Critics mowed down Grass when it opened in the Design District in 2003, if only for the velvet ropes and snobbery encountered at the door. Despite such grumblings, or perhaps because of them, Grass grew quickly as a club destination with a reputation for passable pan-Asian fare. Alas, the scene shriveled as fast as it had sprouted, and died altogether in 2005.
April showers brought Grass back in May. The new ownership team is placing more emphasis on food than attitude, though the outdoor tiki-lounge aspect remains a seductive draw for those who just want to tarry about with tropical drink in hand. Summer rainstorms might prove inconvenient for diners; a bulky thatched roof covers most of the area, but tables and sofa seating around the perimeter are left exposed to the elements. We didn't face any inclement weather, which is to say it was divine to dine under the stars amid lush ferns and foliage, illuminated flora, bonsai, bamboo, and a beautifully backlit bar. Management might consider marking the short step downward from periphery seating to main level with glow paint or lights — the slight drop is invisible in the dark, and I noticed more than one diner stumble.
Michael Jacobs, original top toque at Tantra almost ten years ago, takes on the role of executive chef. He and chef de cuisine Ervin Bryant execute a concise menu of predominantly Asian-inspired, contemporary American fare, with a resolute emphasis on seafood. Entrées are mostly planted in the $20 range, which is in keeping with the other, more celebrated chef Michael's restaurant down the street. Yet with most appetizers running $12 to $16, desserts $10, and specialty cocktails $15, Grass requires more green than that other venue.
On our first visit we began with complimentary honey-coated bread sticks and a dish of white bean purée (there is a Mediterranean influence at work here, but it is thin as a blade of grass). The sticks' sticky-finger residue was messy, which little bowls of lemon water would have remedied. I could have poured a bit of white wine on my hands as well, but high prices on Grass's short list of bottles pretty much precluded using it for this purpose. Plus it would have been kind of uncouth. As it turned out, on our subsequent visit the bread sticks were goo-less.
An appetizer of "half moon duck" can be turned into a full moon by putting the two small, folded whole-wheat tortillas together. Not much could be done, though, to entice the subtle flavors of confit bird to shine through dense clouds of melted Jarlsberg cheese and cover of wheat; a drizzle of sweet hoisin-ponzu glaze only further obscured this moon's tender morsels. A brighter start came via a pair of poached shrimp and buckwheat soba noodles in seafood broth redolent of saffron and ginger. As lip-smacking as it was, the chef might want to add pomegranate — not only because the fruit's bracing tartness would contribute a contrasting kick, but also because the dish is called "pomegranate poached shrimp."
The intricate duck notwithstanding, Chef Jacobs allows the naturally fresh flavors of his food to come through. Wild salmon, mahi-mahi, and yellow jack (Atlantic hamachi) are offered straight off the grill, with sides of radicchio slaw moistened with rice wine and sesame, shoestring fries, and one of five dips (extras are $2 apiece). We selected yellow jack and were treated to a thick, delectable wedge of white, juicy, mildly sweet fish. Our choice of roasted corn-and-truffle cream sauce was delicious as well, but this jack didn't need any jacking. Another sauce, a duxellelike spread of mushrooms and aged sherry vinaigrette, was way strong for this or probably any other fish. As for the shoestring fries — I have always been of the opinion that potato sticks belong only in a bowl, on a coffee table, surrounded by bottles of beer, with a baseball game on in the background.
Maine diver scallops, darkly and sweetly caramelized via pan-searing, were terrific in tandem with sweet potato bisque and crisp slivers of fried oyster mushrooms (not overly sweet, as you might imagine). Less successful was a lightly browned, pan-seared grouper served atop soba wheat noodles in lemongrass-mushroom broth — a similar conceit to that of the shrimp starter, but these noodles were overcooked, the broth tepid. Even with ever-captivating chanterelles tossed in, the flavor was flat as the Kansas plains.
From those plains comes the twelve-ounce grass-fed Kansas City rib eye — at $39, one of a handful of high-ticket items on the menu. At the same time, it is the least expensive red meat proffered. The only other steak is a salt-stone-seared, $81 slab of grade 5 Wagyu beef loin (that's the highest grade of Wagyu in the United States, the number determined by the proportion of marbling; Asians are privy to a "platinum" grade 9). The more modest "grass-fed" rib eye, ordered medium-rare, arrived with only a hint of fast-fading pink (medium-well). The wide, slender steak was supposedly applewood-smoked, but it tasted as if it were grilled in the regular manner — perhaps with more of an assertive dash of salt than is the norm. It was tasty, not particularly tender, and failed to exhibit the plush, succulent state implied by a $39 tag. However, Brussels sprouts spotted with smoky bacon and splashed with lavender honey was a lovely match, especially for those who like Brussels sprouts. The many who don't will have to seek solace in creative $8 sides such as spinach couscous, or Yukon Gold mashed potatoes infused with blue cheese.
Grass's service is strong, and almost fawning to a fault. On one occasion our waiter inquired how things were at least one too many times, as though overcompensating for the arrogant reputation of the prior proprietors. That said, an overly doting manner beats apathy every time, and during a return visit, the staff was pitch-perfect.
Pastry chef Manny Patterson does quite a good job too. The half-dozen desserts scrumptiously showcase his knack for inserting unexpected flavors into familiar classics: pistachio ice cream as a surprisingly strong suitor for a supersmooth pineapple cheesecake with cashew crust; and chamomile contributing a soothing element to vanilla panna cotta pooled in peach reduction. Small spheres of sugar-coated dark chocolate-hazelnut beignets, which bear a strong resemblance to doughnut holes, were richly decadent. Maybe a side of chocolate-ginger dip was purposefully served chilled for contrast, but warmed sauce would be more sensual and leave a fuzzier feeling inside.
This restaurant is gorgeous, its service courteous, the cuisine uneven, but budding with promise. Although summer shower season might dampen a few dinners, perhaps it will also give Grass the time it needs to grow into its potential as a prominent dining destination.