Though hotel restaurants have a bad rep — the captive audience syndrome — there's no reason to shun them a priori. True, you might get seated next to a large and loud party of co-workers away from home on a training retreat, raucously washing down the strains of a day spent discussing price points and paradigms. But when the chef cares what he or she is doing, a hotel restaurant can positively be a destination for locals.
That's clearly what Toasted Oak Grill & Market, opened last April at the Baronette Renaissance, would like to be, what with the 2 to 6 p.m. happy hours four days a week ($4 for snacks or drinks) and the deli-style market section, which would seem to be for shoppers looking to take something home to their kitchens (wine, cheese, pickled vegetables), not so much to their hotel rooms.
Chef Steven Grostick used to work under the noted Brian Polcyn at the Five Lakes Grill in Milford, which is where he learned the art of charcuterie. His terrines, patés and rillettes work well at the Grill, which strives for informality — bare tables, a mirrored ceiling, picnic tables outside, vintage signs and posters — along with a level of well-being, such as comfy chairs and a sophisticated menu, suitable for a fine hotel.
The menu is mostly meats, as generally demanded by the traveling businessman on account — St. Louis ribs, flatiron steak, filet mignon, lamb sirloin, beef brisket, a burger on a pretzel roll, steak tartare, house-made kielbasa — but also includes mussels, salt cod croquettes and calamari, a cheese board, and a few fish and pasta dishes, plenty for the non-meat-eater. Some come with hand-cut fries ("frites") and others with mashed skin-on fingerlings, which are swell. Most dishes feature interesting sauces and some venture into unfamiliar regions of the taste buds.
One of those is puréed asparagus with Gorgonzola and pine nuts over penne, in which the sharp cheese and grassy veg combine oddly but well. Another is lamb sirloin with a rich, dark rosemary demi-glace, though I thought the mint gremolata played a bit too assertive a role.
An excellent example of sauced meat was a Black Angus skirt steak, chewy, as expected, but the longer chewing time welcome because of the excellence of the adobo marinade and the chimichurri (a sauce of Argentine origins, oil and vinegar, onions, garlic, herbs). It was surprising, then, to find a Lake Huron trout quite bland.
For a starter, I had some fantastic vichyssoise, the best ever, though served unaccountably lukewarm (it's traditionally cold). It combined the pungency of leeks, the richness of cream and the potato's own earthiness — along with lots of bacon (an easy way to boost just about any dish).
But what you should really take advantage of is Grostick's expertise in charcuterie. He offers a terrine of the day, a chicken liver and foie gras paté, rillettes of smoked salmon and pork, and a market charcuterie plate with his own pickled vegetables. There's also a market cheese board. Despite the temptations of Spanish and Italian products, Grostick strives to use American pork and cheeses as much as possible.
One night the charcuterie plate was speck, chorizo and salami, with the freshest pickles I've ever tasted. The wafer-thin chorizo was just barely spicy but the other two, nearly transparent, were the height of the art — just fatty enough, the speck salty, the salami rich.
Stop reading here if you are fat-phobic, because rillettes are meat cooked in seasoned fat, and then stored with a fat covering. Grostick shreds his pork — it's not pounded smooth like a paté — and presents a very large jar of it, bathed in creamy, semi-liquid fat; the meat is spiced almost like a sausage, pretty salty.
I can't recommend it as an appetizer — too heavy — but served on big slices of thick buttered toast, it would go well with happy hour from the short but eclectic wine list. A good bet is the "Grande Rojos" South American Big Red flight: a cabernet, a Malbec and an Argentinian Bordeaux blend for $15. The Grill also does wine tastings on Saturdays from 4 to 5 p.m., at which the lucky samplers get three wines plus snacks for $5. And you don't even have to check in.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.