Dining review: Gridiron is working out the details of clever ideas

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANJune 6, 2014 

  • SAINT LAWRENCE GRIDIRON

    Address: 705 W. Bannock St., Boise

    Phone: 208-433-5598

    Online: saintlawrencegridiron.com

    Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday.

    Menu price range: appetizers, sandwiches, and salads $4-$12, entrees $7-$25

    Libation situation: beer and wine

    Kid friendly? Yes, with smaller portions of regular items such as a burger or mac and cheese

    Wheelchair accessible? Yes

    Opened: April 2014

    Etc.: Legend has it that the martyred Catholic St. Lawrence was condemned and tied to an iron grill over a fire, where - burning instead with love of God - he cheerfully quipped, "Turn me over! I'm done on this side."

The story of Saint Lawrence Gridiron began in 2011 as a food truck irreverently named after the martyred Catholic saint. The focus of the truck's menu was all about the gridiron, with a flair for grilled and smoked meats, and items such as cheese steaks and pork belly fries.

But a new chapter has begun, as Saint Lawrence Gridiron has sold its truck and established roots in a promising, stylish, wheel-free incarnation on Bannock Street. The physical location has allowed the cuisine to expand beyond meat and potatoes, with a pull toward irreverent but clever takes on dishes from across the globe.

Previously the dark and boxy home of the Falcon Tavern, then the Red Headed Finn, it is streamlined, modern, and filled with light. Artwork is minimal, color subdued. The most distinctive features are the pressed-wood bar and striking, clear globe lights.

Outside, the patio is defined on two sides by the high, yellow walls of the buildings around it, a mellow nook just half a block from the stockyard bustle of the Saturday market. On an elevated slab above the patio is a mound of green wood and a black locomotive of a smoker, jetting the air with slow-smoldering meat.

Is this new restaurant a chic, downtown gastropub? Or an homage to Southern BBQ? After a couple of recent visits, I'm still not sure. Co-owner Amber Knight called the cuisine "comfortable Southern Americana," and said the goal was the kind of place where you could bring a date for a fancy dinner or where you could stop in after a bike ride in the Foothills for something more casual.

The signature and most compelling dish is Canadian in origin: poutine ($7). On just about every new menu this year, "poutine" has become a fancier way to say "smothered French fries." Here, as on the truck, a dark sauce of fermented bean paste stands in for gravy, tasting much like reduced balsamic. Blue cheese and rich buttons of smoked brisket are pocketed throughout the stacked, fresh-cut fries.

Less successful is the Gridiron's take on marrow: "Bones and toast" ($7) is actually one bone, halved, a beef shank with less than two tablespoons of marrow, which you must extract with a butterknife. On the plate are four slices of baguette, and a garnish of lemon zest, a flavor that makes as much sense as it would on a Big Mac. Marrow is so rarely seen on a Boise menu and can be so great. But there was no deep, resonant note struck, and the other guests at my table were put off by pinkness in a vein.

We had plenty of time to talk about this, and about the restaurant's target audience, as service was painfully disorganized. We waited 20 minutes for beers (from a well-curated list, to their credit), while a couple behind us sat, with food in front of them, for a half hour without receiving silverware or a visit to ask why they weren't eating. It was busy, but no one on the staff seemed to recognize that the restaurant was so far in the weeds.

When it arrived, we liked a cornbread panzanella salad ($9) -delicate greens with a good orange-honey dressing, with apple, red onion, bell pepper, and two lobes of sturdy cornbread. That cornbread was put to even better use in a cup of sweet, creamy corn bisque ($5), though the soup was presented on a giant plate in a pillow of folded linen - perhaps to justify the price tag.

The chicken salad club ($11, served with a side) was a minimalist, somewhat under-seasoned cream cheese-and-chicken mix, with avocado, spinach, and bacon. The just-spicy succotash of corn, peas, and lima beans made up the difference in flavor.

Served in a cute cast iron dish, the mac and cheese ($7 or $9 "with weenies," which is exactly like it sounds) was fine but unremarkable.

The wide filet of seared trout ($16) also was minimally seasoned, on a half-dozen florets of cauliflower. It was so lightly handled that there was barely a warm line of char down its center, and the skin was steamy soft. The dish benefited from a dab of quince relish, as the sage and brown butter mentioned on the menu were negligible. Interestingly, the entrees are served not with bread but an eggy popover.

All the while, we sat in the perfume of the smoker, and we wondered: Why isn't the entire menu built around that?

Dessert confirmed a theme I found throughout the meal: Many of the Saint Lawrence Gridiron menu items are clever ideas, but the details are still getting worked out. The mint syrup and custard were a flawed pairing in the mint julep panna cotta ($6). Our group of four left it barely touched. A potato chip cookie ice cream sandwich ($6) could rule the galaxy if done right, and the salty-sweet of the cookie works. But it was biscuity and dense, the ice cream too loose - it shot right out when pressed, impossible to eat.

On another visit, service was much better, though the patio again was full. The pork in my pulled pork sandwich ($10) was delicious but felt scant compared to the leaden bun, cabbage slaw, and overly acidic mustard dressing.

My friend's simple rebellion burger ($12) with pimiento cheese, pickles and slaw had the composition right - and was probably the best single bite of anything I tried.

The restaurant is still very new, but the hope was a more refined vision would have emerged after three years of craft in the truck. There is strong culinary talent in the kitchen - led by chef Andrew Mayer - and it is clear that the intention is to bring something unique to Downtown. For the biggest of the new ideas in the kitchen to flourish, though, there's nothing wrong with building upon what the truck already did so well - what Southern food is all about: simple flavors, amplified to richness through timeworn tradition and care. The best new idea is often to simply be who you are, and do what you do best.

Email Alex Keisig: scene@idahostatesman.com

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