Defying categorization, Grendel's satisfies everybody
89 Winthrop St., Harvard Square.By Aaron R. Prazan
It is human nature to order the world. In fact, there is so much to be categorized, collated and correlated that many of us at MIT devote our lives to such a task. Just as golf balls, milk, and rednecks are white and Cheez-its, Nerds, and Twinkies are empty calories, restaurants fit into categories. Really, this is true everywhere - except at Grendel's at 89 Winthrop St., Harvard Square. Grendel's cannot be isolated into any category. The atmosphere, food, and even the prices refuse to be pinned down.
Start with the dual aesthetic of Grendel's. It classy enough to allow shirts and ties. Polished mahogany, plush carpet, and fresh flowers all add up to an upscale dining room. Grendel's looks nice, but somehow T-shirt and jeans fit just as well. The tables for two are small and intimate, made for couples. A salad bar full of shiny stainless steel bowls adds a more informal touch. High brick walls and a rough ceiling similar to warehouses' are dressed up with high windows and paintings of summer skies.
Another twist is a smaller dining room apart from the main floor. The auxiliary room is more casual. Almost reminiscent of a midwestern screened patio, the room has more plants, less space, and closer packed tables. The two rooms, combined with the varied decorating, make Grendel's a perfect place for any occasion, dressy or not.
Not surprisingly, Grendel's food blurs lines of distinction as well. It serves no one kind of meal. Not only isn't food from one country or region, it isn't even from a given hemisphere. Italian dishes like eggplant parmesan and lasagna share space with Indian curry, Greek spinach pie, and even Mexican favorites.
For a restaurant trying to be all things to all people, it does a decent job. The Mexican food is not very authentic, or at least doesn't have much bite to it. None of the appetizers really demand attention.
For vegetarians, there is an entire menu of meat-free dishes. Another great special for the veggie set is the grilled vegetable sandwich. It is piled high with thick slices of peppers, mushrooms, various squash, and other vegetables. Grilled just enough to enhance the flavor, but to leave a satisfying crispness, even a meat lover like me can enjoy the sandwich.
Other great sandwiches include a Rueben and the Grendel, which is roast beef on dark rye. The best dishes are Mediterranean and French. Cassoulet, a popular special which is a rich blend of lamb, duck, and sausage with beans and spices, is worth a try. Even if some of the other dishes at Grendel's are forgettable, anyone can find something they like.
Surely, there are a couple of items that really do please everyone. Grendel's unlikely specialty, Cheese Fondue, is not available to my knowledge anywhere else in the city. Made with three melted cheeses and white wine, the fondue comes to the table over a small warming flame. Unlimited cubes of French bread come with it as well. The fondue is fantastic and could easily be a meal for two in itself. It starts out creamy as can be, but after long exposure to the heat, gets grainy as the cheese starts to cook.
Another must-try is the salad bar. Besides the usual, there are great surprises. Ever see dried fruit at a salad bar? How about great marinated mushrooms? The salad bar is in a constant state of change and just gets better with time. For dessert, you can't pass up the Caramel Apple Pie. Instead of a runny butter glaze, the pie has a creamy base much like cheesecake. It might look different, but different is good in this case. Really, the specialties of the house are well done.
Grendel's defies definition as dressy or casual, chooses no regional cuisine, and can't be said to be cheap or expensive. In truth, almost everything except the fondue ($15) costs about six dollars. There is so much more to try other than just dinner, however, that I usually end up spending around twelve dollars (with salad, drinks and dessert). It's certainly a bargain. With its own quirky charm, it has managed to build up legions of regulars; so make reservations. I encourage everyone to go try the food, see the "either-or" androgynous bathrooms, get a pitcher of purified water, and enjoy Grendel's quest to be different.
Coming soon: Grill Fish, The Old Spaghetti Factory.