Blue Water Grill
(Grand Rapids, MI) The Michigan winter persists around these parts and that just makes us want to stay indoors, cuddled against the cold. But we have a job to do! We bundle up and head northward, to Juliet's pick for a special lunch review. In keeping with our "winter blues" theme, she chooses Gilmore Collection's Blue Water Grill. The glass and fieldstone building squats on a hillside, overlooking a man-made lake. We enter across a bridge suspended above a koi pond, walking into an airy foyer warmed by a stone fireplace. Our hostess greets us, telling us the "young couple" we are dining with has already been seated. Are we the "old couple" then? We follow her into the dining area...
I freely admit I am a bit larger than the average well-fed American. Having said that, I find it very odd that restaurants should have tight seating. We join Kim and Chris, our lunch companions, at a booth a bit narrow (especially when we have winter coats and the ladies have purses). We squeeze in, but I spy a nearby table that looks more inviting. We pick up our menus and reseat ourselves.
Speaking of menus, it is clear at first glance that Blue Water Grill has changed things up a bit. This is a good thing. Their old menu was getting a little long in the tooth, and their traditionally spotty quality may have gone by the wayside as well. I am hopeful, as I see many items that sound appetizing. However, I gravitate more towards the specials of the day.
Hope goes down the drain when I spot our waiter. We've had him in the past and he seems scattered, forgetful, otherwise occupied. When some us can't quite decide yet on our meals, he disappears for too long before checking back. No matter; we enjoy lively talk with Kim and Chris in the meantime.
Finally, we are ready to order and are allowed to order. I decide to spring for the Root Chips with hot chevre and red pepper aoili as our app. Make no mistake, these are delicious! Crispy root vegetable chips in a generous bowl, paired with small metal bowls of creamy warm chevre cheese and faintly spicy red pepper mayo dip. To wash it down, I get a bottle of Quilmes Cervesa, an Argentinian lager not quite as full-bodied as Red Stripe, but very refreshing. Some of the appetizer plates are either wet or have dried food on them, and when I mention this to the waiter he takes them away without comment or apology and does not replace them.
As my main course, I opt for the Butternut Squash Risotto with charred red onion, gorgonzola cheese and herb-grilled chicken breast. When it arrives, the presentation is lovely, though I am put off slightly by the bright orange smear of squash that looks like baby food straight out of a Gerber's jar. I'm sad to say, except for the chicken, the risotto was slightly overcooked, mushy and bland, bland, bland. You wouldn't think that, right? With gorgonzola and red onion? It surprised me, and I had to do the unthinkable: add salt and pepper from a shaker. If you know me well, you know that I NEVER add salt or pepper to anything. I feel it's the chef's job to season it properly, not mine. Kim reported her pizza was near-tasteless as well.
Butternut Squash Risotto
That got me thinking: why would someone go to all the trouble of creating a special dish, with demonstrative ingredients, only to deliver up a tame version? Was it the fault of the chef or sous? Or did the general public just prefer subtler tastes? After some meditation on the subject, I almost believe it's the latter. Here in Michigan, many restaurant-goers seem to prefer mediocre (think Applebee's), safe food. They don't like to be challenged or served up something they can't pronounce or identify. And if they order a pizza, they want it to taste like a pizza, else they'll complain loudly. I guess if you own a restaurant or cook for one, you'd rather cater to the lowest common denominator. Sad.
Our waiter, in meantime, has to be reminded to bring a beer Chris orders. He also delivers the dessert menu. My Achille's Heel is near the top of the list: Key Lime Pie. I order it, paired with sparkling wine, which the waiter nearly pours for Kim instead before I remind him. The pie turns out to be pretty good but not worth ordering again. It does pair nicely with the champagne, however.
True to form, Blue Water Grill delivers up yet another lackluster dining experience. It is no wonder we usually only visit the restaurant during the summertime, when we can sit out on the deck watching the condo owners sail their small boats across the artificial lake, and enjoy cocktails when winter is still a distant memory.
After spending three days on the road having late night dinner meetings with large groups, I really just wanted something predictable and familiar. While I've found the service to be uneven, I've always found the food to be good at Blue Water Grill. The restaurant has expansive views of the lake and a huge fireplace, which sounded cozy. Plus, we were meeting Kim and Chris Monks for lunch. Kim and I had spent many a long lunch or early happy hour on Blue Water Grill's monstrous deck when we worked together and nostalgia was calling.
The four of us settle at a table near a window and right across the aisle from the fireplace. Perfect. Blue Water Grill's menu has changed a bit and it takes me awhile to figure out what I want. I am hungry and everything sounds good.
Jeremy orders a starter of root chips which comes with warm chevre dip and a cold red pepper dip. I nearly always order these when we're at a Gilmore Collection restaurant and Kim and I have devoured more than our fair share of these in the past. She even comments after Jeremy orders them, "Oh we have to get those, we always do."
I decide on the "build your own burger" with green olives, Swiss cheese, lettuce, red onion and mayo and I substitute a pretzel bun for the brioche bun they offer. When it comes, I notice the onions are shaved super thin, which I like much better than the typical thick rings of red onion at most places. The shaved onion gives the burger a nice onion-y taste without being overwhelming. The beef patty looks like it is hand-formed and not one of those perfectly shaped ones out of a big box from the freezer. (If the burger looks like a hockey puck, chances are it was formed by a machine, flash frozen and boxed elsewhere. Kind of a hockey-puck-in-a-box, of sorts.) I ordered medium-rare but the burger is much closer to medium-well. However, it is still very juicy and flavorful so I keep on enjoying it.
I had my choice of a side with the burger—pasta salad, fresh fruit cup or root chips. Now the words "fresh fruit cup" remind me of nursing home food and "fresh" fruit in Michigan in February is an oxymoron if you're looking for anything but apples, oranges and bananas. But I want to induce a bit of nutrition into the lunch, so I go for it and am glad I did. A ramekin of thin crisp apple slices, strawberry halves, whole blackberries and tiny fresh raspberries appears next to my burger. I'm sure the carbon footprint on the berries is astoundingly shameful, but they are darn good and I feel no remorse.
Both Kim and Jeremy feel their lunches lack flavor. Jeremy has the butternut squash risotto and Kim has a pesto chicken pizza. Clearly those dishes should be flavorful! Chris has a burger (different than mine, I think, with more heat to it) and seems to like his burger as much as I like mine.
Against our better judgement, we order dessert. Jeremy has the key lime pie, Kim the Mackinac Fudge gelato and I order a dessert sampler with coffee gelato, chocolate cheesecake and creme brulee. The waiter comes back to tell me the cheesecake hadn't set right that morning and would I be interested in substituting something in it's place? Tirimisu wins out. The sampler platter is more like three full-sized desserts, so I'm glad I ordered extra spoons so everyone could try a bit. (Chris is the model of restraint, by the way!)
Chicken Pesto Pizza
As predicted, the service is uneven. At times our waiter is attentive and other times he is gone for long periods of time. He forgets Chris' beer order at one point. Two of the four appetizer plates that arrive with the root chips are dirty. Yuck. My food is very good and I'd go back again, but Jeremy has had some mediocre food there before. And now, so has Kim. Maybe future visits need to be restricted to summer when the deck and gorgeous view of the lake add some ambiance!