(Grand Rapids, MI) A while back, Groupon expanded to include Grand Rapids and one of the first deals was a $60 gift certificate at Louis Benton for $25. Not bad! That's like getting a free filet without it having to be your birthday. Finally, our schedules meshed enough that we were able to make a late 9p reservation on OpenTable.com at the steakhouse. Would it live up to past successes or would previously encountered problems persist? We were perhaps more curious than hungry...
After we took advantage of the free valet parking and went inside, we were greeted by the decidedly more casually-dressed host. He checked our reservation and pronounced our table to be ready, even though we were easily 20 minutes early. Since Juliet had just flown in from Manhattan, we abandoned our original plan of relaxing at the bar and instead got right to dinner. (It is worth noting that this host later relaxed at the bar with some other patrons, drinking and talking loudly. Talk about casual!)
We were led through the dining room, which had been reconfigured since we'd last eaten here. The bar had been relocated immediately to the right and showed sports on a large screen TV. I found this a bit odd, since previous incarnations of Louis Benton had taken great measures to separate the diners from the barflies. Turns out the Peninsular Club had lost their spot in another building and moved in where the old LB Lounge had been. Unfortunately the Peninsular Club couldn't survive in this modern world, and soon the space was unoccupied again. We are told it is now a banquet/meeting space and will soon be a middle-aged club on weekends starting in September.
Once we are seated, we are handed a piece of large parchment. What is this? The menu? What happened to the leather-bound menus of old? Gone, evidently. I look around and begin to see the picture: consolidation, cutting back, and streamlining. Hopefully the service and preparation haven't likewise been downsized! I look over the wine list and am dismayed to find no glasses of prosecco. In fact, the entire list has been trimmed. Sadly, they display their 2008 Wine Spectator award for notable wine list up front, an ironic reminder of past glory.
Just when I start to lose hope, by happenstance I flip to the back. A bottle of Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs for $38! The slightly dark and bitter sparkling wine goes exceptionally well with the Baked Brie En Croute, which we order to start the night. Our server is professional, perhaps a bit offish at first but answers all our questions and comments pleasantly on our selections. She does mention she has been with Louis Benton since they opened, so it sounds as though the employees are treated well.
Our brie arrives surrounded by green apple slices, halved strawberries, blueberries, and a cluster of red grapes. Inside the baked cheese is a raspberry puree, which spreads nicely on the artisan crackers. I'm not a big fan of the lettuce bed; it just seems out of place with the rest of the dish. The fruit is fresh, clean, and unblemished. The brie is followed by a well-composed, but not noteworthy side salad.
Upon the advice of my good friend (and frequent patron of Louis Benton), Lukin, I order the medium-rare Queen Filet with a side of herbed garlic butter. The steak is cooked to perfection and is very tasty, especially when dipped into the herbed butter. The already soft and tender meat is rendered even more succulent. Although the quality of the filet is a grade below what you'd find at The Chop House, due to trimming techniques, it is still very good. I try a piece in Juliet's Béarnaise sauce, however, and my taste buds are sent soaring to a new level. Unfortunately, we also decided to share a side of the Goat Cheese Gratin. It is dry and nearly tasteless. We leave more than half of it in the dish after a few half-hearted forkfuls.
To accompany both our meals, I order a bottle of Faust Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. It is a lively, spicy cab with licorice overtones and a lingering finish that belies its Chilean roots. If I hadn't seen the bottle uncorked at our table, I would be sure this was a Zinfindel! At first I am worried it will overpower our meals, but that doesn't happen. The wine is pleasant and warming, exhibiting capricious characteristics that add to the depth of the overall meal.
Surely there's no room for dessert after all this, right? In theory, that would be correct. When our server shows us the dessert plate, however, I immediately zone in on one choice: the chocolate-covered peanut butter ice cream bowl. We decide to share it, cracking the hard chocolate shell to get at the sweet, salty ice cream inside. It doesn't taste too much different than a peanut butter Klondike bar, disc-shaped, sitting in the middle of a field of caramel drizzle (and I'm not saying that's a bad thing).
As we pay our bill and collect the car from the valet, I'm at odds with our experience. The food is relatively decent but it's clear Louis Benton is trying new things, foundering a bit with its identity. It's not the big steakhouse on the block anymore, so it needs to shift gears without losing focus on the food and the service. I'm in no hurry to have dinner there again...unless Groupon runs another special.
