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Dinner at Grand Cru, Ballston

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Drawn by the wine pricing, we had dinner at Grand Cru on Sunday night. I made a reservation for three at 6:30 through OpenTable, and we met our friend visiting from Denver there at 6:20.

It's a smaller place than I expected, and the tables are to one side of the room, not much separated from the wine stacks in the middle, with the bar and a few raised bar tables to the right. The bar has a large TV showing the Food Channel. The noise level is very high with the place two-thirds full.

Despite the fact that there were a couple of four-tops set and vacant, the hostess said they didn't have our table yet, so I asked her to call us when it was ready, and we headed for the bar.

The first thing we learned was that they don't have a wine list. The only way to select wine is to walk around the wine stacks and select and pick up your own bottles. Unfortunately, the wines are not very well organized -- there is duplication between wine regions grouped on the racks, and wines from the same regions displayed on the wall. And it's awkward at best, since the labels (and prices) are tiny, and you have to bend over to read each one. So I picked up a nice Gigondas and a Cotes de Blaye from a producer I didn't know, and returned to the bar.

My wife, meanwhile, had ordered a couple of appetizer dishes (the bruschetta got raves). The waitress gave us wine glasses, but seemed surprised that we might want two glasses each for the two wines.

And there we sat, from 6:20 until 7:10 -- 40 minutes after our reservation time. At that point, the waitress led us, carrying our bottles and glasses, to our table in the dining area. Well, not really. She gave us a table wedged between the raised bar tables and the door, with the space around one side of the table impeded by assorted hardware on the floor. Frankly, from my stroll around the wine stacks, the main dining area didn't seem much better, so we just settled in to order.

Our guest ordered their mac and cheese, which turned out to be penne/ziti rather than elbow macaroni. he enjoyed it; it looked like a small portion, but he said it was filling. My wife had the mussels, again a small portion (about 12-15) in a broth made spicy from chorizo. I had the charcuterie platter and the cheese platter. The waitress couldn't tell me what meats were on the charcuterie platter, or what the specific cheeses were, beyond "brie, blue, goat, and one more", and didn't offer to find out. Fine. Just do it at this point.

The meats turned out to be a thickly cut, fatty prosciutto; two salamis/sopressata; and a few paper-thin strips of the chorizo. The cheeses were a small lump of an innocuous chevre, a thin slice of Petite Basque, two thin slices of a hideously smoky firm cheese, one eight-inch-thick very small slice of an undistinguished brie, and two thin slices of a blue whose taste was so chemical that it could have functioned as paint stripper.

Each dish was accompanied by three slices of different breads -- a decent rosemary bread, a tasteless brown bread, and what was once a slice of white country loaf fried to a zwiebeck-like state of crunch. Sadly, there was nothing approximating a normal baguette in sight.

We shared two of their Belgian chocolate mousses for dessert. They were quite rich and good, but the filling of the accompanying pirouettes was inferior milk chocolate. Plain cookies would be much better.

The Gigondas (Guigal, 2005) was excellent, as expected. The Cotes de Blaye (also a 2005, not good enough for me to remember the producer) had a bit of an edge to it that never quite went away. It might have had a chance had it been decanted, but there were no decanters available. Odd, that, for a wine bar.

So there were good and bad points. The atmosphere, while loud, is enjoyable. The seating is a bit cramped. The food was, in general, quite good. The cheese selection needs improvement, and the cheeses need to be served at the proper temperature. The wine selection is quite limited, but the prices are good, and the corkage fee was only $5 per bottle.

But being seated that late for an early reservation, at such an undesirable table, and served by wait staff pretty much ignorant of the foods they're serving, doesn't impress me. My wife says she'd go back, but I'm not inclined to return, except perhaps for a bottle of wine at the bar.

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Grand Cru Wine Bar & Bistro
4401 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22203

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  1. Thanks for the report. I have always wondered about this place as I live very close. I know they have had a lot of chef turnovers, but that doesn't really excuse the waitstaff ignorance. I think I'll just keep walking past at this point.

    1. I've been twice and enjoyed my food both times (specifically recall a great foie gras dish last time). I totally agree about the cramped seating inside- it's much more enjoyable when they've opened up the patio seating out front. When it's a nice day, like now, it's really nice to sit outside and people watch.

      1. I too live nearby. And the food does go up and down depending on the chef, but I have had some very good things there. I actually like it a lot more for lunch, they have some good sandwiches. I haven't had the crab cakes recently, but they used to be very good. So was the crab sandwich at lunch. I agree the space is small, but it isn't in a place that is normally packed so I doubt a bigger space could survive. It is really nice to have a decent wine selection in walking distance from my house, and they have some great beers too.

        There is a waitress there at lunch, I will get her name next time who is just nice as can be. I would hang out here for hours studying for the bar exam. They have good cannolis too.

        Their chicken and duck entrees used to be great, but last time my husband had the chicken it wasn't as good. But mushroom orzo is good too.

        I like that the $5 wines by the glass they have on special are normally actually good, it makes for a nice happy hour. And I agree it is wonderful to be able to sit out there in the summer.