Great Things Are Happening at Hotel Griffou

News Flash: Chef Dave Santos is leaving Griffou. His last day is tomorrow, August 21. Here is his statement:

The owners of Hotel Griffou and I have decided to part ways. The investors and owners want to take the restaurant in a different direction than I did and, rather than compromise my vision for the menu we decided it was time for me to leave and for them to tackle the changes they feel they need to make on their own. I want to thank the extremely supportive staff who stood by me throughout my tenure at Griffou. I would also like to thank the wonderful people from mouthfulsfood.com and Chowhound as well as all of the diners I was privileged to serve. Your support and positive feedback will not be forgotten. Thank you all

Dave, we wish you the very best and hope that it won’t be too long until you find something that suits your extraordinary talent so that we can again dine on your wonderful food.

Hotel Griffou

Hotel Griffou? I’ll bet your reaction is the same as mine was when I first saw it mentioned on one of the food forums: “I’ve never heard of it.” Well, turns out, it’s actually not a hotel but, rather, a restaurant in the West Village. According to the website, “The restaurant gets its name from the 1870’s boarding house located in the same building and originally presided over by Madame Marie Griffou, a big-hearted French woman with a soft spot for creative types.”

From what I gather, the restaurant, previously called Mary Lou’s, didn’t exactly have a reputation for great food. Not even close! However, last October, with the intention of changing that, the owners hired David Santos to take over the kitchen. Now, there’s a name I did know!

I became acquainted with Dave on-line via a couple of food forums but had not met him in person. Among his stellar credentials, he was formerly chef de cuisine at Restaurant Nicholas, in NJ, considered by most the best restaurant in the state. It’s located not far from our house, and we’ve dined there many times. Thus, having eaten Dave’s food there, I had no doubt whatsoever that his food at Griffou would be amazing.

I must admit to a few qualms because of Griffou’s reputation for attracting a loud, boorish crowd more interested in partying and boozing than giving serious cuisine the courtesy it deserves.  I’d seen the colorful description “obnoxious douchebags” bandied about.  As it turned out, during the few minutes we sat in the bar/lounge a few weeks ago waiting to be escorted to our table, the room was pretty empty; when we passed through later on our way out, it was fairly crowded and a bit noisy but certainly not raucous; and as for the patrons in the dining room where we were seated, everyone was quite normal and well-behaved.  

Located on the basement level of the townhouse and accessed by an exterior flight of steps, the restaurant has several dining rooms. The one we were in was nicely appointed. Traditional furnishings, paintings gracing the walls, and soft lighting high enough to read the menu without a flashlight but low enough to provide a romantic feel.

Hotel Griffou

Dave’s cuisine here is more rustic than the haute style at Nicholas, yet it still contains elements of that kind of refinement. The dish I chose as my first course, Seared Sea Scallops with Tomatillos, Avocado, and Piquillo Peppers, hewed to the refined side. Three large, bracingly fresh scallops had the perfect sear, and the colorful trio of accompaniments provided differing textures and flavors. A bit of sauce (I don’t recall what its flavor was) further brightened this lovely dish.

Seared Sea Scallops

M’s choice to start the meal, Goat Bolognese Tagliatelle, veered more rustic. The Bolognese was fantastic! Such depth of flavor! The addition of a good amount of pepper provided a pleasing kick of spiciness that made this dish sing.

As we sat back awaiting our main courses, Dave surprised us by sending out two dishes as a mid-course though the portions were hardly small. Poached Duck Egg, Corned Duck Hash, and Burnt Ketchup were a great combination. The shredded duck was mixed with potatoes and, I believe, mushrooms. I loved the flavor of the burnt ketchup. Look out Heinz! If Dave bottled this, it would fly off the shelf!

Bone Marrow Flan, Szechuan Beef, and Heirloom Radish Salad showed just how creative Dave can be. I’m not exactly a bone marrow enthusiast, but that flan could sure make me one. Its silky luxuriousness was balanced by the beef’s spiciness while the radishes added crunchiness. A dish that could easily grace a haute cuisine menu.

On to the main courses. M’s was Iowa Farms Pork Chop with Spaetzle, Bacon, Spring Vegetable, and Apricot Maple Glaze. There were four very large, thick slices plus the bone, which still had some meat on it. In its whole state, it must have been ginormous! I sampled a small piece of the chop and found it tender and flavorful. I didn’t taste the spaetzle-bacon-vegetable combo, but M said it was delicious.

Iowa Farms Pork Chop

My main course selection was Crescent Duck with Dandelion Greens, Vanilla Turnips, and Duck Jus. When asked how I wanted the duck breast prepared, I replied, “As Chef Dave prefers,” which turned out to be a shade over medium rare just as I prefer it.   The breast was sliced and laid atop a tangle of sautéed dandelion greens mixed with shredded duck confit and the turnips. The jus was poured tableside. If I have one itsy-bitsy quibble, it’s that I would have liked the skin crisper. Otherwise, this was a wonderful dish.

Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables, so when I saw Marinated Eggplant listed as a side, I had to have it. I expected a hot dish; instead, there were cool chunks of eggplant in what I think was a vinegar-based marinade. Tangy and tasty.

When it came time for dessert, there was no question what it would be: Plum Cobbler with Bay Leaf Ice Cream. I had read raves about it, so we ordered one to share because based on what had already been on our plates, it was sure to be a very generous-sized cobbler. Indeed, it was. And every bit as sensational as the raves had indicated. Under the crunchy topping were lots of plum slices in a bubbling sauce. Never having had bay leaf ice cream before, we found its unusual flavor very pleasing and an excellent complement to the cobbler. But for Dave, one dessert to share would not do. So, he sent along another: a light and luscious lemon meringue confection.

Plum Cobbler

The highlight of the evening was finally meeting Dave. He came out towards the end of our meal, and we were thrilled that he was able to spend some time chatting with us. Sweet and  down-to-earth — truly a mench — he’s exceedingly passionate about what he’s doing. Given that he’s working with a very small kitchen staff, his accomplishments at Griffou are astounding.

On Sundays, Dave serves a Portuguese brunch, an homage to the cuisine of his heritage. Once a month, he offers a tasting dinner with a menu composed of dishes entirely different from what is on the regular menu. This provides him the opportunity to give free reign to his creative juices, and some of those dishes have ended up on the regular menu. Special wine pairings are available for those so inclined. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet made it to the brunch or been able to attend any of the tasting dinners. However, people I trust who have had the brunch and/or have been to one or more of the tasting dinners have told me the brunch is terrific, and the tastings have been superb.

For those of you who value cuisine that is imaginative, supremely flavorful, and expertly prepared, get thee to Hotel Griffou asap!

To Dave, Thank you for making our first meal at Griffou a memorable one.

Click here to see all the photos of this dinner.

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