I've been in meetings for three days in New York City and am looking forward to a late dinner and a good bottle of wine with Jeremy. As luck would have it, my plane landed a few minutes early and there was almost no wait for luggage. We end up at Louis Benton just after 8:30 pm, nearly 30 minutes earlier than planned, and are pleased to find our table is waiting. For a split second, I worry that the restaurant might be close to empty, but as we walk to our table I am thrilled to see several tables filled. Indeed several parties are seated well after us and I remind myself that Grand Rapids is no longer a small town and late night dinners do indeed occur outside of the island of Manhattan.
We begin with the brie en croute and a bottle of Gloria Ferrer Sparkling Wine. The brie arrives quickly and is nestled on a small bed of chopped lettuce and surrounded with generous portions of sliced green apples, halved strawberries, huge blueberries, multi-grain crackers and a large bunch of red grapes. While the lettuce seems like nothing more than a "riser" for the brie, the unblemished fruit is perfectly ripe and goes with the cheese and crackers beautifully. The sparkling wine both cuts the richness of the cheese and pairs well with the acid of the fruit. I cannot think of a better way to start a special dinner.
Even though I've been eating quite a bit of fish and seafood this week while travelling, I have every intention of ordering fish tonight. Even when our server describes tonight's special—a blackened sirloin steak topped with three bacon-wrapped jumbo shrimp—I promise myself I will stick with fish. I debate between the horseradish crusted salmon with artichokes and cannellini bean ragout and the crab crusted walleye with chili lobster corn cream and sweet potato fries, but when our server arrives to take our order, I decide at the last minute on the queen cut filet with a side of Béarnaise. Jeremy orders a queen cut filet as well, but with the herb butter as recommended by a close friend. We opt to split a side of the goat cheese potatoes gratin.
We discover our steaks come with the house salad, which I usually find to be uninspiring at most restaurants. How much innovation does it take for a chilled plate of limp iceburg, a few hard discs of carrot, and one lonely cherry tomato? The pleasant surprises continue when the salads arrive. There are a variety of fresh crispy greens topped with thin slices of red onion and baby cucumbers, both rye and white croutons (which look homemade based on their uneven edges), grape tomato halves, sprinkles of feta, and a light balsamic vinaigrette. And best of all the plate isn't ice cold. I know some folks want a chilled plate to keep their salad cold, but I would prefer a salad that's been freshly made and a room temp plate is a dead giveaway that my salad hasn't been lingering in a walk-in cooler since this morning.
The steaks arrive with a side of crispy-fried onion strings. My filet is perfectly cooked to medium rare and the Béarnaise is ridiculously delicious. It is obviously made in-house, as it lacks that fake tang of citric acid that the jarred stuff and mixes tend to have. Rich and deeply perfumed with fresh tarragon, the Béarnaise is simply amazing dabbed on a hunk of red meat. Yum! I dunk a few forkfuls into the pile of onion straws as they add a bit of crunch, but I abandon them soon to just enjoy the beef and Béarnaise. No crunch needed. My one criticism of both filets is how poorly they were trimmed. Mine is so asymmetrical, it rolls around on the plate as it is presented. Most high-end steakhouses trim their filets to ensure they are even and attractive after coming off the grill.
The potato gratin is overcooked, nearly to mush, and is pretty much flavorless. There is no tang of goat cheese and even the bread crumb topping is bland. In the past, I've had other sides that were spectacular, including the macaroni and cheese, asparagus, and wild mushrooms. One of my former favorites, the potatoes Lyonnaise, has been removed from the menu, which is disappointing.
We enjoy a bottle of Faust Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon with our steaks and it's rich and full bodied, but surprisingly less tannic than most cabs. A great wine for steaks.
We've seen Louis Benton go through several changes. A few years back their bar was renamed "LB, the One Pound Lounge" and offered a menu of apps and munchies sold by the pound. It seemed to be a popular concept, but didn't last long. Recently, the Peninsular Club moved in to the former bar area, but now that's closed too. Our server tells us the bar is now a banquet facility and will transform on the weekends into a lounge for people 35+ beginning later in September. I'll be curious to see how the concept is received. Anyone want to check it out with us?
© 2010 HeFedSheFed.com