Coal Fire's pizza is made with hand-tossed homemade dough… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
Among the attractions at the Shoppes at Shipley's Grant are a Starbucks, a Cold Stone Creamery and a Coal Fire pizza restaurant. Coal Fire is not a part of a chain - at least not yet - but I think most visitors would assume it is. It has the rosy suburban looks, streamlined menu and commitment to quality ingredients that customers have come to expect from fast-casual chains.
Coal Fire is a project of the folks behind Nottingham's tavern, and they have obviously worked hard to develop this concept. It's a good one, and they're already expanding; a second Coal Fire is set to open in Gaithersburg. They've also done an impressive job here of calibrating the casualness at exactly the right level. Lit well and warmly appointed with Tuscan color, the place looks just nice enough for an evening out or a midweek date but informal enough for tired families to grab an early supper. Later in the evening, the adjacent bar draws a different crowd. It's mostly just very comfortable and functional.
The pizza is a quality product, made with hand-tossed, homemade dough and fresh mozzarella. The commitment to freshness, which is explained both on the menu and in the server's tableside chat, feels genuine. Partially open kitchen spaces let customers see the kitchen crew working with fresh ingredients, and the message about freshness really does come through on the plate.
Customers choose from three sauces: a traditional; a spicy; and the Coal Fire signature sauce, which is described as a "perfect blend of two distinct tastes: sweetness & spice." And I just hated it - it made me think of crayons for some reason, I would have preferred wax to sugary sweetness. I like that Coal Fire recommends one assembled pizza for each of its sauces.
For the signature sauce, the additions are red onions and red bell peppers, which made the sauce taste even sweeter - the sauce actually might work with anchovies and pepperoni. The other two sauces are far better. (I realize I might be in the minority on the specialty sauce, which some people must really love to have gotten this far.)
The spicy sauce tastes like a heated-up version of the signature sauce, and it works fine that way. It was also hotter than any of us were expecting. The traditional sauce is a very good tomato sauce, and the menu's recommendation of margherita toppings - basil and garlic - is a good one.
I like that Coal Fire has kept the toppings to a manageable minimum - there are about 14 in all, meats and vegetables, and that seems to make good sense. The whole menu seems manageable. Besides the pizza, there are sandwiches, salads, and pasta dishes, all reasonably priced - offerings such as meatball subs, shrimp fra diavolo and a grilled Caesar salad, the one item our excellent, invested server recommended that we didn't try.
For appetizers, the herb-coated oven-baked chicken wings, a house specialty, come out tossed with Vidalia onions on top of fresh baked dough. I loved them, although I think a friend's comment, that they'd be even better brined, is worth considering.
The Coal Fire salad features thick slabs of brown sugar-coated bacon, mixed with grape tomatoes and pecans. It's delicious. Bacon is everywhere these days, but this was the good stuff, and the sugariness made sense. (The particularly good bread served with the salads is from Gold Crust bakery in Alexandria, Va.) The one pasta dish we tried, angel hair with white clam sauce, had too much garlic and too little parsley.
And for dessert, there's nothing - not even coffee. This feels like another shrewd move. Sweet-toothed customers can walk a few steps to a Cold Stone Creamery, and Coal Fire can focus on what it does well.
On the menu
• Coal Fire salad - $8.95
• Pasta with white clam sauce - $13.95
• Oven-baked wings - $7.95
• Margherita pizza - 12-inch, $11.95; 16-inch, $14.95
• Rustic red pizza - $13.95/$17.95
• Ring of Fire pizza - $13.95/$17.95
Coal Fire Where:
5725 Richards Valley Road
Hours: 7 days, 11:30 a.m. -10 p.m.
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, Amex, Discover
Service: *** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
[Outstanding: **** Good: ***
Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]