At Mr. Steak's Firegrill, the Omnivest Corporation's first attempt at an upscale, hipper version of its Mr. Steak chain, the difference between the good dishes and the bad is as obvious as the night-and-day light show played out on the restaurant's ceiling. The cooks are clearly working hard; you can watch them in the exposition kitchen that features one of those happening oak grills everyone wants to have these days. They move quickly and purposefully, and there seems to be real organization between the kitchen and the waitstaff. This, along with the recipes and the restaurant's concept, can be attributed to Jack Leone, who gave us Cafe Giovanni and Al Fresco and who reportedly is working on propagating more Mr. Steak's Firegrills. Still, the prototypical Firegrill isn't overly slick (although some of the food is). In a matter of minutes, 18,000 fiber optics overhead change the setting from sunrise to sunset to star-filled slumber time. The grill's oak scent (toned down since the opening two months ago) lends an authentic outdoor air to the otherwise nonsmoking section. So does the Hollywood Western decor--lots of looming lumber and gas fires enclosed in glass wall sconces. (The nine tables in the smoking section by the bar, on the other hand, face closed-captioned television in an area with the ambience of, well, a bar.) Even the bathrooms are in on the action: You can hear a gunfight, a train, howling coyotes or chirping crickets, just like real cowboys did when nature called. Fortunately, the Western malarkey stops short of overbearing. The waitstaff is not required to sidle up to the table and drawl, "Howdy, pardner" or any such inanity. Instead they are friendly and helpful. When I wanted to try the Fire chili ($2.95) but already had ordered so many things that I didn't need a whole bowl, the waiter obligingly procured a small dish--no charge. I would have gladly paid for the sample, though; this green chili is among the best I've found in Denver. The tomato-based liquid was studded with bits of jalapeo, onions and red pepper and fired up by two key components: tons of black pepper (popular with the Firegrill cooks) and copious amounts of cumin.
The chile was a perfect accompaniment for another great item: the Fire fries ($3.95 as appetizer with cheddar cheese and chile for dipping, $1.50 alone). The skin-on fries seemed to have been deep-fried, then coated with a paprika-charged seasoning salt before a quick toss into the oven. This process left the potatoes low on grease and high on flavor, with a crisp outer crust surrounding a moist center. The fries are one of six "perfect potatoes" choices offered with entrees at lunch and dinner; the generous sandwiches automatically come with a large portion, making lunch at the Firegrill a hearty meal for a good price. I could barely finish the wood-roasted, sliced-steak sandwich ($5.95): hunks of medium-rare (speak up if you want it cooked differently) sirloin covered with slices of roasted red and green peppers that had been coated with jalapeno-spiked Monterey Jack, served on hefty black-pepper-and-onion bread--open-faced, unfortunately, giving the cheese time to cool and gum up. Otherwise, the sandwich was great: The meat was choice, the roasted peppers packed a flavor punch and the oniony bread was perfect for soaking up the juices.
Our lunch entree was supposed to come with the same bread, but we didn't realize it was missing until we were too full to care. The half-chicken ($6.95) was another wonderful dish--marinated in herb- and spice-infused olive oil, then fired up on the rotisserie until, as the menu described it, "tender, juicy and crisp." No kidding. I could have thrown all health warnings out the window and dined on a huge pile of the skin alone. On the side came a skewer of roasted vegetables: a big, fat mushroom and pieces of onion, red pepper, summer squash and zucchini, all quite overbasted with olive oil. Grease was the word for the other side, awful cheddar-cheese scalloped potatoes. The cheddar was a greasy, greasy blanket laid over layers of soft potato slices that had been mixed with some type of processed cheese food. We threw the blanket to the side and worked at the rest of it, but the greasiness (caused by a breakdown of the emulsifiers used to keep cheap cheese from going bad) permeated the whole crock. The salads we sampled at dinner were also dripping in goo. There was so much bland Red Pepper Ranch on the house mix of field greens and leaf lettuce that it should have been called salad soup. And the Caesar ($1.95 with a meal, $4.25 alone) made me want to scream. Each piece of romaine had been chopped to the size of a handkerchief and was coated, nay, slathered with a goop that tasted like cream cheese watered down with mayonnaise. I don't care if they're made in front of me or in the kitchen, but if these pseudo-Caesars are going to keep cropping up, I'd like to be warned on the menu. Firegrill partially redeemed itself with the campfire steak soup ($2.95). Although these concoctions often taste like the sauce on pepper steak, this version had a fresh flavor and was jam-packed with big blocks of sirloin that didn't seem to be yesterday's leftovers. An assortment of vegetables--roasted carrots, corn, onions, cannellini, red potatoes, celery, red peppers and tomatoes--gave the whole thing glorious gusto. And although the heavy hand on the black-pepper grinder had struck again, it was to good effect.
The winning streak continued through our appetizers. The way-too-addictive Tumbleweed onions ($3.95) arrived as a monstrous pile of stringy, spicy sweet onions deep-fried to a golden brown. Just as hard to resist were the Red River shrimp ($5.95), truly fresh crustaceans made crustier when breaded in jalapeno flour and deep-fried. What should be a steakhouse's prime offering was certainly that at the Firegrill. The eight-ounce sirloin ($8.95) and the $14.95 half-pound filet mignon (hey, isn't that eight ounces, too?) were excellent and cooked to the requested temperatures--the Firegrill has seven degrees of doneness--on the grill. If you ask me, this oak thing is a bunch of hooey; had they been cooked over old newspapers, our steaks would have tasted as good. Alas, not-so-good things again appeared on the side. Those unctuous skewered vegetables from lunch were back, and a steak topping, purportedly of roasted garlic and herb butter (75 cents), resembled nothing so much as engine lubricant. The huge baked potato was stuffed with a gooey glop of cheese and green peppers; the Firegrill potato pancake was a saucer-size, oily, green-pepper-filled mashed potato slab on which someone had dropped two small shreds of cheddar.
The Fire flan ($2.95) was one of the worst desserts I've encountered: We're talking vanilla pudding with a layer of blow-torched brown sugar and more engine lubricant that had cooled into a deadly oil slick. The warm chocolate pudding cake ($3.50) was a delight if you added chocolate ice cream to all bites and stayed in the yummy pudding center; the outer two inches of the cake were a desert-dry no-man's-land. The best bet is the apple pan dowdy ($2.95), a homey concoction that comes with everything but your grandmother: Granny Smith apples cooked nearly to liquidation, a wet Brown Betty-like crumble of cinnamon, brown sugar and breadcrumbs, squishy raisins and vanilla ice cream studded with vanilla bean seeds.
It was the best of foods, it was the worst of foods. At this point, I'd settle for a happy medium.