Hay is for horses

From front: Baby spinach tossed in a miso vinaigrette with smoked applewood bacon, gorgonzola crumbles, toasted pecans, and spiced pears; Wild mushroom risotto; and cocoa-coffee-crusted pork tenderloin with a chantrelle demi. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Gladys overdoes the garnish, but its wild mushroom risotto is fabulous

Get a rake.

Or maybe a Lilliputian leaf blower. The only major complaint I have about Gladys at the Strand is the excess "hay" atop almost every dish but dessert: fried tortilla strips, cold shoestring potatoes, crisp Asian noodles. The toppings got to be a joke, not only with our own orders, but also those delivered to neighboring tables. It can't be a question of modesty because there's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of once the scrim of straw has been removed. In fact, chef Thomas Benninger is quietly turning out some of the city's best contemporary cuisine underneath those superfluous veils.

Allow me now to go on at some length about the wild mushroom risotto: In a word, it's spectacular (and it was the only savory dish served without garnish). An intense aroma of truffle oil hit us immediately, followed by the full flavors of musky mushroom, prolonging the sexy theme, and drizzles of a tomato demi and a lightly flavored oil that didn't add much, but didn't detract, either. This dish, with duck confit, is also available as an entrée. Order it!

The jumbo lump crab cake appetizer with mango cilantro pesto (tortilla shards on this one) was a disappointment. The cakes were bready and only faintly crabby, the pesto was "muddy" tasting with little mango, and the oddly acidic purée of yellow tomato that served as a bed was pretty but almost counterproductive.

Gladys at the Strand

11255 Huebner
11am-2pm Tue-Fri,
5:30-10pm Tue-Thu,
5:30pm-11pm Fri-Sat
Price Range $18-26
Major credit cards
Wheelchair accessible
An interlude salad of baby spinach, applewood-smoked bacon, gorgonzola crumbles (that tasted more like feta), and dried cherries returned the meal to a lofty level; everything was in perfect balance, including the nutty miso vinaigrette - and the $2 addition of clove-accented spiced pears was not a mistake. Salad this good is not just an obligatory nod to healthy eating, it's a worthy course in its own right.

Wine doesn't normally make a perfect partner with salad, but the miso dressing changed everything. Our big, bold, and brash Merlot (sorry, Sideways), which was great with the risotto, was at least neutral here. An off-list special of the evening, the '99 Beringer Bancroft Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot had all the mint, cedar, eucalyptus, and white pepper characteristics merlot-bashers usually delight to find lacking, and it was beautiful with both entrées, a pan-seared duck breast and the cocoa-coffee-crusted pork tenderloin.

I'm a sucker for duck and, once the cold pommes frites are pushed to the side, Benninger does it to utter perfection. The other potatoes, foie gras mashers, were a good foundation, but carried a little too much truffle oil to allow the foie gras flavors to emerge. A topknot of sautéed garlic spinach provided a welcome contrast to the rich duck, and Port reduced to its coffee-vanilla-ripe-fruit essence added more than mere plate decoration.

Gladys at the Strand

Moist pork? Almost an oxymoron, but not chez Gladys. We almost suspected brining but were told, Not so. It's the coating of cocoa and coffee, along with bread crumbs, 'tis said, that keeps the tenderloin from drying out. The coating has other virtues as well: It has an appealingly bitter-crunchy quality that contrasts winningly with the mild meat. Though the secondary sauces that decorate plates at Gladys sometimes seem superfluous, the chanterelle demi underpinning the pork was a definite plus. The sweet potato mashers were great, too.

Dessert is often a good time to sit back and take stock of one's surroundings; by then the eyes have had time to adjust to low light levels. The lights at Gladys are so low that the handsome, cinnabar-red dining room seems almost subtle in contrast to the brilliantly illuminated open kitchen. Could we have a couple more footcandles, please?

The carefully composed dessert plate would certainly have benefited from a little more light and a bit of a re-think. The advertised lemon-lime tart was only subtly flavorful when served, and its crust was almost impenetrable. The tart filling improved as it warmed to room temperature, the lemon-lime flavor deepened and lost some of its refrigerator taste, yet it never really made it to the level of the rest of the meal. But an unexpected side of flourless chocolate cake, accented with fresh raspberries and served inside a crisp, twisted tuille of chocolate, was sensationally good - a case of the garnish, for a change, upstaging the main event.