Grill 21 says it serves Asian American fusion in Gramercy. In reality this tiny, no frills spot specializes in Filipino food, and its location, on East 21st Street between First and Second Avenues, doesn't quite qualify as Gramercy. Sitting outside, we brainstormed new names for the neighborhood. Our attempts at creating real estate portmanteaus included StuTay (Stuyvesant Town + Kips Bay) and NoEsVil (North East Village). Then our entrées came out, and we busied ourselves with eating. Regardless of where we were or what labels the restaurant uses to identify itself, this food deserved our full attention.
First up was a fried vegetable eggroll ($2). A golden oblong broke to reveal doughy insides stuffed with carrots, cabbage, and other vegetables, more clean-tasting than the take-out standard. The soy-esque dipping sauce had chunks of garlic. Sure, this isn't the world's sexiest appetizer, but it was a very enjoyable version, a cross between the overstuffed porky rolls available at Chinese restaurants and the dainty summer rolls available at Vietnamese restaurants.
We each opted for garlic rice, steamed white rice with fried brown bits of garlic. When it comes to garlic, of course, it's everyone in, or you risk going home alone. There's no extra charge for the flavored rice, or for the plain rice. However, the prices on our bill were $0.50 to $1 more than those listed for entrées on the menu. Worth noting, but no biggie.
Grill 21's tocino ($12.50) is a big bowl of Pinoy bacon, marinated in a wine, sugar, salt, and pepper, then fried. This is the only choice for Filipino Ron Swanson, for those who like their savories slightly saccharine, or their sweets full of protein. While the meat was delicious, it was a very simple dish. In retrospect, we might have ordered a third entrée to ensure a multiplicity of tastes, as well as leftovers.
The laing ($13) had shrimp, onions, chili flakes, jalapeno slices, and taro leaves in a sauce made from coconut milk. This dish existed at the other end of the spectrum from the tocino, a complex stew that looked somewhat like paisley wallpaper, calming in its crazy swirls. The taro leaves were slick like wakame but tough like kale.
Inside colorful murals depict sunshine and smiles. The cheery vibe is complimented by large vinyl chairs in orange and brown hues. Comfort counts here, and so does satisfaction, as the kitchen staff peered out occasionally at eaters, just to see what's what. With its concerned attitude and pleasing feed, Grill 21 is best for: a jubilant date.
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.