Variety isn't always the spice of life Restaurant: Woodfire's grilled meats and fish are fine, but unfortunately the restaurant doesn't stick with them .

July 26, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

I like a restaurant that sets out to do one thing, and does it well (in this case, grill meats and fish over hickory, white oak, pecan and cherry woods). If only Woodfire would stick to grilling.

Woodfire is the latest project of restaurateur Garry Anderson, who made his reputation with Capers near the Bay Bridge, now closed. The management group he's part of also owns two Garry's Grills (in Severna Park and Annapolis) and the Main Ingredient caterers.

You walk into the newest restaurant, fragrant with wood smoke, and you start salivating. It makes you want to order the biggest, juiciest steak on the menu. The smell of the place is maybe the best part of the ambience.

Not that Woodfire isn't attractive, as shopping-center restaurants go. It would actually be fairly chic except for all the red neon. It has that slightly edgy decor typical of late-'90s restaurants: at once somewhat dressy (sophisticated black, white and green color scheme; cloth napkins; clever lighting; food that can be elegant; a respectable wine list) and casual (booths and oilcloth-covered tables). It's definitely casual; but on the other hand, how many casual restaurants garnish their ribs with sprigs of rosemary?

(On yet another hand, there is a packaged towelette stuck discreetly under that sprig of rosemary.)

Woodfire's ribs have great flavor and a fine barbecue sauce, but ours weren't very meaty. They come with thin, crisp fries and coleslaw that must contain most of the world's supply of celery seed.

We had no complaints about the Delmonico steak, smoky and flavorful, blackened with Cajun spices that don't overpower the juicy pink meat. A thick cloud of whipped potatoes and fresh green beans finish a picture-perfect plate.

Start with an appetizer pizza cooked over the woodfire, its honey-wheat crust crisp at the edges and loaded down with caramelized onions, a smoky tomato sauce, mozzarella and thick bacon.

Or if your table is meat-hungry, share the Woodfire smoked sampler. Strips of chicken and salmon were good, but the fork-tender tenderloin was nothing short of fabulous. On the side were three sauces, two of them sweet, but the meat and fish didn't need them.

Woodfire has good seafood, judging from the tuna we tried. It was thick and fresh, cooked rare at the center. There was no hint, however, of the promised "rosemary marinade," nor was the tuna blackened as promised. Instead, it had a bit of buttery sauce, rice and excellent grilled vegetables.

Those same grilled vegetables came with my seafood strudel - a signature dish, according to Anderson, from Capers. The phyllo dough was supposed to contain crab, smoked salmon and shrimp. I did come across a few shrimp, but it was mostly a thick, cheesy filling that made the strudel taste like an expensive Greek cheese pie.

With dinner comes either the house salad, an off-beat combination of greens, blueberries, strawberries, pine nuts, Gorgonzola and a berry vinaigrette, or an "all-American" salad with more traditional ingredients. (I loved its tangy blue cheese vinaigrette; I asked the waitress to hold the Cheddar cheese that's usually part of the salad.)

Although Woodfire is a restaurant with a very simple concept - meat and fish grilled over wood - the kitchen loves to gussy up everything else.

The mashed potatoes aren't just mashed potatoes; they're goosed with Cheddar and garlic. The butter is laced with garlic. Not to mention the berries on the house salad.

All this is OK, but when it comes to the desserts, too much is too much. The strawberry shortcake, made with a good LTC old-fashioned sweet biscuit instead of sponge cake, already has strawberries and whipped cream. Why drizzle it with chocolate? Why pour caramel sauce over a slice of Grand Marnier cake already frosted with butter cream? Some things are better left alone.

WOODFIRE

Food: **1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: **1/2

Where: Park Plaza Shopping Center, Severna Park.

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Prices: Appetizers: $5.95-$9.50; main courses: $14.95-$22.95. Major credit cards.

Call: 410-315-8100.

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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