Not that grills don't have an honorable place in the restaurant world, as well as in my personal one. I can't count the number of perfectly grilled lamb chops I've consumed at Hollywood's Musso and Frank's Grill over the years (the rumor that I dined there on its opening night in 1909 is somewhat exaggerated), and I bow to no one in my affection for Sam's Grill and Tadich Grill.
I also expected something informal because the place doesn't take reservations. But I was somewhat taken aback by the extreme brevity of the menu: four starters (two of which were salads -- the inevitable mixed greens and the inevitable Caesar), two pastas, and half a dozen entrees. Most grill menus (see Musso's, Sam's, and Tadich's, for comparison) are dauntingly lengthy affairs: The trick is to find what the place does best, as in those lamb chops -- or, in the case of Sam's, a surprisingly moist and delicious old-fashioned (and novel, for that reason) poached salmon with egg sauce. What, I wondered, would be left to try on my second visit to Fillmore Grill, and what would induce neighborhood visitors to return?
The answer, it quickly turned out, was simple: excellent ingredients, thoughtful cooking, and generous portions. Which were all in support of a menu that was quite a bit more ambitious than the classic grill menu I was anticipating, both in conception and execution.
There were actually five starters, it turned out, including an unlisted soup of the day -- carrot-ginger, a velvety version with more bite and interest than many other carrot-ginger soups I've tried, a surefire combination that can still be a bore in the bowl. The plateful of mixed baby lettuces and greens in a sparkling lemon vinaigrette, sprinkled with toasted filberts, was beautiful, and one of the more tempting salads I've had lately. And I was quite taken with my dish of shrimp, scallops, and little mussels cooked in romesco sauce with spinach. Not only were the shellfish properly and lightly cooked, but the sauce was also authentic -- complex, deeply flavored, and chile-spiked, not the tomato-sauce-with-some-chopped-nuts-tossed-in that many chefs seem to think will pass for romesco.
I relaxed and admired our setting: a long, bilevel room, spacious enough for several seating areas (including five cozy, wood-framed booths lined up like a Pullman car on one wall) and a roomy bar in the back. The place gleamed. It managed to look both comfortingly familiar and brand-new at the same time. The golden tone of the wood and the warm russet color of the opposite wall combined with the intelligent, subdued lighting to make us all look pretty attractive -- especially the more than a dozen women, all dressed up and dramatically hatted, who had taken over the bar before moving to a long table set up for them at a banquette in the upper part of the restaurant. "I think they're a group called Ladies With Hattitude," our sweet server told us, "that has dinners around town." "I thought they were some Ya-Ya Sisterhood thing," I said, finding them more adorable than annoying.
Perhaps I was mellowed by our continuing good meal: a sturdy yet tender osso buco with creamy polenta; fresh halibut sparked with a tomato-anchovy vinaigrette and sided with summer vegetables, including peas and haricots verts, that honored the late season; and my choice, tasty grilled pork loin accompanied by tangy (if a bit too firm for my taste) Austrian potato salad, an indicator of the heritage of chef Albert Rainer, who also co-owns downtown's Cafe Metropol. There was a level of comfortable expertise demonstrated that made Fillmore Grill feel more like a destination than a neighborhood restaurant. "This place," I said, after we'd enjoyed a fresh take on tarte Tatin made with figs instead of apples and a rich yet airy chocolate torte topped with chocolate profiteroles and surrounded with a faintly spicy crème anglaise infused with Earl Grey tea, "is better than it has to be."
Still, the brief menu kept me from returning too quickly. I'd let the new spot, which opened in July, have a few weeks to (I hoped) augment its offerings. When I did schedule a return dinner, it was almost scuttled by the cancellation, that day, of my guests. I left a brief message for Peter and Anita, asking if they were free; no, I heard Peter respond later on my machine, didn't I remember that I'd consulted with them last week on a choice of restaurant for their regular dinner with Anita's Aunt Yvonne? Oops. After a couple of other equally fruitless attempts, I fell back on the people who can't say no to me: Mom and Dad.
