Loaded Mac and Cheese, with applewood bacon, lump crab, tortilla… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
Dinner at Grillfire, a new contemporary restaurant in the Arundel Preserve development, is not an intrinsically satisfying experience. The food is almost uniformly over-seasoned and entirely uninspired, and there is not a single moment, on or off the plate, that feels like it comes from a genuine creative impulse.
Grillfire is an interesting restaurant to sit back and observe, with a skeptic's eye.
Every detail feels like it's the result of consumer testing. When, you think, did edamame achieve permanent menu status in America, and what's with all the mango?
Grillfire is very good-looking, absolutely up to date. It's good-looking in the way that upscale bistros are good-looking this year. Pretty is out, handsome is in, especially the kind of rich and warm handsomeness that puts people in the mind of an Aspen lodge. Hence, the liberal use of fieldstone, dark wood and brown leather. The light fixtures are beautiful, and the lighting design is admirable. There is a smart arrangement of tables, with partitions creating intimate areas. Booths, which are plentiful, have tasteful Art Nouveau fabric that is sold in some places as Klimt blocks.
The handsomeness extends to the tabletops, which are pre-set for diners with a clever arrangement of bread plates and stacked napkins. The music is high-energy and clubby, which seems odd for a hotel restaurant. It must be what diners want these days. Or else Grillfire wouldn't do it.
You could guess, I bet, the four preparations for the four choices of fresh seafood — Atlantic salmon, sushi-grade ahi tuna, skewered jumbo shrimp and sea scallops. You're right. Your choices are Thai Chili Glazed, Mango BBQ, Cajun Spiced and Simply Grilled.
I bet you could guess that small and big appetizers are arranged into "Starters & Sharing" and "For the Table," and that there'd be between them some version of sliders (steak burger with blue cheese) and popcorn shrimp and some variation of raw tuna and macaroni and cheese.
What you wouldn't guess is that the menu's stale ideas aren't executed particularly well. Edamame, listed on the menu as "Japanese peanuts," are drenched in an abrasive chili oil. Crab "munchkins" get what little flavor they have from their coconut crusting — an accompanying spicy marmalade tastes like jelly mixed with ketchup. An "Over the Top" macaroni and cheese has smoked bacon, lump crab, avocado and sour cream, and tortilla strips. How could this fail? It could if it makes too much use of bland cheeses and skimps on the bacon. Multicolored tortilla strips and strips of healthy-looking avocado do give this appetizer some visual appeal, even as they make no sense.
A chopped tomato-and-blue cheese salad, a variation of the restaurant group's signature chopped salad, drowns out the sharp taste of blue cheese and bacon with a syrupy balsamic dressing.
The entree menu is separated into "Grillfire's Favorites," "Signature Steaks & Chops," "Filet Mignon," "Surf & Turf," "Fresh Seafood" and "Burgers & Sandwiches." That first category, of Grillfire favorites, is a not particularly inspiring collection of entrees that have become frozen-food staples — Caribbean coconut shrimp and chips, fettuccine with scallops and shrimp and chicken pot pie.
We tried a pan-roasted French-cut breast of chicken, which is served with a choice of roasted mushrooms, Gruyere and Marsala or lemon, caper and artichoke sauce. We chose the second one, which turned out to be very, very garlicky. If it tasted wrong, it looked worse, coating pale pieces of bland chicken in a pale greenish sauce.
Steaks come off better. A bone-in rib-eye steak was grilled competently, but a garlic au jus doesn't taste like it was ever in the same pan as a steak. A filet mignon relied too much on the added-on coating of sea salt and crushed pepper and not enough on good steak flavor. Broiled scallops, the accompanying "surf" to the steak, didn't have the dense flavor that the very freshest scallops have.
Sides were not very good. Mushrooms sauteed in truffle butter tasted of neither, and creamed spinach tasted only of nutmeg.
A short dessert menu includes New York cheesecake, a chocolate lava cake and a crisp apple turnover, and by this point, Grillfire just starts to seem kind of lazy. Campfire S'mores are on the menu, too. Diners heat marshmallows on one of those things they use for pu-pu platters. But even this was a miss, thanks to its use of little wrapped squares of mint chocolate.
Arundel Preserve is a new mixed-use development near Arundel Mills. A pretty modern hotel has already opened in the development's Town Center, and Grillfire sits just off its main lobby.
The formal name of this restaurant is actually George Martin's Grillfire. The George Martin Group operates a handful of restaurants on Long Island, N.Y, including George Martin the Original, a fine-dining steak house named Strip Steak and three upscale bistros under the Grillfire name. The Grillfire at Arundel Preserve is the group's first out of the New York area.
Corporately engineered dining can be pleasurable, but not when it feels this mechanical.
Where: 7793-A Arundel Mills Blvd., Hanover
Contact: 410-799-2883, http://www.grillfirearundel.com
Hours: Open for daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$15; entrees, $18-$32
[Key: Outstanding:✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]