured hand.

That was then.

Now a recent meal at Grass seemed to showcase a different set: old people, geezers even, one of whom actually used a cane (and it wasn't a prop), tourists, and restaurant critics. The big tables were packed with twittering Paris Hiltons-in-training, squeezed from the same blonde, short-skirt, airhead tube. Oh, the infamy.

The trappings of the old cool are still present though. Velvet ropes adorn the door, flanked by a hard-eyed mandarin who checks your name against the reservations list with the chilly officiousness of an IRS auditor poring over your tax returns. Then there are the haughty black-clad waiters, trying not quite hard enough to hide their disdain for the peasants inexplicably allowed inside.

The food, however, has not quite retained its former cool. Chef Pedro Duarte is talented, no question, and capable of creating dishes that force your mouth to stop midbite and utter "Oooh!" in gastronomic rapture. But steps and opportunities are being missed, resulting in dishes that don't delight for want of a fraction of flavor and execution, suggesting that sometimes the kitchen is simply mailing it in.

The space is still undeniably hip, still basically a tiki hut erected between two buildings, a handful of tables scattered with only the stars for cover, another handful of booths almost hidden against the opposite wall, and a clutch of low, knee-scarring tables beneath the hut's thatched roof. It's an audacious setup in a city where the clouds regularly pour down rain like God's drainpipe, but perhaps those manicured hands can wave away thunderstorms as well as the ropes that keep out lesser mortals.

Or perhaps it's only the peasants who get wet.

Wet or dry, it's worth snagging an order of popcorn shrimp. Lots of places serve them, but few restaurants make these little shellfish nuggets better than Grass. They're haute junk food, pinkie-size crustaceans in crisp batter jackets that when dredged in salty-spicy kimchee remoulade, will inflame your taste buds and your appetite.

"Firecracker" lamb dumplings aren't too shabby either. Similar to lamb pot stickers, they're offered steamed or fried, served with a tangy ponzu sauce, a drizzle of balsamic syrup, and a sprightly cilantro-mint pesto.

Duarte's pan-roasted sea bass offers one of those "Oooh!" moments. The surface of the fish is as brittle as glass and dusted with togarashi (Japanese pepper), giving way to flesh that melts like butter on your tongue. Simply perfect and perfectly simple in the manner of haiku, it rendered an otherwise estimable honey-yuzu sauce and Asian ratatouille mere spectators. The accompanying sweet-potato gnocchi also suggested haiku:

Lumps of potato

Chew like rubber not so sweet

My jaw is hurting

In contrast, the wealth of seafood in the Malaysian-style ceviche was very tender. Shrimp, oysters, calamari, and scallops were fresh, plump, and carefully cooked, doused in a coconut milk dressing with plenty of fat, meaty cashews -- yet despite it all, dull-tasting and one-dimensional, not nearly as interesting as any ceviche offered at OLA restaurant.

A trio of "Pacific Rim" crmes brùlée -- Japanese green tea, Thai coconut, and Hawaiian ginger-chocolate -- were more like crme brùlée light, as though the kitchen had suddenly become concerned with my elevated cholesterol count and slowly expanding waistline. What lay beneath the crunchy caramelized sugar top was lacking in richness, unctuousness, and lusciousness -- plenty of brùlée but not enough crme.

Kind of like Grass, when you think about it.


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