The challenge for Grand Café, a spiffy, new 24-hour restaurant at Green Valley Ranch, is the built-in competition. Despite the swell design and relentlessly creative menu, it has a back corner location, just beyond the casino's popular buffet, the Feast, where the lines are long and the food never stops coming.
Green Valley Ranch has had its ups and downs with regard to restaurants. The opening salvo included the now-closed Border Grill, and Bull Shrimp (about to be replaced by Hank's, an upscale steakhouse concept, sometime next month). And it recently replaced the sports bar Trophy's with a new poker room to accommodate the current Texas Hold 'Em craze.
The neighborhood has changed around here, with the opening of the District, P.F. Chang's across the parking lot, and the Cheesecake Factory across the street. Today, Green Valley is in the middle of a restaurant boom and people want options. Enter Grand Café, part of that boom, and hardly conceived to be a mere coffee shop.
As you approach the podium, you pass a glass case where many of the restaurant's signature baked goods are on display: muffins wrapped in fancy paper, giant cinnamon rolls, snickerdoodle cookies and homemade bagels.
This is a spacious, handsome room, anchored by two enormous, gilded columns and a spiffy backlit bar where it is possible to sip a Bellini, made from Alba white-peach purée and Prosecco, a sparkling wine from Italy. Toto, we're not in Kansas, anymore.
I come for my first meal, breakfast, and am immediately ushered to a back booth in a claustrophobic space where a view of the front of the restaurant is completely blocked by a glass divider. The booth is comfy, though, and everyone likes the lighting, in particular the lanterns that hang down over our heads, looking like upside-down ice cream cones in caramel sauce.
Breakfast turns out to be the best meal we eat. Good traditional French toast comes with little bottles of pure maple syrup, and the house French toast is impossibly rich, with an orange marmalade and cream-cheese stuffing. Even better is the smoked seafood platter, a delirious combination of three kinds of smoked fish: gravax, or cured salmon; the pearl-white sable fish cut into thin slices; and good smoked salmon.
This dish is not inexpensive, and given the quantity and quality of the fish, it is a steal, accompanied by soft cream cheese, onions, capers and other garnishes. It's odd the café adds a $1 surcharge for a bagel substitution. Who eats this stuff with toast, anyway?
Several other breakfast items are worth a shot. Red flannel hash is corned beef hash, and the huevos rancheros plate is enormous, loaded up with guacamole and black beans. Huge skillets, such as one with eggs, crab and Fontina cheese, are options. On the lighter side, how about trying a nice grapefruit half with brown-sugar brûlée?
I wish the other meals were as consistent, but the choices can be erratic. Soups such as chicken noodle or Texas chili, laced with spicy hunks of rib eye, are both good bets for lunch, but starters such as Parmesan zucchini served with sun-dried tomatoes or artichoke bottoms with a thick breading are both greasy.
Console yourself with one of the huge, tasty salads, especially the creative Nicoise, a solid Chinese chicken salad; or the star of the show, a blackened-salmon Caesar loaded with fat croutons. Lunchtime panini, essentially grilled sandwiches, are also fine, the best being one with roasted peppers, gypsy salami, capacolla, arugula and Fontina cheese. (Someone around here loves Fontina cheese.)
I'd also save room for the trendy grilled coriander-and-pepper-crusted ahi sandwich, served on sesame-seeded brioche with caramelized onion, cilantro, fennel sprouts and a lemon-and-chipotle-pepper aioli. Whew! Get all that? If not, you have to stay after school and clean the erasers.
Dinners are solid, American comfort fare—with a few tricks added. One mainstay is the increasingly hard-to-find calves liver, here served traditionally with bacon, onions, a sage butter drizzle and good mashed potatoes. One of the gimmicks is lobster mac and cheese, sort of a grown-up version of kid's food.
Do try the buttermilk-battered fried chicken, a bionic breast served with those same good potatoes smothered in country gravy, and a home-style, individually sized meat loaf. Both are stick-to-the-ribs fare that taste as if they had been made from scratch.
In fact, of the entrées, only the too-tough short ribs failed to please, tasting as if they had been pre-cooked (the server insisted they were not). I didn't try any of the steaks on Grand Café's menu, though I toyed with springing for the 24-ounce Porterhouse, which at well over $30, is the most expensive item on the menu.
But since Hank's is opening later this month, I thought it best to let the casino keep something for me in reserve.