Sunday, March 26, 2006

Columbus Restaurant Review: Amazon Grill Steak House

May 2008 Update: The Amazon Grill is dead, or at least in a coma ... their website seems to indicate they may reopen, but their phones are disconnected.

This evening, Gary and I tried out a new Brazilian-style steak house that opened near our house recently. It's called the Amazon Grill, and it's located at 245 E. Campus View Boulevard.

It occupies a niche between casual and upscale, serve-yourself buffet and full-service restaurant. Nobody will look twice if you wear sneakers, but it's nice enough to take a first date.

There is no menu -- when you arrive, the hostess will hand you a card; one side indicates that you'd like more food, and the other side indicates that you're full. Keep this on the table to let the wandering cowboy-attired meat runners whether or not your plate needs refilling.

Yes, I just said "meat runner". The cooks grill up a variety of meats -- strip steak, pork ribs, lamb, beef kabobs, chicken, turkey, and chorizo sausage -- on steel spits around an open fire. When a spit of meat is cooked, one of the runners will take a spit and carry it around the room, asking patrons if they'd like to sample what they've got.

So, while a vegetarian can likely get a meal out of the small but well-stocked salad bar, this restaurant definitely caters to carnivores who aren't worried about keeping kosher -- the tasty smoked turkey I had came wrapped in bacon. All the meats I tried were tender and well-seasoned. I didn't sample much of what they had at the salad bar, but at each end they had warmers for hot foods such as meatballs, seasoned rice, fried squid, and fried bananas.

The restaurant is all-you-care-to-eat, and the quality of the food is higher than that of your standard buffet restaurant in Columbus. This is reflected in the price -- dinners, not including drinks, are $22 per person. Expect to spend about $30 per person for dinner, less for lunch, and more if you're having alcohol.

Also, try to sit out in the main dining room -- you're more likely to be seen by the runners than if you sit in the booths off to the side. Gary and I were overlooked for a little while, but once the runners realized we were there, we had plenty of service.

The only letdown was dessert. The flan seemed very average, but cost twice as much as the somewhat-better flan one can get at the little Mexican place on the other side of the shopping center (El Acapulco at 7475 Vantage Drive).

The Amazon Grill is open 7 days a week. Lunch is served 11 am- 2:30 pm Monday through Saturday, and Sunday brunch runs from 10:30 am through 3:00 pm. Dinner is served from 4:30 pm until 9:30 pm (10:30 pm on Friday and Saturday nights).

For those who are more interested in drinking than eating, they do feature a bar that's separate from the dining room. Happy hour runs 3-6 pm every weekday.

Update: Someone pointed me to the universally-negative reviews of this restaurant on AOL CityGuide; it sounds like the restaurant staff didn't have their act together the first couple of weeks after they opened.

The restaurant was maybe 25% full when we arrived late in the evening (close to closing time is usually when buffet food takes a serious downturn). There were plenty of clean plates, and the waitstaff seemed attentive -- we didn't have any more of a plate pileup than I'd expect at a restaurant of this sort. The food was appropriately cooked and seemed on par with what you'd get at midrange steakhouses.

It did take a while for the main-course meat to make the rounds -- this, to me, didn't cause a problem because we were there to chat and weren't concerned about how long we'd be there.

As to it not being authentic Brazilian food -- yes, they likely have a point. Speaking as a person who grew up in Texas, none of the Mexican restaurants I've tried in Columbus have seemed authentic, either; I have yet to find a tamale that I've liked. In general, though, ethnic authenticity is not a big deal to me -- my main interest is, does the food taste good? Last night, it was a "yes". I can't say how the service/food would be if the place was in the weeds, but in retrospect it did seem to me that they were trying to address the criticisms leveled at them in the CityGuide comments.

As always, your mileage may vary. The one night I went to Asian Cuisine, the restaurant was packed to the rafters and my dinner was undercooked and underwhelming, but obviously others have had a far better dining experience because the restaurant is well-respected.

So, it's possible that we hit Amazon Grill on an unusually good night, or they're turning things around. However, it's impossible to know whether this restaurant will continue to improve and survive, or if it will go under as so many restaurants do in this competitive city.