Thursday, July 20, 2006

HAVE IT YOUR WAY

Posted on Thu, Jul 20, 2006 at 4:00 AM

There are two kinds of luxury. There's the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous kind or the real-life-only-much-better kind. Solid-gold cutlery, Chanel couture and Rolls-Royces fall into the first camp. James Perse T-shirts, Prada lip balm and Greens & Grille fall squarely into the second: simple everyday basics that turn out to be deceptively luxurious.

At first blush, Greens & Grille seems pleasant but nothing special. A high-ceilinged room decorated in industrial-lite chic ' concrete floor, exposed ducts overhead, lots of galvanized steel ' slowly reveals lavish touches: potted orchids blooming on the tables of the high-backed booths; stainless steel fresh-pepper grinders; heavy white china plates.

The cafeteria-style service plays up the bare-bones-basic mood, but as you stand at the salad, grilled-meat or sandwich station, the high quality of the ingredients and preparation becomes apparent. On my first visit, I was befuddled by the tempting array of salad toppings. Salad bars are so often mirages ' the vision of a 30-foot-long array of gorgeous vegetables turns out to be 10 yards of iceberg lettuce, canned beets and sodden macaroni salad. At Greens & Grille, my fantasy salad bar coalesced before my eyes: jade-green edamame, oven-roasted beets, juicy kalamata olives. That heightened-basics approach revealed itself here as well: crispy pancetta instead of bacon bits; sweet grilled red-onion strips instead of stiff, stinky purple rings.

For $6.50, you can choose your organic greens (romaine or baby 'farmer's greensâ?�) and add five out of the 27 'seasonal toppingsâ?� available. For another $2.50, add grilled-to-order turkey, pork loin, chicken, steak, shrimp or portobello mushroom. (I chose the porcini-rubbed flank steak.) The salads are tossed and dressed before your eyes. All dressings are made from scratch daily; I especially recommend the sherry-thyme vinaigrette. Also, the greens can be 'rolled or bowledâ?� ' that is, tossed onto a plate or wrapped up in a grilled flatbread.

The sandwich station plunks any of the above-mentioned grilled meats onto bread nicely charred on the grill when you order. There's nothing simpler than a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato and onion, but the G&G version I ate was worlds beyond any average sandwich shop's. First, and most importantly, the turkey was sliced from a roasted breast, not the reconstituted meat slurry usually passed off as 'cold cuts.� Instead of a pale tomato and a leaf of iceberg lettuce, my sandwich was finished with organic baby greens, grilled onions and juicy roasted tomato. Rather than plasticky American, G&G offers Havarti, Gruyère, Gorgonzola and white cheddar; I chose the Havarti. I added a generous portion of Hass avocado (also luscious on my companion's portobello-mushroom sandwich). A side of macaroni and cheese ($3.50) was incredibly rich, bubbling-hot and crowned with crunchy bread crumbs; the wild mushroom soup ($4.50) was an earthy, savory broth with generous chunks of sauteed creminis.

The only problem with all of this is greed. I had to remind myself on my second visit not to overload the circuits with Gorgonzola and steak and avocado and pancetta, enticing as it all was. When each element sings with freshness, what would be a spartan green salad or vegan sandwich elsewhere becomes a rich symphony of tastes. The roasted turkey, faintly tasting of lemon and herbs, was sufficient unto itself; had I not made a point of nibbling an unadorned bite, its essence might have been lost under all of the other equally wonderful ingredients. And this attention to detail doesn't come cheap. It's easy to spend almost $9 on a simple sandwich or salad.

Chef/owner Julie Petrakis, formerly of slow-food palace Primo and now pastry chef at Luma on Park, has departed after developing the recipes, leaving her brother-in-law Brian to head the team. Some changes have already begun; the excellent tomatoes, previously roasted in-house, are now sourced from Sysco, according to one of the friendly prep folk. (Much as the name 'Syscoâ?� might curl any foodie's lip, I must admit that I found the tomatoes exceptional, and was chagrined to learn their provenance.) Let's hope the new chef Rob Pompa is able to keep up the high standards. With any luck, G&G will not only survive but thrive and expand; this covert hedonist is running out of excuses to drive all the way to Millenia for a sandwich.

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