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How many downtown Houston restaurants look out on real, honest-to-God trees? Whatever the number—and I suspect it’s in the single digits—you can add another to the list: the Grove. I’ll get to the food in a minute, but first let me say one word about the Grove’s setting: wow.
You stroll in and stop at the hostess stand and she says, “May I help you?” But you do not answer because suddenly you are mesmerized by the soaring space. Your focus shoots across the room and through the tall glass walls to the canopy of leafy trees beyond. Having taken that in, your eyes zoom back to the arty, eclectic dining room and ricochet around like a couple of pinballs. In the background, an insistent voice is saying, “Excuse me. May I help you?”
But on to the food. Much-lionized Cafe Annie chef Robert Del Grande is the mastermind behind the Grove’s menu, with Ryan Pera (most recently of 17) filling the executive chef’s role. At first blush, you might expect some high-ticket goods and experimentation from these two, but given that the restaurant is across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center, a mainstream menu makes sense. Even so, among the all-American favorites (steaks, grilled meats, salads, and burgers) are a number of dishes with some refinement, like fisherman’s stew with aioli.
Our fivesome whetted our appetites with gratis imported olives and almonds and then homed in on a couple of fun appetizers: meatballs and deviled eggs. Mind you, these were not just any meatballs but duck meatballs with a grain-mustard dip. Nor was the smoothly puréed deviled-egg filling made with just any eggs but yard eggs from Hatterman’s, a locally known chicken farm; garnishes of Spanish chorizo and an olive tapenade added texture and character.
For main courses, we tried a variety of surf and turf, plus a thin, crispy grilled pizzetta. The latter, layered with prosciutto, a blend of provolone and mozzarella, and arugula, was everybody else’s favorite entrée, but I voted for my tender hanger steak with a savory rub (the accompanying slabs of beautifully grilled sweet potatoes should be de rigueur for every entrée). Of our two fish choices, I preferred the nicely pan-roasted flounder with capers and brown butter, even though it was so timidly seasoned that we requested a side of herbed olive oil to brighten it up.
The Grove’s desserts are homey and easy to like. After debating between the “old-school chocolate cake” and the “pie squares,” we got both. The cake, with milk-chocolate frosting and vanilla ice cream, was exactly what you would expect: sweet and soft. The pie squares (imagine a large, flat tart cut into serving-size pieces) offered two flavors, pecan and Key lime. The former was fine, but the latter, capped by thick, well-browned meringue, exceeded expectations.
After dinner, we found ourselves lingering over coffee, sneaking peeks at a few gossip-column types at nearby tables, and generally not wanting the evening to end. As we finally paid the check and wound our way to the door, somebody proposed the obvious solution: “We’ll just have to come back.” Bar. 1611 Lamar (713-337-7314). Open Sun, Tue, & Wed 11–10, Thur–Sat 11–11, Mon 11–4. Reservations recommended. $$–$$$ W+