OF ALL THE NEW restaurants to spring up in Kirkland over the last year, can certainly claim the best view, overlooking the marina at Carillon Point. It has a great concept, for who doesn’t want to imagine oneself from time to time as a sophisticated Parisian dining out at the local bistro?
But as much as I long to give my heart to a place like Le Grand, spotty inconsistencies plague the restaurant even a year after its birth.
Restaurateur and self-titled Le Grand patron Ted Furst knows a thing or two about both French cuisine. He opened Campagne in Seattle and his casual Italian chain Cucina Cucina was previously in Le Grand's exact location.
But things aren't like the old days when simply opening the doors meant customers came pouring in. Successful restaurants need a well-constructed concept, a decent location, great food no matter who is in the kitchen on any given night, and servers with both competence and gracious verve.
One of the greatest things about Le Grand is “Le Raw Bar,” featuring a wide array of local oysters on the half shell. Why more restaurants don’t offer a raw oyster bar in this part of the country, I’ll never know. Washington produces so many beautiful oysters and all a restaurant needs to do is keep them cold and pry them open -- instant profit.
Another raw specialty that is worth a try is the steak tartare. Yes, I realize that many Americans are squeamish at the thought of eating uncooked sirloin, but just tell yourself that it will be delicious and take a bite. Aromatic garlic, parsley and a bold whiff of Worchestishire sauce flavor the made-to-order chopped steak topped with a, dare I say, cute raw quail egg perched in its own half-shell.
My husband and I have often shared the steak tartare, stopping in specifically for this starter. I had to laugh when once he ordered a burger for his entree after the tartare. Eat it raw, then eat it cooked -- an “order fail” on his dining report card? On it’s own, the burger Americain is a worthy choice -- an appropriately juice-dripping sandwich served with perfect fries.
Unfortunately, on our last visit, the burger was the only thing worth mentioning as we paid the $80 bill. My trout almandine was a complete disappointment, probably because last time it was so divine -- the tender trout swimming in a lake of nutty browned butter with a squeeze of fresh lemon. The only thing nutty about the dish the second time around was, well, the nuts -- loads of sliced almonds that I could barely taste due to the fact that the fillet obviously drowned in a vat of lemon juice. The little salad of greens was dressed sharply in vinaigrette, which would have been a lovely compliment to the butter sauce, but instead just lent more pucker power.
Any French bistro worth its fleur de sel should be able to nail the steak frites with one arm tied behind its back. Ours came with an inexplicably bitter crust. It wasn’t burnt, just inedible. We literally had to cut off the outside layer of the steak in order to eat it.
A LOVELY BRUNCH can be had, particularly on a warm summer day. The smoked chicken salad is a must-have, engaging all taste sensations from sweet and smoky to the crunch of salty potato strings. If your arteries are feeling strong, the croque madame is a beautiful way to eat breakfast and you’ll save money because you won’t have to eat for the rest of the day!
Food mistakes happen from time to time and are generally not fatal. Service mistakes are more serious. At Le Grand, service has been a crapshoot at best. I’ve had great bar service while sitting at the counter. Other times, the server has been overwhelmingly bossy.
On our last visit, the server behaved as if he'd just been given his pink slip from some middle management position, resorting to his old college job of waiting tables to earn some cash. He wasn’t rude as much as harried. Everything was difficult -- we had to flag him down to put in our order, were never shown the specials or given a basket of bread. He wasn’t familiar with the menu, unsure if the restaurant carried Guinness (it does). Once our initial demi pichet of wine ran dry, we were never asked if we wanted another. Both the wine and water glasses were empty for more than half an hour, finally refilled just as we stood to leave.
When a diner spends most of a meal trying to get the server’s attention, irritation replaces enjoyment. And, when the best thing that can be said of an $80 bill is that the burger was good, one leaves feeling like you wasted a night out sans kids. There are plenty of places to eat a decent burger -- we wanted to escape to Paris for a couple of hours.
The oyster bar and housemade charcuterie are commendable undertakings, aptly praised by food writers of many local publications. Le Grand Bistro Americain could be great, but it’s just so consistently inconsistent.