Going the Distance 

Oilville gets comfort cuisine that could use a partial tune-up.

The options for appetizers are pretty ordinary (the restaurant even serves nachos and onion rings). However, the Thai steamed shrimp is unusual and good enough that it required two orders for us to get our fill. Smoky, spiced cocktail sauce and key-lime rémoulade perfectly complemented plump shrimp steamed in beer and dusted with cilantro and basil. This is a dish well worth the drive, and the only appetizer that caught my attention.

What really piqued my interest was the eclectic nature of the entrees. In particular, the Southwestern crispy duck sounded wonderful. I'm a sucker for chipotle-anything and the accompanying chipotle-honey sauce was quite good. But the duck itself was nearly inedible. The most important step in preparing crispy duck is rendering the fat completely. What is so good as a liquid is gag-inducing as a semisolid. The rendered fat should thoroughly flavor the meat as it melts away. As it was served, the crispy edges were delicious but few and far between. Perhaps they are shooting a little too high with this dish.

But I had a similar take on the seemingly easy-to-prepare barbecued ribs. Is it possible to overcook ribs? These were falling off the bone, tender and juicy, but absolutely lacking in flavor. Ribs should be well-seasoned with spices that are actually rubbed into the meat, then slow-roasted, and finished on the grill with a lively sauce. And speaking of sauce, whichever you favor, tomato-based Memphis/Kansas City-style or vinegar-based Carolina-style, what matters most in BBQ is twang and sparkle. The sauce at Gray Bear seemed utterly devoid of both — a flat, earthy mess of smoke and mirrors, ruining what could have been a wonderful meal.

The signature steak was a different story. Prepared to a perfectly juicy medium rare and garnished with tobacco onions (caramelized, not actually nicotine-laced) and finished with a wonderfully flavorful bourbon sauce, this was a meal to go out of your way for. Most entrees were paired with nicely lumpy mashed potatoes and crisp green beans.

Desserts were plentiful and varied, but again, some elemental steps in the preparation were askew. While the chocolate peanut-butter pie was colossal and decadently delicious, the homemade key-lime pie seemed to have encountered problems in the custard phase of its creation. The crust was a delicious graham-cracker confection, but the filling was essentially key-lime-flavored scrambled eggs because of the curdling of the egg yolks, which apparently were added without tempering.

All in all, a good meal can be found at Gray Bear, but the inconsistency of preparation needs attention to justify the trip. Spring has sprung, though, and if you should find yourself headed west with the top down, craving steak and shrimp and chocolate peanut-butter pie, make a detour to Oilville. Or try David and Tracey Hughes's other place, Grafiti Grille, for a slightly more upscale and consistently executed good dinner that's probably a lot closer to home. S

Gray Bear Grille
1390 Broad St., Oilville
Lunch: Monday—Friday 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.

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