Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert recently demonstrated that having many options to choose from makes us less happy. That’s actually an old insight that serves as the basis of ascetic religions, traditional marital arrangements, the first sentence of Anna Karenina, Japanese omakase dining, and the effective tactics of television’s Supernanny. The Grill Room, a new Old Port restaurant, defies these insights by making you pretty happy despite a dizzying array of choices — proving once again that the findings of laboratory psych (and Tolstoy) are crap.
|The Grill Room and Bar|
84 Exchange Street, Portland | Open for lunch 7 days from 11 am to 2:30 pm and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 pm and on Sunday until 9 Pm. Bar menu available until 12:45 am | 207.774.2333
The opening of the Grill Room gives Portland a choice of restaurants run by chef/owner Harding Lee Smith, who also heads the successful Front Room up on Munjoy Hill. Both venues have a similar attractive, casual, and bustling atmosphere, but the menus are quite different.
The main conceit of the Grill Room is the long list of à la carte options that invites you to choose between 12 meat or fish choices, eight starch sides, eight vegetable sides, and 11 sauces. A bit of napkin math suggests the result is 8448 possible combinations, assuming one of each and excluding specials. It jumps to 219,648 if you get an appetizer, salad, or soup.
So needless to say, we couldn’t try them all. But I was pleased to ponder things while enjoying an unusual and lovely looking cocktail in which red wine floated above a whiskey sour. The small army of waitstaff are uniformly pleasant but vary widely in their mastery of the menu.
What we did try was mostly very good. Salads feature imaginative combinations of greens, fruit, pickled vegetables, and pungent cheeses. We jockeyed for the last forkfuls of grilled peach and caper-spotted frisee. Appetizers tend toward the meaty and substantial. Even the mushrooms are stuffed with duck. Fried clams with tartar sauce reminded me, in the best possible way, of the ones they used to serve at Scales in the public market.
Those paralyzed by options can bail and order one of Smith’s pre-designed entrees, which also seems to save you a few bucks. He pairs the hanger steak, cooked nicely to an even pink, with a great chewy chorizo, a big pile of oil-sauteed spinach, and white beans. The wintery flavors were great on a chilly summer night on the patio, and were not drowned out in the mildly spicy chimichurri sauce. Other grilled meats were equally well prepared.
The salmon was well-browned and crisp-skinned but still moist and a touch translucent inside. Tuna straddled the line between grilled and seared nicely. The red, tender duck was terrific with a barely sour vinegar-kissed chard. Short ribs were crisp edged but fall-apart tender.
We were told the evening’s special rib-eye was grass fed, which made us wonder what rib-eye cows usually eat. When you order an expensive piece of meat, it can be paralyzing to choose the sauce. Choosing sides is hard enough, but while we are all a bit picky about what we get next to, when it comes to dousing ourselves in something, we get downright finicky. So we were pleased that the béarnaise sauce was thin, mild, and ladled with restraint so that the rich flavors of the meat weren’t obscured.