I surprised myself when I joined the two other judges and voted Charles Lazzareschi top chef in the final heat of a recent cook-off sponsored by Madison Magazine. Not that he didn't deserve the award.
Lazzareschi's ability to do smart things with the secret ingredient (Kobe beef) and pair it with seductive sauces, especially given the time constraints, earned him the title. It's just that Lazzareschi heads the kitchen at the Concourse Hotel, and the hotel had fallen off my culinary radar years ago.
But the chef's new title is the kind of hook that may get his Dayton Street Grille noticed. Opened this spring, the Grille is the Concourse's latest attempt at a hotel kitchen good enough to draw locals along with hotel guests, and qualify as actual destination dining. And it has a lot going for it.
The Grille is a handsome restaurant, in a contempo, Crate-and-Barrel kind of way. All chocolate brown, burnt orange and copper (the chain-metal curtains add a shimmer), the dining room feels like a refuge, and the servers are intent on doing the right thing. And it's hard to blame the confused, wandering service on them; the baroque, top-heavy staff of managers, hostesses, busboys and waitresses just need to curb their enthusiasm and figure out who is doing what, when.
The Grille's menu is more focused, at least when you get to the entrees. The appetizers wander a little themselves and seemed, at least on the evening we visited, uncertain. A pyramid of braised calamari, despite the accents of roasted poblano and Anaheim chilies, proved oddly tasteless and rubbery, and while two short ribs were meaty, the meat itself was tough. The appetizer to order is a braised barbecue chicken flatbread. It's a satisfying pile of food, the tender smoky chicken playing off melting cheddar cheese, a spicy, crunchy slaw and the crackling flatbread crust.
The Grille's entrees, on the face of it, stick to the basics, from grilled lamb chops and Atlantic salmon to pork chops, diver scallops and New York strip. What lends them some excitement, and lets you turn each dish into a little global smorgasbord, is the snaking list of 33 side sauces. You can choose three sauces for each entree, and the menu suggests a preferred trio for each dish.
Some people will find the whole mix-and-match concept too much work; others will find it dated (the popular New York kitchen Craft popularized the approach years ago) and a little uncouth (dipping sauces are a kind of child-like way of playing with your food). But I think the approach is fun, although the success depends on the sauce itself. My standard-issue oven-roasted breast of chicken wasn't helped much by a dense tamarind date sauce, but the coconut red curry sauce turned it into an elegant, east-meets-west dish. The very tender, thick, grilled tenderloin of beef didn't really need any addition, and the achingly sweet chimichurri sauce overwhelmed the meat. A black pepper aioli, though, added a pleasing little flourish.
Among desserts, the one to avoid is the butterscotch pudding, which hadn't set (though our server said this wasn't the norm); it was essentially butterscotch soup, maybe intended as a future dipping sauce. The chocolate soufflé cake, on the other hand, was a feathery, light cloud of a cake, and perhaps the best symbol of the Grille's gift for surprises.