Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill reminds me of these moments. The latest installment from Firebirds International — which owns and operates three other Firebirds and will open two more by the end of the year — is at Short Pump Town Center, and goes the way of a rustic Colorado ski lodge. With warm décor, an impressive open-air kitchen, plenty of wooden beams and stone walkways, it is easy to forget that just outside the front door lies 1.2 million square feet of Town Center pandemonium. Perhaps this is why it is virtually impossible to get in the door without being quoted a two-and-a-half-hour wait. (Reservations are not accepted).
Firebirds offers a brief respite from the hurriedness of mall life complete with an excessively friendly staff, flashing beeper coasters, a Lone Star Steakhouse meets Chili’s-style menu, baby boomer music in the background and an array of alcoholic concoctions. All that’s missing is a sea of furry Ugg boots.
The menu boasts a good mix of starters including a signature Lobster Spinach Queso dip served with tri-colored tortilla chips ($8.95). Entrees reflect a Southwestern/Rockies flair with an Ancho Chili Strip Steak ($20.95) and a Cilantro Grilled Chicken Breast with Smoked Tomato Jack Cheese ($12.95) as well as an array of half-pound burgers and sandwiches topped with applewood smoked bacon, barbecue sauce and smoked cheddar cheese. Most items are grilled over hardwood flames of hickory and oak, lending a delicious aroma to the restaurant.
The Southwestern Margherita Pizza ($7.95) is not to be missed. A wood-fired, hand-shaped pizza is loaded with smoky tomato marinera, fresh mozzarella, oven-roasted tomatoes and garlic. It almost made me consider getting back on the slopes. The Chicken Tortilla Soup ($4.95) is also quite good. Lightly pureed chicken stock, tomatoes, chiles, and green onions are topped with shredded tortillas, giving it a nice crunch. Either one of the dishes are excellent pairings with Firebirds Private Label Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($7).
The Pecan Crusted Trout ($15.95) offers a good alternative to the many meat-focused dishes on the menu. Served with a cilantro-peach salsa (it was more of a chutney) and a side of tortilla slaw (shredded cabbage, tortilla chips and pumpkin seeds), the fish was fresh tasting but oozing oil onto the plate. Cooking oil at the correct temperature could easily remedy this problem. The slaw, on the other hand, had an excellent crunch and citrus tartness. Elk medallions ($22.95) arrived bathed in a tangy ligonberry sauce and were served with parmesan mashed potatoes. Presentation was nice, but there was one major problem: The medallions were raw. When we summoned the server and asked that it be returned to the grill, in a well-rehearsed manner, we were informed that lean game meats are served medium rare, which as game aficionados, we heartily agreed with. However, as this particular piece of meat was still twitching in the throes of death and more resembled a carpaccio, we though it better to be cooked to — at least — rare. Two minutes later our medallions returned rare, just as we noticed another server at a nearby table apologetically removing the same dish from another diner. I guess there is something to be said for consistency.
An array of desserts, drinks and alcohol-infused coffees are offered to top off your meal. The Mile High Peanut Butter Pie is a true gutbuster and redefines gluttony. Think cream cheese, sugar, cream, peanut butter, cookies and chocolate sauce shaped like a 2-pound pyramid. The Apple Crisp fared a little easier on the stomach with a cinnamony apple-walnut mixture served atop puff pastry. The theory behind these new chain restaurants seems to be that bigger is better — that patrons will overlook an average dish if they get to eat 5 pounds of it. Maybe they are right. The place was packed at 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday.
It is also worth noting that the staff, although friendly, is quite young. Service comes across as heavily trained and calculated, with plenty of ongoing selling from beginning to end, giving the dining experience a bit of a used-car-lot feel. Firebirds’ “goal,” as listed on its Web site, “is to develop restaurant concepts that show sales growth and profitability.”
It’s a formula. Create a vast eating establishment with exceptionally high turnover which retains the warmth and comfort of a bed and breakfast. Add super-friendly hosts, a well-stocked bar, super-size portions at casual dining prices and you’ve got mass appeal.
All of this calculated design may get you in the door, but there is something quite valuable still missing — that irreplaceable comfort one feels when dining in an intimate, family-owned establishment. It’s when the owners proudly offer their personal greetings and run through their specials. It’s about the love of great food. Period. Business is business, but food is love. And I just can’t find the love while waiting around with a beeper in my pocket. S
Kendra Bailey Morris is a professionally trained chef who most recently ran a local cooking school. She taught English at Virginia Commonwealth University for eight years, where she received a master’s degree in creative writing. She is the author of the cookbook “Family Secrets,” and works as a freelance chef and cooking instructor. She visits each restaurant twice and her visits are unannounced and paid for by Style.
Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill ($$) Short Pump Town Center 364-9744 Lunch and dinner Monday-Thursday and Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
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