Grub ("Eat," "Dine," "Spoon," "Fork," and "Chow" were already taken, and "Vittles" has too many syllables) opened this past fall in the one-time quarters of the Port Cafe, a popular Cuban/breakfast joint, and the physical transformation is impressive. The long, low-slung room is simple and funky, with stylish postmodern accents. Bare wooden tables, linoleum floors, and cranberry walls contrast with a concrete wine bar backed in luminous red and black. Tall tabletop planters act as topiary dividers between groups of diners; globelike bundles of white lights wrapped in wire provide illumination; and a small area near the entrance offers a triangular coffee table and sectional sofa for lounging. Broad windows look out on the Sanchez foot traffic, and colorful examples of optical-illusion art hang here and there. Between the layout and the trendy moniker and the menu -- sake martinis, asiago-stuffed olive poppers, blue corn-flake fried chicken, mango cobbler -- you might conclude that Grub is the sort of place where hip young innovators gather to reinvent, or at least redefine, American hash house cuisine. Well ...
One of the earliest examples of this fusion-diner genre was Mill Valley's late, lamented Avenue Grill, which served up excellent burgers, martinis, and Caesar salads until it closed earlier this month. At the Avenue you might've found sashimi, braised fennel, mango mustard, and other cutting-edge ingredients alongside your oysters on the half shell, meatloaf, or chocolate cake, but the professionalism of the kitchen was never in doubt and the basic mandate of California cuisine -- lots of fresh local produce presented with wit and balance -- was seldom disregarded. This isn't presently the case at Grub. One rarely encounters any member of the vegetable kingdom; the place doesn't appear to have a unifying culinary theme (except, perhaps, the deep fryer); and although there are several good ideas expressed on the menu, most of them are indifferently executed.
As indicated above, the folks at Grub like their Fry Daddy -- man alive, do they like their Fry Daddy. I haven't eaten so much fried food since a two-day artery-blocker of a trip to Nashville back in 1995. You don't expect to find a whole lot of fried food in health-conscious California, but fully half of Grub's dinner items get the ol' Colonel Sanders treatment. A good example is the Grubin' Dough, a hot, puffy sopaipilla served with Gorgonzola butter for added fatty goodness. Despite the delectable potential, it's all crunch, oil, and air pockets without much flavor or depth. The asiago-stuffed olive poppers are a better bet at hors d'oeuvre time: hot, crusty spheres of deep-fried cheese and briny black olives with plenty of zip and no oily aftertaste. Equally hefty are the wontons, mushrooms stuffed with Parmesan and chorizo, then wrapped in dough, fried 'til crisp, and served with sour cream. You could also start your meal with the garlic-chive french fries, OK shoestrings with an occasional snap. If you'd like to avoid the whole burbling-oil concept, there's the garlic-garbanzo dip, a pleasant enough hummus with a chunky texture. None of the starters is feathery enough to cleanse and stimulate the palate, however. The Caesar salad, for example, is glopped up with an overly creamy, Parmesan-heavy dressing, and the house bruschetta adds a thick slice of rubbery brie to doughy bread and soft tomatoes, rendering the whole thing spongy and sodden.
Further density is available at entree time. The Mika Rolls sound edgy and terrific: garlic shrimp spring rolls with coconut white rice, accompanied by avocado and asparagus tempura to dip in wasabi mayo and teriyaki ginger sauce. As it turns out, the rolls are practically flavorless as well as heavily rendered and the rice is sweet rather than coconutty. In addition, deep-frying an avocado, already the richest fruit imaginable, is overkill. Another missed opportunity is the blue corn-flake fried chicken breast. The chicken is flattened until absolutely skinny, breaded to no discernible culinary effect, and fried until dry and dull. The mushroom gravy makes for a nice moist counterpoint, but the mashed potatoes are unexciting and the stuffing thick and listless. The only hint of vegetation is an occasional shard of zucchini. The pork chop is somewhat better: tender, pleasantly fatty, and served with grilled slices of Granny Smith apple. But the meatloaf is a big slab of fried hamburger with no onion, herb, or spice to recommend it, and the two pasta dishes -- a goopy chicken scampi (sans prawns) and a standard-issue vegetarian penne (sans a whole lot of vegetables) -- are unmemorable. The teriyaki steak, on the other hand, is quite tasty despite its half-inch bulk. It's juicy, served medium-rare as requested, and accompanied by a smoky, sweet, fire-roasted green chili pepper.
The Pot Brownie is another irresistible idea (chocolate cake baked in a kettle and served with shots of ice-cold milk) that doesn't take wing. By the time the Joseph Schmidt chocolate emerges from the oven it has devolved into a Betty Crocker near miss, dry throughout with no walnuts, booze, or molten interior to rescue it. For a better dessert option, embrace that Fry Daddy and indulge in the funnel cake sundae, a sweet version of the Grubin' Dough with excellent vanilla ice cream, rich caramel, and hot fudge substituting for the Gorgonzola butter.
Since the bar serves only wine and beer, the house cocktails are concocted chiefly out of sake, which doesn't quite take the place of gin, rum, and vodka. The Grubmopolitan is a perfunctory excuse for a Cosmo despite the advertised presence of lime, cranberry juice, and raspberry-infused sake. The Bloody Sake is marginally tastier but doesn't pack the zing you might expect from a wasabi-seasoned Bloody Mary knockoff. The best of the cocktails is the Purple Haze, an attractive, lime-grape-raspberry concoction with the pleasant taste of Pez. The wine list is abbreviated -- 11 California vintages available by the glass and the bottle -- but the house beer, El Toro Brewing Co.'s deep, yeasty Poppy Jasper, takes up the slack. If the rest of the menu lived up to the poppers, the teriyaki steak, and the Poppy Jasper, my Duboce Triangle buddies would have themselves another hangout.