Restaurant Review: Firelake Grill – CLOSED 7/8/14
I was excited when Firelake Grill opened last fall in the space once occupied by Ruby Tuesdays at the corner of Van Ness Street and Wisconsin Avenue. A family-friendly restaurant offering a slightly elevated menu seemed a good addition to both the neighborhood and that block, and my husband and I were eager to give it a try.
Walking in, the first impression is that the decor and ambiance are a significant step up from the former tenant. The restaurant has a comfortable vibe and is filled with a mix of clean-lined booths and tables. The dining room has an open feel, with a bright bar at the center – a real bar, not the old, sad Ruby Tuesdays salad bar. Dining areas are created through the use of interior windows that create privacy and intimacy, without making the space feel closed off. The restaurant features warm lighting, and a color palette of blonde wood tables, brick red doors and black trim. Palm frond ceiling fans add lightness to the room, but the tropical decor seems out of place in what is a traditional, American restaurant.
We were greeted by a cheerful hostess, and found all of the staff to be excellent. Our waiter was attentive, answered our questions knowledgeably, was very cheerful and engaging, and quite frankly was the best part of our dining experience.
For appetizers, we asked for a recommendation as the menu was bereft of any descriptions of the starters. Our waiter swore by the grilled artichoke and also was favorable to my husband’s selection of the barbeque shrimp. He was right on the nose with the grilled artichoke, which is prepared with oil, salt, pepper and grilled over Firelake’s signature hickory wood grill, giving it this great woodsy flavor. My portion came with one and a half artichokes, so it can definitely be shared between two people, though you might not want to share once you taste it. It was accompanied by a creamy side sauce, which was thick and tasted of celery seed and cucumber, but took away from rather than enhanced the artichoke. I’d recommend skipping the sauce and just eating the artichokes as prepared – they are delicious in their simplicity.
As for the barbeque shrimp, they were smoky and tangy and definitely left us wanting more. The portion size is small in comparison to the grilled artichoke, with four shrimp on the plate. Again, the accompanying coleslaw was fine, but forgettable and really not necessary for the dish.
The appetizers set a solid tone for the meal and gave us great hope that we would have a very enjoyable dining experience. However, the main course felt very flat and gave us some insight into why the restaurant was nearly vacant. Not more than six or so tables had diners, and the one party at the bar left right after the game they were watching ended.
My husband ordered the island rib eye, which was marinated in pineapple and cranberry juices before being grilled over the signature hickory wood. It had a lot of flavor, but the initially pleasant sweetness, became a bit cloying after a while. It was accompanied by a loaded baked potato that was just like you’d make at home if you were indulging in comfort food, with butter, sour cream, cheese, chives and bacon. The meal could have used a green or simple vegetable to cut the heaviness of the rib eye and potato. My husband was fine with his dinner, but wasn’t over the moon about it.
I had the Thai steak and noodle salad, which sounded delicious when I read the description and received a strong recommendation from the server. However, the reality was, to put it mildly, a serious letdown. For starters, the salad, which appeared as a giant mound on my plate, looked like it came from a big Costco bag to which a few items were added – an impression that was reinforced when I saw other diners’ salads come out. I had to hunt and seek for the steak – the supposed star of the dish – while being overwhelmed with peanuts that had been added a bit too liberally. Once I found it, I could only eat a few bites of the steak which had been marinated in soy sauce and was, to my taste, overly sweet, especially when combined with mango and the honey lime vinaigrette. In addition, the steak was undercooked from the requested medium and was cold with solidified fat on it. Overall, it felt like I was eating a generic, mass produced salad from a cafeteria. I left most of it on the plate.
Adding to the cafeteria feel, Firelake unfortunately appears to have kept Ruby Tuesdays’ dinnerware. The clunky, beige plates, in particular, make the food look cheap and are discordant with the “upper casual dining experience” the restaurant wants to give diners. And it does a disservice to the food. My husband’s rib eye plopped on a cafeteria plate with a large potato didn’t look as appetizing as it actually was, though sadly no dinnerware could have saved my salad.
The music also needs an update. While I may enjoy late 80s/early 90s rock, not every diner wants to eat to a soundtrack of Bon Jovi and the Stone Temple Pilots. The music selection was also strange when contrasted with the live jazz offered later in the evening, which featured a duo playing old standards like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Cheek to Cheek”. However, the live jazz, which begins around 7:00 p.m., is a nice touch – it creates a cozy casualness without being obtrusive.
Dessert helped our meal recover a bit. All the desserts are made in house, which is a strong plus. The brownie and apple walnut cobbler, both served à la mode, were good, but not great. (The brownie sundae at Clyde’s is far superior.) Unfortunately, any brownie points – pardon the pun – the dessert might have earned the meal were marred by a rather strange fish smell, reminiscent of cat food, that wafted across the dining room as we finished eating.
Not ones to give up on a local restaurant, my husband and I adjourned to the bar after our meal hoping to find something redeemable about Firelake Grill. And it turns out the bar is the restaurant’s saving grace.
Situated in the middle of the restaurant, the space is bright and warm and set up to encourage conversation with a U-shaped bar, a long, high-top table that could easily accommodate 10 people and a handful of four-person high-top tables rounding out the area. Four small, flat screen televisions are hung unobtrusively, while still giving patrons the opportunity to enjoy the sporting event du jour. There are only three beers on tap, but they are good ones, and the bar is fully stocked otherwise. The bartender, much like the hostess and our waiter, was very genial. Combined with the live jazz duo, the bar felt fun and light, in contrast with our meal.
Overall, I’d meet a friend at Firelake Grill for a drink if I were going to the Greenberg Theatre next door, and maybe enjoy an appetizer. But based on the meal we had, I won’t be returning for dinner any time soon.
Firelake needs to focus on presentation and the quality of its food. The appetizers we had are an indication of the potential, but sadly the rest of the meal just didn’t live up to expectations or frankly the menu prices. According to its website, Firelake Grill plans to introduce a new menu on February 28, so perhaps some much needed changes are already in the works.
While working on the food, the restaurant should play up its open, bright bar area that has the potential to become a nice gathering place for locals. Unfortunately, despite the bartender’s best efforts to be diplomatic, reading between the lines Firelake Grill is fairly empty most nights.
If Firelake Grill’s Facebook page is any indication, they appear to be making an effort to draw in American University students, including with drink specials. I’d encourage them to reach out to others in the Tenleytown community, as well. Because with the business they are doing right now, it’s only a matter of time before they go the way of the dodo.
Firelake Grill is located at 4200 Wisconsin Avenue, NW. The full menu and list of special events are available on its website.
Disagree with this review of Firelake Grill? Have your own experience to share? Let me know in the comments section.