Some restaurants try to do more than they're capable of, but you have to admire the attempt. Some know their limits and do very well within them. Others, like the Fire Rock Grill in Columbia, seem to have a handle on what's in their culinary range, but just can't quite pull it off.
The Fire Rock Grill is the restaurant that replaced the Last Chance Saloon, which closed after 23 years. It's named after a street in Laurel where the owners lived, and the name works by suggesting this is the place to get a fat hamburger or a juicy steak. In fact, that's the first thing you notice when you walk in: Not the lively bar or the giant aquarium, but the mouthwatering smoky fragrance that wafts through the entranceway.
This is your cue, and I suggest you pick up on it. The Fire Rock does a fine burger, juicy and slightly charred, with only the faintest pink if that's how you order it. It comes on a sesame bun with your choice of cheeses (pepper jack melting over the edges is pretty darn good), lettuce, tomato, pickles and fries. Have one of the several beers on draft and you've got yourself a meal. Venture further at your peril.
Let's say you want a salad. The poetically named Summer Solstice has promise, with good greens, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and Gorgonzola cheese. The dressing, a honey vinaigrette, is a bit sweet for my taste, but it works with the fruit. But the red onions? Bad idea.
Fire Rock does a nice crab cake with enough lump and not too much binder. You can get one smallish one as an appetizer with Creole remoulade (the restaurant's version of tartar sauce). It comes with pineapple jalapeno cornbread, which you have to admit sounds pretty good. And it would have been, if it hadn't been ice cold, as in straight out of the fridge.
Sometimes we could blame ourselves for disappointments, as when we chose the "spicy plum BBQ" sauce instead of the "traditional" on the Fire Rock Wings. Picture buffalo wings made with hoisin sauce and you get the idea.
What I was struck by most was how many things weren't available, starting with the draft beer the waitress told my husband about and then came back to say they didn't have. There was the "Potato Wrapped Fresh Fish (Ask Your Server for Details.)" The details were it wasn't available. The veal wasn't, and the roasted half chicken wasn't. I ordered one of the three steaks, the New York strip, and it took the waitress a trip to the kitchen and back to find out there were no more strip steaks.
The filet mignon I had instead wasn't particularly tender, and it wasn't the most flavorful piece of meat I've ever had. But who could tell when it was smothered in a lake of mushroom gravy, melted Gorgonzola and roasted red peppers? The good mashed potatoes with their skins and asparagus helped salvage it.
Salmon stuffed with scallops was dry and its strawberry kiwi salsa did nothing to rescue it. The promised patty pan squash, which I thought was an interesting touch, turned out to be zucchini and yellow squash. The highlight of the plate was the basmati rice.
But vegetarian isn't the way to go here. An eggplant napoleon started with eggplant dipped in a thick batter, something like you get on fried soft crabs, then layered with roasted peppers, tomatoes and asparagus.
On to desserts. Our waitress came back to tell me the key lime pie I had ordered wasn't available, but the mud pie was very good. I ordered it, but it turned out the mud pie was actually an individual molten-centered chocolate cake.
Our waitress told us the kitchen makes its own ice creams -- the only desserts made on the premises -- so we ordered the Oreo ice cream. It came in a coffee cup, and was the texture of some strange glutinous pudding with chocolate cookie crumbs throughout.
It wasn't a very good meal, although nothing was downright awful. Our good-natured waitress was a bit ditsy (when we asked for water, for instance, she brought two waters for the four of us), but she kept us entertained. If we had stuck to bar food and burgers we would have been OK. And the Fire Rock Grill does have one amazing appetizer that's worth noting: beer-battered fries topped with a Gorgonzola cream sauce. Hey, if you're worried about not getting your vegetables, the menu notes that they come with fresh parsley.
FIRE ROCK GRILL
FOOD ** (2 stars)
SERVICE ** 1 / 2 (2 1/2 stars)
ATMOSPHERE ** 1 / 2 (2 1/2 stars)
Address: 5888 Robert Oliver Place, Columbia
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$13; entrees, $12-$38.
Ratings / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *