Gladys at The Strand, named for the two grandmothers of the chef/owner Thomas Benninger, is a stylish, high-energy place tucked into a corner of The Strand, an upscale, high-visibility shopping center on Huebner Road at Interstate 10. On a Friday evening, all this energy and style translated into quite a noise level, despite efforts at hanging acoustic baffles in the dark ceiling cavity. But the well-dressed crowd didn’t seem to mind. Dinner lasted nearly two and a half hours, counting our 15-minute wait at the bar for an 8 p.m. reservation. And to be honest, we never noticed the time passing.

Assuming careful companion selection as a given, this is the sign of good food and very attentive service. Chef Benninger’s menu is ambitious enough, for starters, to require and reward time spent in its perusal. Considering the menu had just changed that night, the waitstaff was reasonably familiar with its intricasies — another encouraging sign. Nor did the weighty wine list seem to intimidate our ingenue waitress. With all the parts in place, the stage (and Gladys is nothing if not a stage) was set for an exceptional experience. An early look at the menu had suggested white wines would be the order of the evening, despite a debilitating preference for red, and we had begun in the bar with glasses of Silverado Napa Sauvignon Blanc and an unusual Tuscan pinot grigio from Ruffino called Lumina. And luminous it was, with pale gold glints and a figgy, almost maderized nose. It became our favorite over time.

Small flutes of Chandon’s Argentinean Brut Fresca appeared as a lagniappe just before the arrival of our appetizers, and they were a welcome fit, namely the lush lobster risotto ringed with a drizzle of veal stock reduction. For most reasonable people, this creamy concoction, its rice retaining just enough bite to qualify as authentic, would have made a meal — say, with a modest green salad. It was not to be, of course, so with a sigh we continued to appreciate the match made between lobster and bubbly. The duck confit was served over sweet-hot Thai-flavored red cabbage. The skin was crisp and salty, the meat tender and the flavor fine — in fact, fantastic, with the lusty cabbage.

Inspired by both the Chandon, a sturdy sparkler that makes for a fine house pour, and Gladys’ theatrical setting, we now looked to the list for more bubbles — and came up with an Australian example from Greg Norman (good with the remains of the risotto) and the always-dependable Blanc de Noir Wedding Cuvée from Sonoma’s Iron Horse (emphatic enough to work with the now-diminished duck). A certain spiciness anticipated in the entrées was the main reason for this unorthodox-sounding selection, however; sparkling wines have a spunky way of standing up to spice — and, for that matter, to meats that often seem an automatic invitation to reds. Bring on the lamb shank with chipotle-lemon mole and the sesame-seared tuna with red curry drizzle, we thought; we’re ready.
Sadly, the assertion went untested, at least with respect to the spice vs. sparkles equation. But, truly rare tuna would be hard to find anywhere in the city, and the black and white sesame seeds lent a nice nuttiness that did complement the wine after all. The Asian noodle cake that served as a kind of riser for the main event was good but essentially superfluous, but the salty, sautéed spinach crown added both color and contrast.

Peanuts (or some nuts) and a certain faintly hot smokiness were all the corresponding flavors this palate could prize out of the chipotle-lemon mole. Yet, as with the tuna, the tender and large lamb shank made an impression all on its own. This I’d order again — just with one of the offerings from the “Interesting Reds” column of the wine list. Even the parsnips, which are about the only vegetable I claim not to like, were appropriate as an accompaniment, as were the crisp spears of asparagus standing in for “winter vegetables.”

Gladys’ pepper-crusted fillet with peppercorn brandy sauce and the mesquite-grilled veal chop with a hunter currant sauce truly tell a tale of winter and cry for wines such as the Niebaum Coppola Estate Cabernet Franc and, if you’re feeling both theatrical and flush, the 1999 Quintessa Napa Cabernet, both from an insert in the wine portfolio. The gestural “G” that marks certain wines on the standard list indicates wines especially recommended by the chef, and though we didn’t pit his palate against ours, chances are he knows whereof he tastes.

With offerings such as Gladys’ bread pudding and chocolate cheesecake, desserts chez Gladys seem to go more for grandmotherly comfort than drama — the possible exception being the pecan pie ice cream served in a flamboyant tuile. The classic creme brulée‘s sugar crust offered up the requisite crunch. The chocolate lava cake was volcanically voluptuous and oozing with chocolate sauce. Both desserts (the creme brulée with the aid of a raspberry coulis on the side) rose to the challenge of a shared dessert drink, the intense Bonny Doon Framboise — an “infusion,” not a distillation, featuring raspberries. It seemed the perfect cap to an evening in which both the plates and patrons were on stage. An evening worth a rerun, at that.

By Ron Bechtol

Photography Janet Rogers