Haute Quarter Grill (recently relocated to downtown Anchorage from Eagle River) may have a bit of an identity crisis. Indeed, its very name seems to be the source of some confusion.
Since deciding to review it, I've heard the restaurant's name pronounced every conceivable way ("oat," "hot" and my favorite, "Haute-Ashbury"). "Haute," from the French word for "high," is defined as high-class or high-toned. But the restaurant itself offers ribs, sliders and a french fry appetizer -- not exactly high-toned cuisine. Perhaps the name is an inside joke? If so, I fear it's a bit too "inside." Several people I've talked to thought it was likely to be too fancy or too expensive for a casual night out. And that's a shame, because it's an inviting place with a lot to offer.
For starters, the thoughtfully remodeled space (it used to be the Downtown Deli) is very welcoming. A sunny, window-fronted bar looks like the perfect spot for a post-work drink and a bit of people-watching. The dining room, by contrast, is finished in warm, autumnal colors, with dark hardwood floors and cozy booths. It's a very appealing place to eat.
My daughters and I went for an early weeknight dinner. We were seated right away and were greeted by Mark, our very attentive waiter, who quickly had us set up with menus (including a nice children's bill of fare for my 8-year-old), drinks, and a few playful jokes. My children were charmed.
To begin, we ordered the Manila clams, the gnocchi in a Gorgonzola cheese sauce, french fries to keep the girls happy, and -- only because I can't resist it, not because we needed it -- the French onion soup. The clams ($14.95) were a hit. They were small and slightly sweet, in a savory broth liberally studded with garlic, herbs and small-dice tomatoes. The Gorgonzola gnocchi ($9.95) made me question whether I really understand what proper gnocchi should taste like. These were unlike any others I've tried -- very light, fluffy and pillowy, a far cry from the dense, dough-y ones I'm used to eating in restaurants and from packages. I loved the texture of these but don't know if this version is more or less authentic than the chewier ones I'm used to. That said, I found them a bit under-seasoned and would have liked a bit more salt in the dough. I liked the Gorgonzola sauce, distinctively cheesy but with the sharpness of the cheese balanced nicely by cream.
The French onion soup ($7.95) was on the sweet side for me and was not as brothy as I would have liked. There was so much bread that the texture became a bit stodgy as the broth soaked in. But it was generously cheesy and satisfying, if not memorable.
The french fries ($7.95) are listed as an appetizer and a generous helping arrives with a bearnaise sauce and what is described as banana ketchup. This piqued our curiosity and was met with confusion by some other nearby tables. What is meant is banana pepper ketchup. Word to the wise -- this is a strong condiment. But it's a fun twist on a straightforward side dish and I would buy this sauce from a bottle. Mark wordlessly brought my daughters a ramekin of regular ketchup -- a thoughtful touch -- and we were all made happy. The fries themselves are perfect: skinny, salty, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. An addictive basic done right.
For a main course, we ordered the pecan beer-battered halibut (off the appetizer menu) and, based Mark's enthusiastic recommendation, the restaurant's special: the Cajun blackened prime rib with seafood hollandaise ($31.95).
We all enjoyed the halibut ($17.95) -- it was very crispy with a really flavorful crust, not the bland, tasteless variety that turns up on so many menus. The inside was tender and flaky.
I don't normally comment on meals ordered from the children's menu, but the simply prepared grilled chicken breast deserves a mention. Juicy, tender and with a pleasant charred taste off the grill, it was really a cut above most children's restaurant fare.
The prime rib dish was ... perplexing. Each element of the dish was well-executed. The roast beef was tender and cooked to a perfect medium-rare. The Cajun crust was zippy (though it tasted distinctly of many meals I had in 1989, when everything seemed to be blackened). The hollandaise sauce was rich with seafood. The garlic mashed potatoes were earthy and buttery. But somehow, it didn't all come together as a cohesive dish. It was all just too much -- a case of the parts adding up to less than their sum. The dish was just generally too heavy and felt old-fashioned.
I returned a second time with friends for drinks and appetizers. Our waiter was professional and pleasant, but I missed Mark's chatty charm.
My companion ordered the same clam dish I'd had before and it tasted quite different: the sauce seemed sweeter, thicker and less garlicky. It was not quite as bright and clean-tasting as the first version. I appreciate that meals prepared a la minute will vary according to the chef and the night, however, this felt like an inconsistency that should be addressed in the kitchen.
Our table shared a trio of sliders ($12.95) which were close to being great but regretfully fell short of the mark. I loved the flavorful patty and the pungent blue cheese bacon butter nicely cut by a sharp note of pickled red onions. The only problem was the bun. It was weirdly greasy, as if it had been brushed with butter before being sent out. I rarely complain that something is too buttery, but I ended up peeling off the top half of the bun to enjoy the sandwich.
We added a spinach salad ($6.95) to our meal. I particularly appreciated the tangy walnut sauce because I often find restaurant dressings to be too sweet. However, I think the dressing was dealt with too liberal a hand. The bacon, egg, cherry and walnuts were overwhelmed by it. I would order it again but with the dressing on the side.
On that note, I should mention that between my first visit and my second, several menu items had gotten an updated preparation -- as pointed out by our waiter. So, perhaps they're still tweaking some of the recipes. I would like to see a bit more balance on the menu and perhaps they're addressing this. Many of the dishes are on the heavy side -- fried offerings, large cuts of red meat and lots of cream-based sauces. It's a little challenging to order a multi-course meal that doesn't feel overwhelmingly rich.
If the salad was a bit over-dressed and some of the dishes too rich, the patrons were not. Haute Quarter Grill is a fun, unpretentious restaurant with well-executed bistro fare (especially when they keep it simple). And there's nothing "haute" about it.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent