Flame stands out from the crowd, but not far enough.
That song was constantly floating through my mind when I dined at Flame, the gimmicky restaurant that landed at Rosedale a few months ago. It's not a criticism. I mean, when you're wedged in between a Romano's Macaroni Grill and a Chipotle -- and a neighbor to California Pizza Kitchen, Potbelly and Granite City -- you've got to do something to stand out, right?
Still, I'm trying to imagine the marketing brainstorms that led to the ring of flickering torches that encircle a kitchen hood, or the flame jets that dramatically flare off a grill. ("I'm glad I'm not susceptible to seizures," said a friend of mine, a former nurse. "Because those things would send me straight to the ER.")
Or the over-the-top sparkler that's speared into a piece of cheesecake; seriously, in terms of firepower it very nearly rivals the opening ceremonies at the Summer Olympics. Or the cocktails that percolate like so much straight-from-the-volcano magma. Or the minor blaze over the front door, beaconing diners from the vast parking lot like a Stone Age neon sign. Or the singed-edge menu, made to appear as if it got a little too close to the candle.
There is obvious value
Yeah, the contrivances are a little silly. Not that Hemisphere Restaurant Partners, the company behind Mission American Kitchen, Via Cafe & Bar and Atlas Grill, isn't a shrewd operator. They clearly studied their corporate competition to glean what works, while doing their best to discard what doesn't. There's obvious value here: Portions are generous, and, with few exceptions, prices don't venture above the mid-teens. The roomy setting is unusually handsome. The kitchen's pace seems dead set on getting diners in and out fast, a nod to the nearby cineplex. Maybe too fast, because on half my visits, we had barely sampled our appetizers when our entrees arrived.
If the playing field is its big-box brethren, then yeah, Flame gets it right on many counts. The menu is more tightly focused than, say, Ruby Tuesday or TGI Friday's (no sandwiches or pizzas, for example). The simple food doesn't strain to stand out, yet it often steps above what passes for lunch or dinner across the mall.
I loved the salads, particularly the thick, crisp wedge of iceberg garnished with sweet cherry tomatoes and a robust Thousand Island dressing, as well as a well-composed Caesar, its croutons excellent, its dressing not afraid to lay on the anchovy. Best was a generous toss of field greens blended with sweet roasted corn and juicy chunks of pulled chicken, all splashed in a spirited lime vinaigrette.
A big helping of that rotisserie chicken is also the cornerstone for a value-packed dinner plate (just add a few perfunctory side dishes) and a decent quesadilla topped with fresh guacamole. Chicken chunks, skewered and nicely browned, are paired with creamy rice, another likeable idea. A decent fajita, which produced a head of steam that rivals anything coming out of Old Faithful, was packed with lime- and cilantro-marinated chicken. A hearty bowl of pappardelle was finished with more of that chicken and lots of woodsy crimini mushrooms.
Flavorless tomatoes during tomato season?
A second pasta, blanketed with bacon and basil, would have been better if the restaurant avoided the trap of using cottony, flavorless blobs that Americans have distressingly come to accept as tomatoes, a slight magnified because it took place during our brief tomato season.
With the exception of a burger -- a juicy half-pound monster -- I can't say that I was bowled over by the beef selections. A dry, stringy pot roast needed some serious TLC; ditto the accompanying selection of root vegetables, which all tasted the same. A strip, a rib-eye and a sirloin had interchangeable tastes and textures; that's not good. Thin, pink slices of rare slow-roasted beef veered from impossibly tough to meltingly tender, sometimes on the same plate.
It's not just the beef where I have a beef. The same two or three sauces seem to blanket too many dishes. For all the talk of flames, there isn't much obvious smoky flavor insinuating its way into anything. All I tasted in the gigantic beer-battered onion rings was oil. Mini-burgers were grilled into oblivion. The less said about a mushy, colorless seviche, the better. Had I not been told that I was eating lamb, I never would have guessed it. Oh, and the kitchen needs to adjust its salt-o-meter down. Waaaay down.
It's the old quantity-over-quality argument that routinely drags these shopping mall bruisers down to a lowest-common denominator. Case in point: Flame's requisite flaming dessert, a platter of do-it-yourself s'mores -- amusing, right? -- starts with a stinky and somewhat unruly hunk of blue-flamed Sterno and proceeds to sprint downhill from there. Call me funny, but for $6 I don't think it's unreasonable to expect more than Jet-Puffeds, Honey Maids and what tastes suspiciously like Hershey's chocolate syrup. Come on, if my two left thumbs can make a marshmallow, a professional kitchen surely can.
Flame has got a lot going for it, but when it acts like a heat-and-serve corporate food factory, it loses the best gimmick in its arsenal: that it's a free-spirited, locally owned indie sailing in a sea of by-the-book chains.