Thursday, November 22, 2001
I walked into the Rio Grill the other night thinking about a simple, quick burger-and-beer at the bar. It was a professional decision: I have had several memorable dinners at the restaurant and have already determined that the place is commendable; I wondered how it would compare to the grills of my youth, which were mostly about burgers.
A fine idea, but fate--in the form of some menu additions on the Rio''s chalkboard--blew it away.
The first thing I noticed was a William Harrison Cabernet Franc for $10 a glass. It takes a certain amount of confidence, I believe, for a restaurant (especially a "grill,") to uncork a rare and expensive bottle of wine with the plan of selling it off at a $10 a glass. But I admire audacity. And I love a good Cabernet Franc. Beer you can drink any day.
I had a couple of sips, sitting at the bar, watching the Lakers play the Rockets, when I saw another rare treat listed with the Menu Additions: grilled venison ($25).
The Lakers were up by 20, and when I thought about it I remembered that I don''t even really like the Lakers, and not only that, it''s much too close to the end of baseball season to be watching a basketball game. And I didn''t want a burger anymore.
So I got up and got seated in the dining room. I was still determined to keep it simple and quick, so I opted to ignore the appetizers and first-courses and go straight for the venison. This took some resolve.
I recalled the marinated and fire-roasted artichoke, served with a sun-dried tomato aioli, that Penelope and I had enjoyed this past summer ($7.95), and the salad of mixed greens, roasted beets, Maytag blue cheese and pecans ($7.65). My waitress tested my resolve with a special salad that included fire-roasted oysters ($8.75), which she described with subtle enthusiasm.
"That sounds so good," I concurred. "But just the venison" (this through teeth clenched with determination).
Now, I need to take a moment here and talk about wild game. I lived for a long time in a place where men hunt. I did not, but most of my buddies did, and so almost every fall, I would get the chance to eat venison, elk or pheasant, maybe even some moose.
Eating wild meat is a different kind of experience than eating feed-lot or even ranch-raised meat. Deer and elk are different kinds of animals than cows and pigs, no offense intended. Maybe it''s psychological, but the experience of eating wild game is bracing, as if the strength that drove this animal to survive in the wild can be ingested. (Of course, the venison at the Rio Grill is not technically wild; it is free-range farmed in New Zealand. But it''s still deer.)
This venison came with a raisin chile sauce, on a bed of mint couscous covering a pile of sliced, grilled Brussels sprouts--three chunks of leg meat, grilled medium rare to perfection. The first bite I didn''t even dip in the sauce--it was mild and yet intense and a perfectly textured. The Cabernet Franc was huge and yummy; every sip seemed profound, even washing down a mouthful of venison. The couscous was a nice, light accompaniment--the mintiness balanced the pungent taste of the meat. The brussels sprouts reminded me that I love brussels sprouts even though I almost never eat them--these were almost crunchy (maybe a touch undercooked), and not swimming in butter, which was nice.
The sauce was really, really good. The Rio Grill''s sauce is almost reason enough to go. This summer, Penelope and I split the house-smoked half-chicken, which comes, according to the menu, with a mild smoked chile butter ($18.35) as well as baby artichokes and red potatoes. Everything on the plate was excellent, but I could not get over the sauce. It was creamy and spicy and immensely flavorful, but it tasted familiar. I could not place it, until it hit me: barbecue! This was everything good about barbecue--sauce, smoke, spice--turned into a butter sauce. This raisin chile sauce was similarly strong-flavored, but again not too much for the powerful venison flavor.
For a lot of locals, I think, the Rio is known as much for its vibe as for its food. I remember the first time I went: A couple of friends had just moved to Monterey, and my buddy''s new boss, who lives in Carmel Valley, invited me to join them all at the restaurant. I was pretty much on an all-fish diet at the time, which worked out fine. The boss''s wife recommended, and I ordered, some kind of nut-crusted white fish--it was halibut or sea bass, I forget which exactly.
We sat in one of the Grill''s many rounded corners, created by the faux-adobe half-walls that separate the restaurant into cozy rooms. We drank several bottles of very good wine--the Rio boasts an extensive wine list, and my hosts were (and are) connoisseurs.
Afterwards, over dessert and coffee, discussing some wild idea, we broke out the crayons which sit on every table and drew all over the butcher-paper tablecloth. (As I remember, we had to ask our waitperson for more butcher paper.)
This night last week ended, by design, much more quickly. But in one respect it was better: I have a piece of leftover venison waiting at home to give me the strength to face the evening.