A little bit scrumptious and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll
As if his family-friendly menu and Chef Paul Gallo’s creative cooking weren’t enough, Kevin Reading never misses a chance to give us reasons to make the 20-minute trek north to Abbott’s Grill. Case in point: His regularly sold-out Spotlight Jazz Dinners. But what I expected would be a quietly candlelit cabaret-style evening with a sultry, low-key chanteuse perched precariously atop a dusty piano ended up being anything but.
Gaynell Rose might throw off a bit of sultry under the right lighting, but a low-key chanteuse she is not. Her band is made up of ultra-professional, full-time musicians who hit every note perfectly and without hesitation. In fact, during my former life as a recording engineer and music producer in Washington, D.C., I worked with several of these guys, crankin’ out countless record albums, CDs, films, radio/TV shows and commercials. And where do I run into them after all these years? Milford, Delaware, on a Sunday night!
The artistry on stage was paired with equally professional talent in the kitchen. Gallo’s winter beet salad with grapefruit, pumpkin croutons, Beemster XO, fennel and candied pecans hit the table just as the first notes of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” snapped the room to attention. Matt Everhart’s heavy-duty bass lines flattered the citrusy kick of Gallo’s white balsamic vinaigrette. (Music and food in the same column! Who has more fun than I do!?)
It was an evening rife with the unexpected. The pungent buzz of beet horseradish played an aromatic refrain beside darkly braised pork osso bucco - itself perched precariously atop a white bean cassoulet. Just as unexpectedly, Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” (covered years later by Blood, Sweat and Tears) was passionately delivered as Gaynell strolled wirelessly from table to table, hammering out the timeless, accusatory words to anyone brave enough to make eye contact. “The rich relations may give you a crust of bread and such; you can help yourself - but don’t take too much!” It doesn’t get any better than that. And the party was just beginning.
I couldn’t believe my ears when keyboardist Dave Ylvisaker embarked on Mark Stein’s classic Hammond B-3 intro to Vanilla Fudge’s version of The Supremes’ “Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Vanilla Fudge? Really? The band’s interpretation of the two-time hit was spot-on, and Gaynell did justice to every aggressive note. Even my dining companion’s Dogfish Head beer-battered fish and chips with preserved lemon, fried capers, brussels sprout/pickled carrot slaw and homemade waffle chips - as good as it was - was put on hold as the quintet marched its way through the ‘67 blockbuster.
By then all bets were off. Gaynell (and the audience) convalesced with Mae West’s “Peel Me a Grape” from the 1933 film, “I’m No Angel.” Recently covered by crooner Diana Krall, this is where Rose hauled out the sultry, doing a delightfully nasty job with the double-entendre-laden lyrics. I suspected (correctly) that we were being lulled into a false sense of security, so I was prepared when drummer Andy Hamburger’s disco groove announced Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.” The 1979 dance hit was punctuated by an expertly delivered electric guitar solo from Dave Hanbury.
As roasted Bananas Foster began to circulate around the room, the roller-coaster ride continued with Bette Midler’s certified tear-jerker “Hello in There.” Ylvisaker’s solo piano treaded lightly behind Gaynell as even the servers paused to listen. “You know that old trees just grow stronger. And old rivers grow wilder every day. Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”
Peggy Lee’s slinky “Fever.” Savory roast chicken with lemon and artichoke. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.” A parade of 16 Mile brews from the bar. I won’t give away all the secrets, but I will tell you that the entire production, from the stage to the kitchen, was first-rate. Don’t miss Gaynell Rose performing alongside Paul Gallo’s cheffery at Abbott’s Grill in Milford. It’s a feast for your mouth and your ears.