Fine dining, family eating and bar fare

Restaurant: With better attention to a detail or two, the Phoenix Grille in Jacksonville could improve from nice to wonderful.

Sunday Gourmet

July 02, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Few restaurants that try to be all things to all people do it as credibly as the Phoenix Grille does. It's a sports bar / fine dining / family restaurant rolled into one, and the combination works pretty well -- mostly because of good soundproofing and careful crowd control.

The bar patrons, of course, go to the bar, which is a short corridor and a closed door away from the small dining room. Families with kids gravitate to the sunroom in the front of the restaurant; and if they're boisterous, the waitresses do a decent job of keeping those doors closed. That leaves us in the comparatively decorous middle room, with its white-clothed tables, Ladew Gardens murals and decorative topiary.

Of the three, the fine dining at the Phoenix Grille is the least successful. I can't say for sure, but everyone in the bar seemed to be having a fine time. And the food is certainly better than you'll find at a lot of family restaurants. I wouldn't mind having this as my neighborhood eatery, but I don't think I'd travel to the Phoenix Grille for a 25th wedding anniversary.

First of all, it's a little disappointing to wander through miles of heavily wooded countryside after you leave Interstate 83 only to end up in a shopping center between a Safeway and a drugstore, with a parking lot as your only view. That would be of no consequence if the food were wonderful, as it almost is. But too many small things marred our meal.

The menu is straightforward -- by that I mean steaks and crab cakes and the like -- but promising in the details. (A mention of "leek feathers" on a salad sounds intriguing, for instance. And the steaks aren't elaborate, but one is topped with gorgonzola, another with wild mushrooms.)

Some of our first courses pleased; two didn't. I would have been happier if the Maryland crab soup hadn't been slopped over the edge of the cup; but it was flavorful, with a respectable amount of crab. The crab and artichoke dip was a delicate version of this usually sludgy concoction, and I liked the herb-scented toasts it came with. Calamari was golden, crisp and tender.

I wasn't as wild about the house salad with those leek feathers. Leeks are leeks, even slivered, and their assertive flavor with the apples, feta cheese, walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette didn't work for me. But the only real misstep was the clams casino, baked for so long the clams had shriveled and the topping was a thick, dry skin.

Our main courses were equally hard to generalize about. The fillet was a nice chunk of meat, cooked exactly as ordered. It appeared on a mixed grill with one shrimp stuffed with crab imperial and an uninspired bit of grouper fillet. The fish was fresh but cooked too long to stand on its own merits unseasoned and unsauced.

A larger piece of grouper on its own was also slightly overcooked, but its ancho chili cream sauce, smooth and just edged with heat, saved the day. Still-crisp asparagus spears and garlic mashed potatoes stained red by roasted red pepper rounded out the plate.

You could tell that the Phoenix Grille's chicken roulade could be a good -- maybe great -- dish, the boneless breast meat wrapped around a spinach and Asiago cheese stuffing, then sliced into medallions. But it must have waited for our other dishes: Its saffron and tarragon cream sauce had congealed unattractively by the time it got to us.

We had no complaints about the Maryland fettuccine with crab, tomatoes, asparagus and basil sauced with cream and brandy, except it was a bit short on crab. (And no wonder, given the price of crab meat.) A golden-crusted crab cake, mostly lump meat, is worth almost whatever the market price is.

Desserts aren't made in house, except for a pretty good sundae; but the kitchen knows enough to pick a decent baker and serve the carrot cake, pecan pie and the like very fresh.

All in all, not a bad meal. You could say the same of the service. The young staff is pleasant, hard-working and unobtrusive. But no one had told our waitress to give customers fresh silverware after each course. That meant she put a fork half-filled with crab dip down on the white tablecloth, and she put one guest's silverware on another guest's butter plate. Ugh.

PHOENIX GRILLE

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 3493 Sweet Air Road, Jacksonville

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5.50-$7.95; main courses, $9.95-$22.95

Call: 410-667-8900

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

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