Kramer says to Jerry and Elaine, "It's a pizza place where you make your own pie! We give you the dough, the sauce, the cheese ... you pound it, slap it, you flip it up into the air ... you put your toppings on and you slide it into the oven! Sounds good, huh?"
And every Seinfeld viewer in the land thinks, "Remind me why I'm going out for dinner again? If I wanted to make the pizza, I'd stay home."
Still, experiential dining is huge. There are reasons for this. At a conference some years back, ex-Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl talked about how Americans used to go out on date night when it was dinner and a show, or dinner and a movie. Now we eat out all the time and we often ditch the theater (Who has time? And it's so expensive!) Dinner is the show. It's the evening's entertainment. Think of the shrimp-in-the-hat razzle-dazzle of a Japanese hibachi place, the romantic swirling of fondue at the Melting Pot, or really even the point-and-choose customizability of Chipotle. We don't mind participating a little as long as we're not doing any dishes and there's not too much heavy lifting.
Enter Australian rock cooking. Often it is some kind of lava rock, heated in the kitchen to more than 750 degrees, then whisked into the dining room (the blistering hot rock inset in a tray for safety) with some kind of protein sizzling mightily atop it.
The advertised boon for diners is that every bite is as hot as the first. The unadvertised boon for the restaurant is that it reduces kitchen costs if diners are doing a fair bit of their own cooking. After two visits to Carrollwood's new Black Rock Bar & Grill, the reality is this: It's anxiety-producing to be monitoring the cooking of your own food all evening (and despite the restaurant's protestations, it is possible to overcook your steak or seafood by leaving it on too long). And because of all the sizzling in the dining room it gets unreasonably smoky and your clothes smell.
Others apparently don't agree with me, because it was packed on both of my visits (no reservations, but call ahead to get on the waiting list and you get a buzzer upon arrival). The small chain was started in Hartland, Mich., a suburb northwest of Detroit, by Lonny Morganroth in 2010. There are now four locations in Michigan (three more on the way) and two in Florida (with a Brandon location opening soon).
With a big bar outfitted with televisions, the Carrollwood location is casual enough for watching the game, but with sufficient upscale glamor in the dining room for date night. (It is utterly unrecognizable as the old Mimi's outpost it once was.) It has a decent craft cocktail list, with an interesting fig margarita ($9) and smoked old fashioned ($11), and a decent craft beer list with national and local offerings.
Now on to the sizzling. Bubbling shrimp on a stone ($10.99) seems to be a hit, but the crustaceans literally come in a tureen of Cajun butter. I'm going to say more than five tablespoons, which people seem to sop up with garlic bread. This "nothing succeeds like excess" vibe continues with soft pretzels paired with nacho cheese fondue kept heated by the stone ($9.99) and a spinach artichoke dip with pita chips ($9.99) that also comes on the lava rock with a big divot in it to hold the goo. None of these three dishes was marred by being kept so hot, but I didn't really see the point.
For the steaks (I had a ribeye, $31.99, and a filet, $27.99), there was more wiggle room to wreck your dinner. Steak bites can be sliced off and rested against the sizzling stone to cook to your taste. But you've got to stay focused. Conversation gets too good and you're looking at some well-done bites.
There were plenty of laudable dishes at Black Rock: a nice grilled romaine wedge-style salad ($11.99, but they should be more sparing with the blue cheese dressing), a salt-crusted baked potato with the perfect crunchy exterior and fluffy insides, expertly grilled asparagus (the potato and asparagus are among the long list of included sides from which you choose), and the compound butter that accompanies the steaks is a pleasant lily-gilder. (The horseradish option seemed straight-up jarred, but mixed with the compound butter it added a bit of drama.)
If Black Rock can work out the ventilation issues, especially in the side room, it's not a bad addition to Tampa Bay's "experiential dining" options. But for my money, if I'm in the mood to cook a steak, I'll do it in my own back yard.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.