The Lord Elgin Hotel unveiled its redesigned dining room last September. Grill Forty One is named in honour of the year the hotel was built.
In all those 70 years I have never eaten a meal at the Lord Elgin. I wasn’t really even aware they had a restaurant other than to serve the usual bacon-eggs and Fruit Loops-needs of its guests. So I am unable to comment on its renovation, only on its current look. Which I find remarkably unremarkable. Two levels of beige and brown and bland, filled in with composite wood, fake Benjaminas, hotel-issue carpet, and Home Depot-ish lights. About the only interesting bit is the long wood-like cupboard of wine, behind which is tucked a private dining room.
I’ll also say that when it comes to televisions in dining rooms, particularly in a dining room attached to – inarguably – one of only two Grande Dame hotels in our Nation’s Capital, I am an old fart. I hate them. Hate all they represent – an assault of intrusive visuals, when civilized people are meant to be focusing on the people with whom they eat and, if worthy, on the food in front of them.
I can hear you: you don’t have to watch them. But that’s where you’re wrong. Because there is no partition at G41 between the bar – above which there are three screens (a fourth is in the little lounge) beaming a constant stream of muted news, sports and sitcom – and the dining room. Nor is there any safe haven from the loud pappy music they pipe in. I don’t know whether I’m in a sports bar, or an elevator.
Oh wait… no… that’s right: this is the fine dining room of the Lord Elgin Hotel.
Celebrity chef Michael Smith “has had a hand in the development of the new menus for Grill 41” we are told and while I am quite certain Michael Smith can cook like the dickens, he’s not back in that kitchen – (I did ask). And the minimum wage commis who is executing his seafood chowder, brown butter mashed potatoes and molten chocolate cake, isn’t quite up to it.
The house specialty is a ‘tarte flambée’ (an Alsatian pizza with crème fraiche, bacon and onion). These versions were covered with sour cream, which lent no flavour, only unctuous richness, and we found the crust a doughy orb, the smoked salmon pretty pedestrian, and the “Ontario-smoked bacon” cooked to bullets.
I sent the “house made gnocchi” back to the house. Hard little floury pellets, and rubbery mushrooms in an uncomfortably rich sauce. The macaroni and cheese was awful – the predominant flavour being garlic, and so cloyingly creamy, so richly calorific even my kid couldn’t eat it. A grilled tomato and goat cheese tart had wan flavour.
From the grill section of the menu, the pork chop was desperately dry. It was removed from our mouths, and later, from the bill. The halibut didn’t fare much better – juiceless, unseasoned – and the steaks, while tender, struck me as nothing special. Vegetables included heirloom (we are told) carrots, undercooked and unseasoned; asparagus so acerbically balsamicked they were inedible; pedestrian fries; and creamed spinach that was spit-out salty. Grilled shrimp fettuccine claims it has a spicy tomato sauce, but we tasted no kick, the shrimp were ho-hum, the noodles overcooked, and the ‘garlic confit’ amounted to a few under-roasted cloves.
It wasn’t all awful. Other than a couple of mealy mussels, Smith’s signature chowder was satisfying. And I enjoyed the scallops starter, paired with maple syrup sweetened apple chunks. My first bowl of mussels was just fine – the beer-broth well balanced, the mussels in good form. (Though a second stab didn’t go nearly as well.)
Michael Smith’s “Just-baked molten dark chocolate cake” was a bit over baked, missing its lava, but still, had good chocolate flavour.
G41’s wine list is extensive, and wines are available at every price point, though subject to hefty markups.
At my final visit, while waiting in the lobby for my husband to fetch the car, I noticed the busts of the Right Honourable James Bruce (8th Earl of Elgin, 12th Earl of KIncardine and GG of British North America) and his wife Mary Louisa, donated to the Lord Elgin Hotel, the plaque tells us, by their son, in 1939.
I took a closer look at them, and what do you know? They’re hollow weightless fakes, plastic or resin, made to look like old plaster. This is the Lord Elgin Hotel, people. Time to get real.