Eating dessert first seems like breaking the rules — most people order savory foods before sweets. But at the Hermitage Grill in Lakeside, it's a good idea to sweep familiar routines to the side. I suggest you begin with dessert.
Molten pumpkin lava cake ($5) is a strategic start. Springy cake peppered with pecans is happily overwhelmed with maple butter cream. Amaretto pumpkin crème brûlée ($5.50) and huge slices of red velvet cake richly slathered with icing make other items on the menu mere fleeting thoughts. Just a little too large for one person, each dessert boasts a homemade pedigree that brings to mind a cozy feeling.
This feeling emanates from all of Hermitage Grill, which was renovated after a fire and reopened last year. The tiny dining room's 10 tables give a view of everything that's happening no matter where you sit. A garish and out-of-place (but right in place) Rx sign hangs above a bar full of regular customers. On a few visits, a couple of these folks forget that there now are no-smoking laws, only to be shooed out good-naturedly by name. Service stays familiar with everyone, known and unknown, and there might be occasional lapses. But then it all comes full circle when a server indulges in a little-too-long conversation with your dinner partner.
If you have tummy space after your sweet fix, stay for a few other menu items. An appetizer of jalapeno-salmon croquettes ($9) has crispy edges and a soft interior enlivened with bits of pepper. Dipping sauce is a zippy tartar with Cajun spices that go perfectly with a cold beer. Fried oysters ($16) are packed onto a plate, crunchy and heavily floured with a spicy mix.
Chicken cordon bleu ($13) gets a good char, and the tender chicken and salty ham both benefit from a dousing of soft white cheese. Pork barbecue ($12.50) is shockingly piquant with vinegar, and the enormous portion is served with a bottle of the homemade thin and tangy sauce. One good sniff will clear out the sinuses for the remainder of the meal.
Sides are made daily and run the spectrum from boring to repeatable. Hand-cut fries are outstanding when cooked fresh, but are limp and overly seasoned on another trip. Squash sauté is desperately soggy and would benefit from extra salt. Jasmine rice is less fragrant than expected but appealing with party colors from parsley and red peppers. Garlic-cheddar mashed potatoes are homey and chunky but overly garlicked and under cheddared. A potato cake is cheesy mash with seared-till-brown edges.
The grill's wine list is as small as the room, with accessible grocery store choices such as Red Guitar tempranillo ($22). Beer by the bottle and mixed drinks seem to be the primary choice of most customers. Sunday brunch is cheap and large; french toast and eggs Benedict ($7.95) come with house potatoes and seasonal fruit.
The entire dining experience at lunch, brunch and dinner is familial and informal. Specials arrive hand-written on paper, and brunch is listed on a white board.
When given the choice, however, between the iceberg wedge salad ($8.50) with thick bacon pieces and roasted cherry tomatoes, and the decadent chocolate Kahlúa crème brûlée ($5.50), take the crunchy sugar-topped chocolate. This is when rules are made to be broken. S
The Hermitage Grill
6010 Hermitage Road
Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Saturday: 5-10 p.m., bar until 11 p.m.
Sunday: 9 a.m.-3 p.m.