Grey Ghost steakhouse delivers experience that’s casual but expensive

Steak and s’mores

Nov 30, 2016 at 1:00 am

The Grey Ghost calls itself both a cocktail bar and a neighborhood steakhouse. Riding the trend back toward meat, it's so popular that you should call days ahead if you want a normal dinner-time reservation. If you have to settle for 8:45 p.m., all the more reason to sit at the bar and enjoy your wait.

And the restaurant's dual description is fair warning of what's in store: There are 20 named cocktails but only 10 choices of wine — and the wine, at $12, costs more than many of the drinks. Management's idea is clearly to steer you toward the playful concoctions. When you read the long lists of ingredients, don't you like to imagine the happy road the mixologists took to devising the final products? Also, do you think they use spit jars?

I didn't order the top-of-the-line cuts of beef at Grey Ghost, because they cost $55 and $47, respectively. Choosing elsewhere, I found the dishes inventive and tasty, with a bit too much reliance on sugar as a crowd-pleaser. Pescatarian companions complained about too few options — all three vegetable sides are meat-accessorized, for example — but what do you expect from a self-described steakhouse? Strict vegetarians, if invited, should beg off.

The place is stylish, with floor-length windows and a heated patio that was still operating into November. A big mural of the Grey Ghost, a legendary Prohibition-era rumrunner, seems out of place — he looks like Long John Silver. The vibe is casual but expensive, as every newcomer in this category is striving for these days. Sound levels are high, with a frenetic music list. Having to shout was my biggest demerit for the Grey Ghost — but with popularity comes noise.

The menu is divided not into starters and mains but into cured (such as charcuterie), raw (oysters, tuna, steak tartare), not meat (one fish dish and one each of soup, salad, and pasta), meat (lamb sausage and quail as well as beef) and sides.

A great big flatiron steak was cooked rare with buttery mashed potatoes and a pastrami-style sauce, which seems like it could have overwhelmed the beef, but didn't. No toughness there.

Luscious pork belly was shreddy underneath with a succulent crisp crust, a fresh apple slaw an ideal accompaniment. Not so an egg roll wrapper filled with hot Thousand Island dressing. In my opinion Thousand Island is always a mistake, but hot?

Chefs John Vermiglio and Joe Giacomino make several similar stabs at incorporating downscale ingredients into their dishes. Fried bologna with a waffle. Peanut butter ice cream with grape jelly. A chocolate-graham-cracker-marshmallow dessert that, Vermiglio says, unites the molten chocolate cake of the '80s with a s'more. A cheeseburger. Fine if that's how you want to spend your dining dollar, but I'm going with the grown-up dishes.

Like butternut squash cut paper-thin, with matching apple slices and a side of cumin-scented green mole — now there's a dish with some complexity. Or rich, winy, chewy trumpet mushrooms with bacon jam. Or a piece of ocean trout served sushi-rare. These were dishes where the kitchen showed what it could do.

A cauliflower soup came from the kitchen reeking of Taleggio (think Limburger), but this is a cheese whose aroma is stronger than its bite. The thick soup is rich nearly to a fault. A salad of gem lettuce (looks like the tightly furled inner leaves of a head of romaine) came with a "brioche" — I would have called it a fritter — and a poached egg nestled in the center. I like the current fad of throwing an egg onto anything; Vermiglio and Giacomino do it to their cheeseburger too.

A bowl of al dente Brussels sprouts was big enough to share, with chicken skin for extra flavor and a hint of sweetness I would have left out. I didn't try the shishito peppers with candied oxtail, because the dish sounded, again, like gilding the lily: shishitos are sweet anyway and oxtail is richness all on its own, no need to pander.

At dessert time, when you want sweet, a red kuri squash pie does the trick, with lots of fluted flaky crust and scads of whipped cream. The PB&J sundae was interesting to try once, with a truly vibrant Concord jelly slip-sliding down the throat.

The drinks menu encourages a why-not? spirit, boasting a kitchen-sink's worth of fixings. Non-liquor ingredients include aloe, walnut, cinnamon, sweet potato, black pepper, and sesame oil. I trusted my server and got the "Trust Fall": tequila, white vermouth, fennel, honey, vanilla, orange, lemon, and cocoa. A companion's "Grandma's Garden" was heavy on cucumber, obscuring the delicate elderflowers of St. Germain.

And the day after the presidential election, adventurous spirit crushed for the moment, I sought comfort in hot buttered rum with cider and cinnamon. It didn't cure what ailed me, but it was a start.