When deconstructing the restaurant-going experience, food and drink tend to trump mood and ambience, and rightly so, but the way a place looks, sounds, and feels can be nearly as important as the stuff on the plate in front of you. Grand Tavern delivers on all these criteria. It's located in a vintage stucco Oakland residence reconceived for wining and dining, with a cozy pub-like bar near the entrance, a lounge with a view of the garden, a homey dining room complete with fireplace, knickknacks, chandelier, and floral wallpaper, and a flagstone patio with potted plants, slat-wood tables, and Christmas lights year-round. The residential atmo' is an important aspect of the Grand Tavern experience, because as soon as you walk in you feel like you're hanging out at somebody's friendly old homestead. This amorphous yet unmistakable sensation can be traced to the fact that the Grand is a family affair, with chef Kay Noor of Afghanistan running the kitchen while her daughter Jasmine handles the front of the house and son Temoor acts as general manager. Happily, the menu lives up to the restaurant's down-home vibrations: hearty American classics crafted from organic, farm-fresh ingredients, with a few spicy yet beautifully balanced accents out of Central Asia thrown in.
We kicked off our meal with what looked at first like an unhappy reminder of Woodstock-era health-food cuisine: individual mounds of earth-toned vegetable matter. But Mrs. Noor obviously knows her way around an herb garden and spice rack, and after a few tentative nibbles we couldn't stop eating the stuff. One example, sweet carrot mash, was exactly that, mashed-up bunny fodder, but there was a bite of lemon and crunch of walnut to the dish that made it irresistible. Similar kitchencraft was visited on the roasted squash, a spicy, creamy mashup of garlic, onions, old-country spicing, and a sneaky-snarky chili pepper or two. The roasted spinach received simpler treatment, with shards of sweet sun-dried tomato and the veggie's own earthy flavor delivering the vitamins in a most delicious way. And a bowl of roasted eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers was like a lush, hearty ratatouille with an underpinning of onion and garlic, and a dollop of sour cream adding a tangy touch of richness. In the words of a carnivorous friend, if vegetables always tasted this good, I'd eat them now and then.
The entreés are uniformly hearty (if not entirely satisfying in a fill-the-belly sort of way — for only the second time in my many years as a restaurant critic, I had to chase my meal with a homemade peanut butter sandwich — but diners less robust than myself will no doubt welcome the Grand's smaller, European-size portions). There's a Cornish game hen that's marinated in red wine and ginger and then fried, Southern-style, until crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside, with crisp slices of roasted okra adding a bit of down-home verisimilitude. Tenderloin of beef is slowly braised with sweet summer tomatoes and a hint of lemon and served with a bright green chimichurri sauce fragrant with garlic, peppers, and spice: yum. Best of all was the rich, succulent lamb shank, braised to the tender juicy stage with enough ginger and onions to give it a subtly bazaar-like flavor. Entrees come with your choice of dry, chewy wild rice spiked with crunchy corn kernels or (a better option) silky pureed yams with a hint of citrus and clove, a marvelous accompaniment to the dishes' robust flavors.
The house desserts are as warm and as comforting as the restaurant itself. The ultimate comfort food, rice pudding, is made here with high-starch Italian arborio, a grain prone to supple creaminess under the proper slowly simmered conditions. Sweet, delicate, and sprinkled with bits of pistachio, the end result was an exceptionally soul-soothing example of the genre. The blackberry shortcake offers the diner a deceptively simple superstructure: pound cake, berries, and ice cream. But this is the height of blackberry season, and simple's never tasted better than when the juice of the sweet plump berries is mixed up with the vanilla ice cream, the buttery cake, and a honey-like blueberry reduction sauce. Equally yummy was a ramekin of organic rhubarb braised with ginger and rosewater: a rich, silky, tangy triumph, especially bracing under its pillow of ice cream.
As noted, there's plenty of stuff on the menu to keep the vegetarians happy: the mashed carrots with walnuts, the roasted zucchini and eggplant, the spinach with sun-dried tomatoes, the peppery roasted squash, and a hearty meatless chili. You also can opt for a beet salad with blue cheese, pine nuts, and organic greens, a big platter of fried potato wedges, and sides of the wild rice and the spiced yams.
The wine list offers a nice range of four dozen value-priced options (most are $20-$40 per bottle) from Italy, Spain, and our own backyard. (Benovia's Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir makes a nice juicy companion to that rich, earthy lamb shank.) Thirty-four are available by the glass. The impressive beer list focuses on unique Belgian brews, offering nearly two dozen lambics, weisses, and triples including Scaldis, which at 12.9 percent octane is the lustiest beer in the Low Countries. There are also several house cocktails to choose from, including the Reunion Cooler, a bright and refreshing concoction of tequila, muddled pineapple, grapefruit zest, and snarky little pink peppercorns, and an especially bracing fresh-lime gimlet made with Plymouth gin and just enough absinthe to offer a hint of Mediterranean sunshine without that cloying licorice flavor.
The Grand Tavern has a few kinks to work out — drinks arrive slowly, utensils are hard to come by, the heat lamp peters out at the height of the foggy season — but the drawbacks are trumped by the surprisingly delectable food, the friendly service, and the cozy, cordial setting. This is a great place to kick back, sip a cocktail, and make yourself at home.
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