"I love being backup," my mother said as we drove to dinner, which was one of the only cheery things said in a conversation that was otherwise pretty grim, covering the painful defeats of the Giants, the Athletics, and, something we feared all too accurately that election night, the governor.
We perked up when the hostess led us to a table that was separated by only a railing from Peter, Anita, and Aunt Yvonne, to their surprise as well as ours, because I thought they were across town in the Italian place I'd pitched to them, and I hadn't mentioned where we'd be going when I'd asked them to join me that afternoon. It turned out they'd been swayed by both my report after my first meal and that of another friend who'd enjoyed his dinner at the Grill.
I was also pleased to see that the menu now featured eight starters (the originals joined by crab cakes; a salad of frisée, pear, walnut, and blue cheese; and house-cured salmon), and that the main courses were augmented by a chalkboard, brought to the table, offering several additional dishes. I needed a drink after our dispiriting drive, and sipped a minty Mojito as we made our choices.
My father liked the wine list, which had quite a bit of variety, including lots of selections under $30. We chose a fruity Von Othegraven Riesling, at $28.50, which went well with our starters: plump little crab cakes, topped with a tangle of beets in a horseradish rémoulade that could have been more pungent (but was nicely sided with a delightful salad of yellow mushrooms); a special that night of a dozen and a half lightly cooked mussels in a bit of white wine broth, served with a heaping bowlful of standard-issue frites with not-quite-garlicky-enough aioli; and the best one, lovely light gnocchi in a thin cream sauce enhanced with Montasio, an Italian cheese also used to make a toasted wafer (known as frico) that garnished the dish alongside shreds of prosciutto and a sprinkling of caraway seeds.
We gave our server quite a workout, because we sent back a crab cake and some gnocchi to be packed up -- "Not because we're not enjoying them," my mother hastened to assure her, "but so we still have room left." In the end, we couldn't finish our main courses, either. I almost stopped my father from ordering the schnitzel, thinking it would be an involuntary homage to the Last Action Hero, whose Santa Monica restaurant, Schatzi, features the dish, but since it's a favorite of my father's, I didn't mention my thoughts -- happily, as it turned out. "I've had schnitzel three times lately," my dad said. "At Tadich, Speisekammer, and here, and I liked them all, but this is the best: the thinnest, crispest, and most delicate." My mother and I argued about the lingonberry compote it came with; she thought it was house-made, and I thought it was a good-quality preserve. She was right: "We get the lingonberries from Austria," we were told, "and cook them with a little applesauce, lemon, ginger, and allspice."
My mom enjoyed her big lamb shank, braised with lots of vegetables, including green beans and thick, slippery slices of mushroom. "I make lamb shanks with tomatoes," she told the chef after he told her his lingonberry recipe, and he said that sometimes he did, too, but wanted a lighter sauce that night to go with the Gruyère mashed potatoes. My roasted chicken, still moist under a crisp skin, came with buttermilk mashed potatoes, which could have been hotter but went well with the garlicky chicken jus they were lapped with, and thick slices of roasted fennel, carrots, and whole garlic cloves.
My mother liked everything: the assorted breads, the flattering lighting, our charming server, Christina, who unblinkingly boxed up our leftovers, course after course. And she adored her dessert, a particularly luscious and eggy unmolded bourbon crème caramel, zigzagged with chocolate and accompanied by two barely seared chunks of banana. "I could have another," she said, and I wished she had. I loved its creamy, barely-held-together texture, and I could have used a few more spoonfuls. My domed goat cheesecake was similarly fragile, light, and creamy.
"I'm going to have gnocchi for breakfast," my father said, happily, "and a schnitzel sandwich for lunch." I planned to have cheesecake for breakfast, chicken for lunch, and, I trusted, another crème caramel in the not-too-distant future. I'd be back.