The Daily Grind: Grind celebrates third branch with more burgers and wilder milkshakes
The Carls’ home pantry is empty, except for a few bottles of vinegar, oil, and canned tomatoes. This seems like a typical scene from any urban home, but if you know the Carls and their elaborate dinner parties, then a few things appear remiss. When Cristina first met Stephen, he asked if she wanted to host a dinner with him. The sommelier agreed, thinking it might be a fun. But Stephen Carl is a chef turned hotel honcho and his “dinners” take more than a couple of hours’ in the kitchen. “It was eight courses and took three days to prepare! I had to remind him that we’re not a catering company!”
Grind Fried Rice
The Carls prefer everything fresh and from-scratch, hence the lack of contents in their pantry. This commitment, coupled by their love for entertaining, prompted them to open a restaurant—or, rather, three in a span of five months in just a year after they returned to the Philippines: the more upscale Grind Bistro at Netpark, the fast casual Grind Burger at SM North EDSA, and a sort of in-between Grind Bistro + Café at SM Aura Premier. “It was all just coincidence. We really planned to open several restaurants, but not this fast. It’s just the locations were available suddenly,” explains Cristina.
But such ambitions already echo what they’re doing in their home, albeit on a much grander, commercial scale. “It’s an American bistro, which allows us to do a good range of things. American cuisine is a melting pot, there’s Italian American, there’s Tex-Mex,” says Cristina at their newest location. There’s no one cuisine to fully capture the spirit of what they’re doing except that it’s a reflection of the Carls’ life. One of their many home-baked breads is based on a recipe by Stephen’s aunt who’s Estonian. When the couple visited the family in the U.S., Cristina used it to make a ham and cheese sandwich. It was such a success that they went through 20 loaves in one weekend. It’s now known as the Ham + Cheese on Rye on the menu.
It's almost as if you can trace their history through the menu. Their two years in Maui reveals itself in the poke, ahi tuna tossed in soy, chili, and sesame. Their resourcefulness in pairing it with palm-sized chips of wanton, sweet potato, and taro and topping it with chevre and pico de gallo is a consistent victory, evident in its unshakable position on the must-try list. Cristina leans in to let us in on a secret. “You can actually order this with rice, without the goat’s cheese milk. You just have to say Poke Bowl.”
There is something strangely intimate about dining at Grind. The premise, if you haven't gotten it from the name, has been built around classic American burgers. It's probably the most impersonal dish you can think of. A glossy brioche bun, caramelized onions, tomatoes, a pure beef patty made with chuck and short blade, American cheese, and an orange sauce stacked together—Carl wanted it to be recognizable, managable, easy to love and understand. But it's full of secrets revealed in ripples of flavor: the stealthy bits of steak in the patty, a delicious beef butter that the Carls developed to compound the beefiness of each bite (something that they developed for the Filipino palate, but can no longer make a burger without), the "Tiny" secret sauce that Cristina laughingly describes as a tongue-in-cheek way of saying Thousand Island dressing ("But homemade, of course!").
There’s more. She lets us in on the Foie Gras Mangga, off-menu and available only at the Netpark bistro, it’s a plate of Cristina’s favorites: salted foie gras, torched mangoes, and freshly baked brioche.
Rainbow Cake with a Vanilla Shake
We asked Cristina if she thought that opening three similar yet different restaurants would confuse customers, but she's not worried. They've managed to come up with ways to create a distinct identity for each, tying them together with bestsellers like the squid-ink battered chicken, the burgers, the poke, and selected desserts. Grind Bistro, the more uppity of the three, is extra special. It currently functions as their commissary and the second floor serves as the reservations-only chef's table. Grind Burger, meanwhile, is a simple, effortless, casual situation. The burgers are slightly smaller, but the prices easier as well. Grind Bistro + Cafe, the go-between that spills over to the middle of the mall, is gourmet but relaxed enough thanks to the mall setting. Flat breads effectively represent this middle ground, but the shock offering comes as milkshakes topped with slices of cake. This Instagram magnet feels oddly gimmicky for a franchise that banks on simpler traditions, but the pair's culinary sensibilities show up in the lightness of the cake's flavor, the lightness of the milkshake itself, and how they pair amazingly well together. Cristina recommends taking forkfuls of the cake and enjoying them a la fondue.
The effectiveness of these types of dessert-drinks is somewhat a double-edged sword. Other over-the-top beverages might have turned us jaded, but the icy combination at Grind brings us back to the faith. Elaborate can be good again, in the right hands.
It is a privilege to get an invitation to one of the Carls’ special dinners. But then again, dining at Grind—any Grind—is almost like that. It's a peek into their lives.