I can't help but think of big, brash song standards when I think of City Grill. I can hear Frank Sinatra, fedora hat cocked just so, belting out an upbeat tune. City Grill, which describes itself as a contemporary American restaurant, strikes me as having a Rat-Pack-takes-Vegas sort of style.
The menu is expansive, with foods Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis would have loved: steaks, Caesar salads, oysters on the half shell, plenty of alcohol. The restaurant's interior is dark with dramatic lighting, there's lots of wood and brick, and a massive, wrap-around bar looks out onto East Avenue. Guests are encouraged to "dress to impress" — business casual with a collared shirt for men, and a nice top and jeans for women — and may be turned away if their outfits aren't up to snuff.
In short, there's an over-the-top, cocky sense of fun, elements of showmanship, and the possibility of spending more than you thought you would.
Take the Himalayan salt hibachi appetizer ($18) that comes with its own warning: "Caution: salt brick is 600° and will cause severe burns." How could I resist? There is a choice of four ounces of raw salmon, yellow tail tuna, or New York strip loin, paired with raw seasonal vegetables, neatly arranged on a rectangular plate. Alongside that comes a larger, oblong platter holding the severe-burn-inducing salt brick, stabilized with a bed of kosher salt. Dip the protein and vegetables in its accompanying extra virgin olive oil, then cook on the hot salt block, which snaps and sizzles in response.
It's so showy and entertaining — ordering this set off a chain reaction in the dining room. Other diners begin to stare at my table, flag down their servers, and order one or two of their own. It tastes pretty good too, but once you've got a culinary floorshow in your hands, flavor starts to take a back seat. Plus, should you over-cook your food, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Maybe even more eye-catching than the salt hibachi is the Las Vegas Birthday Dessert ($13; despite the name, it does not involve a stripper). This is City Grill's standard sundae, made with Pittsford Dairy vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, candied walnuts, and whipped cream — all on steroids. The sundae comes with a wide and thick chocolate chip cookie that, along with the sundae, is served in a two-foot-tall martini glass. It was so unexpected — the menu doesn't reveal its size — that, like tourists from Sheboygan, my husband and I whipped out our phones to take pictures (view one at bit.ly/LVsundae). As with the salt hibachi, we saw other tables begin to order this dessert, too.
Other recommended dishes include the South Wedge salad ($6 lunch; $9 dinner) — a traditional iceberg wedge is given heat and extra crunch with the inclusion of smoky and spicy chipotle bacon and corn tortillas. Oysters on the half shell (market price; $3 per oyster on a mid-November visit) were fresh, cold, and tasted of the sea, and the salmon ($15 lunch; $27 dinner) was grilled nicely. The oysters and salmon were especially pleasing, as it's hard to find decent seafood in Upstate New York.
Not everything on the menu is worthy of a lighted marque. The raw beef and vegetables accompanying the Himalayan salt hibachi were presented on the same plate, increasing the appearance, if not the possibility, of cross contamination. Nor was there a separate dish on which to separate the hibachi-cooked food from the raw.
The lunch menu lacks the dinner menu's descriptions, so it's hard to know what to expect from some items, like the Lollipop Wings, the Mason Jar, and the Split Burger. (In case you're wondering, they are fried chicken wings tossed with an Asian-style sauce; pickled vegetables; and a burger cut into four wedges for sharing.)
The Fiery Pasta ($11) was, at best, a sputtering match. Linguine was dressed with an Asiago cream sauce, roasted chicken, habanero salami, and peppers. The portion was large, too, giving plenty of opportunities to wonder how a dish with so many strong elements can be so bland. The sauce didn't reflect the cheese's salty, strong tang. The salami had flavor, but was also rubbery and only slightly spicy.
Dean Martin would probably give me grief for ordering pasta at a grill restaurant. He might also tell me to get a martini, relax, and enjoy myself. It would be good advice. City Grill helps fill a "big night out" niche in the East End.
Now to find a white tiger act...
Find Laura Rebecca Kenyon on Twitter and Instagram @LauraKenyon, and dig through her recipe archive on her personal website, LauraRebeccasKitchen.com.