Peninsula Grill reaches peak bustle in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but the dining room is perhaps most striking when it empties out at the end of the evening. Take away the tables of women in pearls and men in mandated jackets, the black-vested service members scurrying this way with silver platters of caviar and that with shin-high slices of layered coconut cake, the sommelier deftly cutting a path to a table stumped by what to pair with lamb and salmon, and all that’s left is a space so quadratic and architecturally austere that it could have been cribbed from a dollhouse.
That’s not to say the room is minimalist in the weathered wood-and-Edison bulb way that’s popular on Pinterest. It’s exceedingly tasteful, with beige wall-to-wall worsted carpeting and gray-green velvet-lined walls. There are a few carefully chosen design touches, including wall sconces and portraits of the kind you might keep if your great-great-great grandfather married well and bought racehorses. But that’s about it. As it turns out, all of the magic at this 18-year-old restaurant comes from the food and the practiced crew responsible for serving it.
It’s been years since The Post and Courier reviewed Peninsula Grill. What drew me back was executive chef Graham Dailey’s Instagram feed, a torrent of gorgeous images of flushed beef slices and brown-buttered scallops tilted atop colorful little vegetable vignettes. Interestingly, or perhaps predictably, the dishes I was served over the course of two visits weren’t as pretty as their pictures. Presentation seems like one of the restaurant’s rare weak points, at least when it comes to savories: Reductions that were supposed to follow straight lines staggered like drunken sailors, and sauces were frequently laid on too thickly.
But really, the visuals made very little difference. Peninsula Grill delivers a timeless experience that leans hard on the butter and excess required for ritzy celebrations. It remains an ideal restaurant for feting your parents’ 50th anniversary or inducting your children into the realm of fine dining.
On one visit, I had the very good fortune to be dining with someone who had never before tasted foie gras. There are plenty of restaurants at which I would have urged her to postpone that particular curiosity, because the first time ought to be special: Peninsula Grill makes it so. Without an iota of condescension, our server conveyed that my guest might like a half-glass of Sauternes to complete the formative experience. Blessedly, the wine was sweeter than the fattened liver, since lesser kitchens have a knack for draping foie gras in so much sugary wet stuff that it’s indistinguishable from dessert.
To balance out foie gras’ natural funk, the inflated lobe was undergirded with pale peach jam, but a smoky sweet-and-sour sauce was held to the perimeter of the plate (completed by a gawky black pepper biscuit, apparently flashed as proof of residency.) Without interference, the foie gras tasted clean and melty, from seared exterior to stable core. And that’s where my tasting notes end, as I couldn’t bring myself to mooch too many bites of someone’s first-ever foie.
Among the classic French starters, there are a number of dishes to impress even the most jaded diners. The elemental steak tartare tastes politely rich. Then you spread it on a triangle of toasted rye and dress it with a plucky endive salad that’s tickled with vinegar and peppers, and the raw beef snaps into resonance. It’s the perfect follow-up to shimmering local oysters, tidily shucked and served very cold.
One of the guiding principles of the first half of the menu is that good things come in threes. Rather than having to decide between the listed soups, diners can order a kitchen-determined trio of lobster corn chowder, mushroom bisque and cream of pumpkin. This compare-and-contrast arrangement should draw attention to the unique qualities of the featured ingredients, but it has the opposite effect: After a few spoonfuls around the horn, the prominence of heavy cream is overwhelming.
An appetizer featuring three preparations of lobster is more successful, although it shows troubling signs of developing a butter problem. Here, a taut circular raviolo stuffed with lobster meat is nestled in a basil-oil-streaked pool of butter stocked with sauteed lobster bits; a cleanly fried lobster claw rests atop the pasta. In fairness, though, the lobster’s sweet brininess shines through the butter.
Still, richness is the way to go here, as a semi-sad wedge salad of limp Bibb leaves and soggy roasted tomatoes makes clear. The best approach at Peninsula Grill is to adjust your butter intake expectations upward at the outset, and order wine to match. Costwise, there are a few doozies on the list, including bottles from French producers that well-heeled diners would expect to see. But a number of California’s new wave winemakers are represented, and sommelier Dennis Perry is exceptionally thoughtful about by-the-glass pairings.
Entrees are perhaps a tad less assured than the first course choices, but the only real disappointment I encountered was an oversalted strip steak au poivre, sliced and served with two oily wedges of rosti potato cake. There’s a bundle of butter in a dish featuring four fat scallops perched on life rafts of toast, surrounded by a lobster broth pierced with citrus juices, but the cooking and colors are lovely. Cherries provide the acid pop in a brooding demiglace curled up with slices of subtly gamy roasted duck breast. The accompanying vegetables — braised bok choy and a puck of corn pudding — seem somewhat disconnected from the main storyline.
Of course, there’s lamb, chicken, pork, salmon, trout, and sometimes snapper, which stands out for its fetching skin and tender flesh. The downright delicious fish arrived dressed for winter, with an underlying smear of parsnip puree and split Brussels sprouts. Oh, and bits of lobster, because the shellfish is never out of place at Peninsula.
Lobster recedes only for dessert. Pastry chef Claire Chapman has created an incredibly smart banana pudding, encased in a chocolate shell and flourished with spun sugar and roasty caramelized bananas. It’s marvelous, yet you’ll likely order the famed coconut cake instead, since that’s what guests do at Peninsula Grill. Who’s going to blame them? As the restaurant so ably demonstrates, tradition can be rewarding.