And it stoned me
Sacramento, CA 95814
Let me just say right up front that I am not a big fan of gimmicks at restaurants. Themes, OK; a restaurant has to pick an approach. But when it veers past “Asian fusion” or “California-French” and into more esoteric territory, you’ve kind of lost me.
Stone-grilling, I fear, is such a gimmick at the eponymous Stonegrill & Bar, the new venture from the owners of Nishiki Sushi and Cornerstone Restaurant. And, while I’m mentioning those, does that grouping strike anyone else as odd? Sushi joint, friendly breakfast greasy spoon, trying-to-be-upscale would-be Midtown hotspot? Maybe that’s why a lot of Stonegrill’s details are just a little bit off, like the cheesy “happy hour” banner out front, the awkward L-shaped space and peculiar décor (think tapestry versions of artworks) or the deeply irritating service.
Things started off unpromisingly while we were still perusing the menu, wedged in at our table just outside the kitchen. That wasn’t an unusually bad table, actually; I peeked around the corner of the L thinking there must be a dining room in there somewhere and there isn’t; it’s all just a narrow hallway. Out front is a big bar and upstairs a lounge, so I think the emphasis must be on the “& Bar” part of the restaurant’s name.
To start with, we were served up a plate of two rolls, some of the worst bread it has ever been my misfortune to encounter in a restaurant. One was topped with baked-on shreds of cheese, the other with onions, and both were baked to a fine, promising glaze. But within they were fluffy yet stale, and weirdly sweet yet surprisingly flavorless. My dad, who came along for the meal, also ordered a glass of iced tea, which was overbrewed, tannic and old-tasting.
For a main course—as well as appetizers—we got, of course, something stone-grilled. There are other options, actually, most with a vaguely global bent. You can order Ecuadorian ceviche, mixed satay, Cajun jambalaya pasta (I must state for the record that I am opposed to the mixing of Cajun and pasta) or sandwiches like a blue cheese bacon burger. But the restaurant is called Stonegrill, and so we got the mixed-meat grill of flat iron steak, pork tenderloin and lamb “lollipops” (little frenched chops), which at lunch serves two. (At dinner it seems to serve one, but the price is the same.) There are more upscale options, from Kobe beef and lobster tail to ahi tuna and a seafood combo, to the slightly halfhearted vegetarian choices (mushrooms, mixed vegetables).
It all comes with soup or salad (or, apparently, potatoes or vegetables; it was at first indicated to us that we could have a starter, as well as sides, but then the server reappeared to clarify that we could only have one). The soup of the day was gazpacho, which the server ramblingly characterized as a little like salsa. I wish it had been more like salsa, because then it might have had some tomato—or other—flavor. Seriously, people, it is August. You can’t make a gazpacho that tastes like tomatoes? It was blended to a pale pink, with a vague oniony flavor, some croutons and a sprinkle of hard-cooked eggs. My dad’s salad, with a light mustardy dressing, was better.
We also got a gauche earful about the stone-grilling concept from our server. In brief, it is this: A highly polished little slab of volcanic rock is heated to 750 degrees Fahrenheit, and the meat you order is placed upon this slab and brought to the table, where you turn, poke and prod said meat until it is done to your liking. This is supposedly more healthful or more delicious or something than just grilling the meat the regular way—something about the properties of the stone, but I had tuned out by then.
Throughout the main course we got a lot of grating instructions on how we could cut the meat in smaller pieces to cook it faster, or put it on top of a lime slice for more flavor (when we didn’t do this but just squeezed the dry old lime over the meat, she stopped by the table to try to make us). And I would guess that we were asked how everything was tasting at least six times. There’s a line between attentive service and just pestering people.
Anyway, the proof of the stone is in the grilling, as they don’t say. If you are expecting the dramatic smoke and sizzle of, say, Korean barbecue, the stone might seem a touch inert. It just sits there all speckled in charcoal gray and white, looking like something you might want to choose for your countertops if you’re remodeling your kitchen, and emitting a quiet hiss should you happen to turn the meat over.
The meat itself, though, was the best thing about the meal. It was tender and juicy, a nice quality meat, and though it’s actually a bit slow to cook on the stone, it did cook nicely. Three sauces came alongside: a savory, yummy herb-paprika; blue cheese and bacon butter that was fine only because those three ingredients hold intrinsic appeal; and a thin, sweet, flavorless “Kansas City” barbecue sauce that would be instantly disavowed by any honest citizen of Kansas City.
The main thing that Stonegrill is doing right, from what I can tell, is sourcing some good red meat. But with an awkward space, an idiosyncratic concept and mixed results from the kitchen, it seems less like the next big concept in dining than a rolling stone that won’t gather much moss.