It would be easy to just drive by in its stand-alone location on Perry Highway, north of the main retail district of Wexford. Surrounded by hedges, its parking lot seems almost sunken. But definitely make a point of turning in; your taste buds will be glad you did.
Overview: Walnut Grove is a bit of a study in contradictions.
It's not an inexpensive restaurant, and yet it lacks the details to be considered upscale. That makes it difficult to justify paying upscale prices for dinner entrees, good as they might be. The food is excellent, but the service is more typical of what you'd find at a bland, national chain.
The bar area is warm and welcoming, like a happy little community off the main dining room. In the main dining area, the servers are brisk and impersonal, and the seating seems to be based upon server accessibility to the kitchen rather than the comfort of the patrons.
It was not particularly busy the night we were there, and there were several nice, nearly empty rooms that would have been very pleasant in which to sit. Instead, we were seated in a crowded area directly in front of the kitchen door where our party of three spent the evening watching the staff go in and out, almost hitting each other with the swinging door every few minutes.
I prefer to relax when I'm out to dinner rather than worry that the tall, grumpy guy clearing plates was going to smash our waitress’s nose with the swinging door. This was my third or fourth time at the restaurant, and the seating always seems to start with the least desirable location first, so our latest seating experience was not an anomaly.
Décor: Autumnal colors with a modern design theme featuring lots of geometric shapes. The lighting is nicely balanced between relaxingly low and can't-read-the-menu-without-a-flashlight. The booths are high-backed, plush and comfortable. Tables are wood and brushed chrome. Overall it’s pleasant and comfortable if you don’t have to wince every time the kitchen door flies open.
The Drinks: There is a small but complete wine list on the main menu, and full bar service is available in the restaurant. The restaurant also offers daily drink specials, although I learned that from the website, not from our server.
There were several wines our party was not familiar with, so we asked the waitress and she had absolutely no knowledge of the wines. She had to ask the bartender. Not that we expect every server on earth to be a trained sommelier, but if you are not going to train your servers in even the most basic overview of your wines, then putting a description on the menu is a kindness for everyone involved.
Prices for wine range from $6.25 to $11.50 a glass. There is a full selection of beers as well.
Appetizers: As is the trend (and it's a trend we like) the appetizer menu is also called a "small plates" menu for those who are in the mood for a smaller portion as an entree. Our eyes lit up when we saw the Char Grilled Artichokes ($8.50).
The youngster in our party zeroed in on the Lobster Mac and Cheese ($10.50). The appetizer selection includes choices such as Rhode Island Calamari ($8), Crab Cakes ($9) and Boneless Wings ($9), to name just a few. The artichokes were a transcendental experience, probably one of the best grilled artichoke dishes we've ever had, and we're something of artichoke connoisseurs.
Ditto for the Lobster Mac and Cheese, which the oldsters in our party don't even particularly care for. But this was really well-prepared, light and creamy with big chunks of lobster.
Entrees: In addition to traditional entrees served with a salad, vegetable and a side, Walnut Grove has meal-sized salads, sandwiches and pizza that can be ordered for lunch or dinner.
The parents in our group went for the traditional dinner entree selections, which brings me to another thing we like about Walnut Grove: While it has a complete range of entrees, it doesn't have so many that your eyes cross trying to choose.
There are a few chicken dishes, a few pasta dishes, some fresh seafood and a few meat (beef and pork) dishes.
The youngest of our group, she of the Lobster Mac and Cheese, decided on a Roasted Beet Salad with Ahi Tuna ($16 with tuna, $13 with chicken, $9 plain). The dad went for the Blackened Keeling Island Grouper ($11 lunch/$19 dinner), and I had the Center-Cut Filet Mignon ($18 lunch and $22.50/$27 dinner).
The beet salad was the hit of the table and had us parents almost wishing we had ordered it. Reading the description it almost seems like too much -- walnuts, beets, gorgonzola -- and yet the blend of flavors, served on mesclun field greens and tossed with an herb balsamic vinaigrette, was simply sublime. The tuna was perfectly prepared as well, making this something we'd all come back for.
The steak was excellent, and, although I ordered it medium and it came medium-rare, I was glad. Next time I'll order it medium-rare. It could not have been more flavorful. The dad loved his grouper, saying it was nicely spicy and firm and flavorful, but raved about his side dish of mixed cabbage, broccoli and snow peas. Who knew there was a vegetable he liked?
It was a nice range of entrees and gave us an excellent overview of Walnut Grove's offerings.
Desserts: We were too stuffed for dessert, but Walnut Grove offers the usual range of sweets, including the interesting-sounding Brownie Works ($6.50) and Bourbon Pecan Pie ($6), along with six other selections.
Service: Besides the bad seating decisions, the service keeps Walnut Grove from being the upscale restaurant we think it wants to be and should be and could be.
Our waitress was very nice but seemed uninformed about the menu. We wondered, had she ever eaten there? Service was lightning fast -- too fast. Our salads came before we were done with our appetizers and our entrees before we were done with our salads. It made for some awkward shifting about of plates, silverware and the decorative items in the center of the table to make room for everything.
The seating and the hurry-up-and-eat atmosphere made it difficult to just relax and enjoy our dining experience.
Signature Dish: According to our server, the biggest seller in entrees is the Parmesan Crusted Chicken ($9.25 lunch/$17.50 dinner). Seafood is also popular.
Address and Phone: 12599 Perry Highway, Wexford, (724) 933-8410
Cost: $$ to $$$