Come January 30, Michael Savoie will have plenty to celebrate.
That date will mark the first anniversary of GrainBelt GrillHouse, his comfortable, upscale-casual eatery in downtown Gilbert. And to anyone familiar with the building that houses the restaurant, that's surely no small achievement.
Over the past several years, 302 North Gilbert Road has been a revolving door for restaurants. Gonzo's All American Grill was just one of four failed concepts there. Then a year ago, Savoie, former owner of Mesa's Blue Adobe Grill, and his business partner, Diana Bavetz, took a chance on the place. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Savoie wanted to cater to fellow Midwestern transplants with regional specialties like fried cheese curds, Chicago-style shrimp de jonghe, and Indiana's hammered pork tenderloin.
GrainBelt GrillHouse, 302 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert
GrainBelt fritters: $4.95
Crab pot: $12.95
Kalamazoo Kielbasa: $13.95
480-892-1700, web link Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
"It's been a challenge, overcoming the stigma of the building," he admits. But business has steadily improved. Nowadays, he counts the mayor of Gilbert and local firemen among GrainBelt GrillHouse regulars.
So what's been the secret to Savoie's stamina? Did he bring in a feng shui expert, or smoke out the place with some burning sage? Actually, nothing of the sort.
"I've just really paid attention to what the customers are telling us," he says. "If your customers are splitting plates left and right, that's telling you something."
One successful tweak was offering small and large portions for many of the entrees. On my visits to GrainBelt, I liked having that option, especially because it helped justify appetizers and dessert. The "small" entrees were plenty big anyway.
Savoie says he also had to add more casual items — namely, sandwiches and burgers — and offer them all day long, not just at lunch.
Menu edits aside, there's still plenty to choose from, from casual, beer-friendly nibbles like Kiltlifter-battered onion rings and potato skins loaded with bacon, mozzarella, fried onions, tomato, and sour cream, to more contemporary dishes like rich, gooey lobster mac and cheese. Savoie insists it's not comfort food. "It's American classic," he says.
Considering all the creamy and crispy-fried decadence on the menu, I have to respectfully disagree. I mean, sure, these dishes are classic — ask anybody from Cincinnati, Omaha, St. Louis, or any of the other cities name-dropped along with the food descriptions — but they're also rich, homey, dare I say comforting fare. And you don't need to be from the Midwest to appreciate them.
Exhibit A: the Ritz Chicken. Coated in a seasoned breading made from crumbled Ritz crackers, and spooned with pepper-flecked country gravy, this take on fried chicken was as delicious as a prized family recipe. (When I told a friend about it, she said, "Hey, my aunt makes that, too!") It was served with mixed veggies and a generous heap of mashed potatoes.
The guilty pleasures started early in the meal. Those fried onion rings and potato skins were tasty (though not unusually so), and the GrainBelt fritters — crisp fried balls of cornbread, filled with whole kernels and served with honey-drizzled butter — disappeared just moments after they landed on our table. Even the vegetable-laden house salad tasted like a splurge, thanks to garlicky sour cream dressing and grated mozzarella.
St. Louis Toasted Raviolis, coated with crushed corn flakes, were filled with ground beef and served with marinara sauce. I didn't dislike them, although I wouldn't go out of my way to have them again. I'd much rather get another crab pot. Among all the appetizers I tried, this one stood out, eliciting happy groans from my dining companions. Surrounded by big, golden-fried triangles of flour tortilla, it was a cup of garlicky, chunky spinach and blue lump crab dip. Fontina cheese made it extra creamy, and bits of green chile gave it a little kick. We didn't let the busboy take the plate until we'd scooped up every drop.
I've been into Reuben sandwiches since I was in grade school, and never knew they were invented in Omaha. Accordingly, I have no idea whether GrainBelt's version tastes anything like the one they serve there. What I do know, though, is that the thinly sliced corned beef was tender, the sauerkraut wasn't overbearing, and the thick slices of Russian rye were still delightfully fluffy and bready under their crisp exterior. Thumbs up from a longtime Reuben fan.
Meanwhile, I have no history with Cincinnati-style chili. But one of my dining companions (whose garage rock band toured all over the Midwest, back in the day) was eager to order it, explaining that he hadn't had the real thing in years. Served on top of spaghetti, with grated cheddar, chopped onions, sour cream, and oyster crackers, it was a thick sauce of ground beef and kidney beans. I didn't expect it to be spicy, and it wasn't. What made it unique — and strangely good — was the not-so-subtle addition of cinnamon. If you're a fan of Greek food, moussaka in particular, you'll understand the appeal.
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The lobster mac, with lots of plump lobster meat, a dash of crushed red pepper flakes, and a drizzle of truffle oil, was a solid take on an increasingly popular dish, and the rib eye steak was just as flavorful and juicy as I'd hoped. Still, the quirkier Midwestern items were more memorable. The Juicy Crab Burger totally lived up to its name, thanks to luscious, cheesy crab sauce tucked inside the sirloin patty, and the Kalamazoo Kielbasa was one of my favorites. Imagine a scoop of scalloped potatoes buried under chunks of tender, smoky-sweet kielbasa, peppers, and onions, with two fried eggs on top. I would gladly eat that for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Dessert sounded boringly straightforward, but when it arrived, it was as good as homemade. The thick, warm brownie had a perfect balance between cakey lightness and fudgy density, and the apple pie, packed with tender pieces of fruit, had a tender, buttery crust. My friends and I left stuffed, but happy.
Considering the quality of the food, I'm not surprised GrainBelt GrillHouse has cleared the one-year hurdle. But for Michael Savoie, this is just the beginning.
"The trick is to get through two summers," he says. "We've got one down, and one to go."