I learned a lot this week about dining out, starting with the fact that honesty can be difficult but absolutely worth it, particularly when it can lead to commiserating over a meal that wasn’t as enjoyable as you wanted it to be.
My boyfriend took me out to dinner in Northampton this Thursday. We drove into town, buzzing with the anticipation of an awesome meal in a less familiar setting. I had mentioned to various friends that I was eating in Northampton and had requested their suggestions. I only heard about typical places, Local Burger and Zen, so I decided to try an unexplored restaurant.
We pulled into bustling Northampton, and I opened Yelp on my phone in the hopes that it would guide me to a great find. As we made one pass down the main drag and looped around for a second go, I noticed a sign for the Sierra Grille on a side street. A quick check with Yelp showed that the Grille had four out of five stars with 115 reviews, so we decided to check it out.
While investigating the menu in the front window, I realized their unique system and thought that it could be fun and interesting. Rather than have the entrees set and ready to order, each diner chooses his or her own source of protein and matches it with one of the listed sauces and two sides. The novel idea seemed worth trying, and the restaurant appeared to have a pleasant ambience with the dim lighting and people sitting in the front room.
As we stepped inside, I saw that the Sierra Grille was a bar as well, serving numerous drafts, bottled beers and wines. We requested a table for two and followed the hostess to a separate dining room. Soon we were seated and poring over the menu. I examined my options closely, as I always do, starting with the specials list, which included an artisanal cheese plate and a special blueberry barbeque sauce.
I moved to the regular menu and sifted through the selection. I noticed the small bites menu that included such things as hummus, spiced olives, cornbread and empanadillas, all for $5 or less. Shifting my gaze to the appetizers, I found a cheese plate ($7), steamed mussels that could be cooked in a number of styles including Thai and Mediterranean ($8) and Belgian fries that come with aioli and catsup and could have melted smoked cheddar and duck gravy added for a dollar each ($5 to begin).
Finally, I found the entrees. One side of the menu listed the “proteins,” ranging from chicken breast ($17), duck breast ($22), hanger steak ($27), shrimp ($20) and smoked pork tenderloin ($23) to tempeh ($15) for any vegetarians. The other side listed the sauces, which included Bacon Ale Gravy, Thai Hot Basil Coconut, Spicy Satay Peanut and Olive and Sun-dried Tomato Cream. Finally, at the bottom were the sides, which included grilled asparagus, mac and cheese, smashed potatoes, Asian style green beans and others.
Finally, I had my list ready. When the waiter arrived, I quickly scanned the menu to make sure I remembered everything, realizing the sheer number of options and combinations left me a bit flustered.
As we waited for our dinner, I inspected the room, noticing the posters set on the warm gold and red walls as well as the candles at each table. I also realized (it sounds silly until it happens to you…) that our table felt too long, to the point that my date didn’t feel intimate because my boyfriend was far away.
Soon our artisanal cheese plate ($15) arrived to distract me from my concerns. Conceding to my intense hunger, I snatched a crostini and topped it with a piece of blue cheese. As I savored the bite, I topped a cracker with Camembert. I tried each cheese — the chevre, the Gruyere, the Camembert, the cheddar and the blue — and I found myself a bit disappointed by the end because I felt that no cheese had had the burst of flavor I had anticipated and craved. I’m not saying I wanted a stinky cheese, but the Gruyere was so bland that I didn’t want to eat it. I appreciated the artful presentation of the cheese, with the fresh lettuce, the thinly sliced Granny Smith apples and the red grapes, as well as the mustard and cornichons, but I did not enjoy the cheese itself as much as I could have.
Regardless of the cheese, I anticipated the chicken and my sides with relish. I first sampled the mac and cheese, purported to be delicious as it was “just like Mom and Dad used to make, with four cheeses.” Again, I admitted my disappointment in finding the cheese to be bland. I actually found myself craving a rich, creamy fondue with the slight zing of zesty cheese to remind me of how flavorful cheese can be.
I moved on to the sweet potato curly fries with molasses mustard. I enjoyed both, although I am not usually an ardent fan of fries. The fries were thinly cut and not so candied by themselves as to become saccharine with the sweet molasses mustard.
Finally, I tried the chicken breast with blueberry barbeque sauce, which seems to be where the Sierra Grille excelled. Although I didn’t find a strong blueberry taste in the barbeque, I enjoyed the spicy tang as it mixed with my chicken.
I also tasted my partner’s Belgian fries and grilled asparagus, finding the asparagus grilled to the point of becoming soft but not mushy and the duck gravy to actually be pretty darn rich and tasty with the fries.
At the end, I would suggest veering from the cheese dishes, unless you love extremely mild cheeses. I think that Sierra Grille has a nice atmosphere and pretty good food, but I don’t think I will be eating there again.
However, I have learned a few important lessons. I should try my friends’ suggestions first. Also, Yelp may not be as reliable as I thought, or I have to have different criteria when searching for a restaurant. And finally, no matter how positive we wanted to be, my date and I finally admitted that neither of us had been perfectly satisfied and we drove to Antonio’s, where you can always find tasty and comforting pizza.