While it's certainly true that there's no place like home, it behooves us now and then to venture out of "Harrid Cownee" and see what's happening elsewhere. Which is why we recently ventured into Anne Arundel County, to check out how the new casino is coming along and, coincidently, had dinner with friends at an intriguing "new" restaurant in the neighborhood.
It was located not in one of the dozens of "recipe" restaurants that have sprung up around the mall, but in a nearby area in Hanover that is a beehive of building activity. It's called Arundel Preserve and thoroughly belies all the moaning and groaning about how the construction industry has gone down the tubes.
Hundreds of "luxury" town houses, as well as single-family detached dwellings, are well underway. And since the area is quite close to BWI, there's also a hotel. Called the Hotel at Arundel Preserve, it's quite a swanky-looking place. And, inside the upscale hostelry is an upscale eatery called Grillfire that opened last July.
The Grillfire decor is contemporary. Manager Matthew Santeramo calls it a "rustic lodge." He should add, "owned by a wealthy nabob." Indeed, "rustic" in this case doesn't mean "little house in the big woods." The touches seem pricey—round pillars, classy chandeliers, sand-colored brick. Lots of wood, too, both light and dark. And strategically placed mirrors that make the main dining room seem larger. Still, it's a cozy spot, with booths and larger tables, virtually all full on the Saturday evening we visited.
There's a large, separate bar, which was hosting its share of fun-having guests that night, but the five of us were seated in the main dining room near the open kitchen, where we could view the hectic pace of back-of-the-house staff preparing dozens upon dozens of meals.
The Grillfire menu—varied but not huge—is described as "contemporary American," and that it is. Little touches from other areas of the world appear—Asia, Europe, Mexico—but this is U.S. pub cuisine at its most artery clogging. Not that you can't get a piece of grilled fish or some steamed broccoli, mind you, but Grillfire is mostly about beef, pork, ribs, cheese, spuds, creamed spinach—all the stuff we love that doesn't necessarily love us back.
Prices can seem somewhat high, but the kitchen provides ample, nicely-adorned servings, and entree choices come with a choice of one side. Plus some interesting touches, like a complimentary warm, crusty boule that's sliced open and stuffed with cheddar cheese that's melted in the oven. And a parting gift of cotton candy that comes with your check.
And, too, the service that evening was good—not rushed, but bespeaking coordination between the kitchen and front of the house.
To begin with...
There's a four-item menu section titled "For the Table," which features shareable portions of appetizer-type temptations. Our choice was "Over the Top" mac and cheese ($17). And that may be just what it is. This too-busy soup plate full of creamy, comforting baked macaroni and cheese also boasted applewood smoked bacon, lump crab meat, crispy tortilla strips, avocado and sour cream. We could probably do without the Tex-Mex touches as they interfere with the macaroni, the bacon, and the crab.
On the other hand, the sesame tuna crunch ($12) was nigh perfect. Served sushi-roll style, the crunchy black-and-white sesame seeds over the tender, rare tuna was very well-received (by those of us who fancy rare tuna), and the accompanying wasabi, ginger, and soy-sesame dunk most welcome.
As was the chili pop calamari ($10, on special that evening). These were perfectly-fried, crisp, tender squid rings drizzled with a sweet-hot sauce (rather than the "usual" marinara that's more common).
And the side Caesar ($4) that was impeccably fresh and crisp, with garlic toast on the side, rather than croutons in the salad. Plenty of Parmesan, actual anchovies on the salad and, it seemed, even in the creamy dressing. Yum.
Plus a trio of generously-sized, perfectly-cooked, tender, juicy steak burger sliders ($9), crowned with sweet grilled onions and ample tangy blue cheese set inside soft, fresh buns. Yum. Yum.
First impressions were generally good ones. We were encouraged by the food we'd tried, as well as by two of our guests for whom Grillfire is a regular stop on their dining-out route (once a week). Not that the other three of us couldn't make up our own minds, of course.
One of the "others" opted for the Grillfire Cobb salad ($12) with shrimp added ($6 more). A bit different from the "classic," this generous chew-food entree boasted crisp lettuce, tomatoes, and bacon, as well as avocado, black beans, and blue cheese. No eggs, though, not that the menu promised them. The added shrimp brought the total to three jumbos. These were a bit undercooked, which is a "trend" that we've noticed in several restaurants lately, arguably because the shrimp is still frozen when they cook it.
Another "other" chose swordfish ($22) from the "Simply Fish" menu section. You can select Atlantic salmon, sushi-grade ahi tuna, or skewered jumbo shrimp. They'll grill it plain or Cajun-spiced, Thai chili glazed or with just lemon and extra virgin olive oil. The swordfish steak was about a half-inch thick, a bit dry. The Thai chili glaze wasn't as spicy as my guest had hoped. Sliced tomato and red leaf lettuce garnished the plate, and on the side came a little basket of Parmesan crusted fries—hot, tender-crisp, non-greasy... why we love fries.
A pair of sweet, tender, nicely-sized crab cakes ($25) had virtually no filler but were overly moist and/or undercooked. A diced tomato-and-lettuce "relish" helped color the plate, while lemon wedges and tartar sauce were meant to perk up the cakes. A huge mound of lightly crisp, perfectly-cooked onion strings was a welcome accompaniment.
Granted, the seafood items we tried (except for that sesame crunch tuna appetizer), were not quite as we'd have liked (although they certainly were acceptable). On the other hand, our frequent diners chose beef dishes for their entrees and scored a pair of hits.
The very simple, very ample prime steak burger ($10) was bedded on ultra-dark green lettuce inside a gorgeous, tender brioche roll. The beef was perfectly cooked to order - tender, juicy, and oh so comforting. Especially with the Parmesan fries on the side.
And the top sirloin "baseball" steak ($23), was a very generous hunk of meat that was cut so it looked more like a wedge, with a thick part on one end and a thinner "tail" on the other. The marinated beef was nicely grilled and finished with a teriyaki glaze. Flavorful, tender-chewy, beefy—just as sirloin ought to be. Served with a well-treated baked potato as a side dish.
We don't usually have room for dessert, mainly because we're full, and most of us don't "need" dessert anyway. But in this case, we were so tempted by one of the dessert items, we threw our "usually" to the wind.
Grillfire has recycled those mini-hibachis that Chinese restaurants provide so you can heat up your pu-pu platter. In this case, the hibachi lets you cook your own s'mores. What fun. Each person gets a little rectangular plate, holding high-quality graham crackers and wrapped (really good) chocolate pieces. Marshmallows on skewers, too. A couple of those, and your sweet tooth is satisfied for at least the day, if not the week.
Especially if you scarf down the just-spun cotton candy that comes with your check.
Grillfire (410-799-2883) in the Hotel at Arundel Preserve, 7793-A Arundel Mills Blvd., Hanover. The first Grillfire from owner George Martin, who has five such eateries on Long Island. The Maryland version is the first outside of the Empire State.
Grillfire offers smart-casual American grill fare in an upscale "rustic" setting. Well thought-out, well executed dishes by corporate chef Frank Greco, who we hear spends much of his time at the Maryland location. Creative touches add interest to comfort cuisine. Menu changes seasonally. Good service adds a good feeling. Open seven days. Reservations. Go to GrillfireArundel.com or email info@GrillfireArundel.com.