CARROLLWOOD — At its acme, GrillSmith had six outposts, now only four: Clearwater (the first location in 2004), Lakeland, New Tampa and Carrollwood. With a tagline "craft by fire," it has held its own among grill-centric contemporary American restaurants like Stonewood Grill, FlameStone Grill and bigger guns like Outback. The concept has just undergone a renovation, logo update and rebranding, a prime opportunity to see how GrillSmith is faring in this competitive sector of the market.
The answer, in a nutshell, is pretty well. There are some eye-rolly things that seem like holdovers from a decade ago. Why must dishes be "fire-grilled" — sometimes even "to perfection" — or "oven roasted"? How else might someone roast? But GrillSmith offers an appealing setting for mid-priced, familiar-but-fashionable dishes with a lot of attention to plate presentations and juxtapositions of color and texture.
The Carrollwood location has a rustic stone-and-wood exterior with a broad patio under an overhang. A central bar offers an inviting hub of activities, and the lighting is just dim enough to create a little mood without requiring anyone to resort to their flashlight app to parse the menu. It feels squarely family-friendly but upscale enough to welcome date-nighters as well. And the menu prices bear this out: only a couple of entrees above $20, plenty of options in the $11.99 range and a whole bunch of snacks and sharables under 10 bucks.
While much of the menu has stayed the course, whoever is responsible for additions, subtractions and tinkers is paying attention to national preoccupations. Burgers ($12.99) arrive peeking out from a nice glossy brioche stabbed through with a bamboo skewer, set down on a sturdy wooden cutting board, fries nestled alongside in a mini metal fryer basket. It's a contemporary and fresh presentation with quality ingredients.
Those wooden cutting boards are employed for a number of the "handhelds" (read: sandwiches) as well as some crowd-pleasers like GrillSmith's version of Bang Bang shrimp, theirs dubbed a straightforward Spicy Thai Shrimp ($9.99 and $5.99 for a smaller version, a nice option). Someday I'll do a story on the dozens of names this dish goes by, but this version has some drama, the Sriracha-mayo-glossed fried shrimp set down on chopped iceberg with a frizzle of curlicued beet and a ramekin of sesame-soy dipping sauce.
While GrillSmith's wheelhouse seems to be straightforward grilled meat and fish dishes with everyday sides (slaw, fries, sauteed spinach, mashed potatoes), there is an attempt to push the envelope with a handful of Asian dishes — a sweet but pleasant pad Thai flatbread, $9.99, and a special-only cashew chicken, $14.99, that isn't going to have Yummy House or China Yuan quaking in their boots but was quite solid — and a section of the menu devoted to "fitness plates" ($11.99 to $16.99). A smaller-portion center-cut sirloin (5 ounces), lettuce-wrapped grilled chicken and a veggie plate anchored by roasted beets and farro are all laudable and competent efforts to get us to make better choices.
That said, I'm guessing many folks opt for the side of jalapeno mac with its gooey mantle of cheese, the textbook indulgence that is the mini blue cheese and bacon wedge salad (a good deal at $3.99 with an entree) or the $5 build-your-own martini happy hour special before finishing it all up with a bananas Foster sundae ($8.99), a dreamy sharable concoction in a waffle bowl, Captain Morgan spiced rum giving the whole thing a sophisticated boozy twist.
In short, GrillSmith has refined its look and adjusted its something-for-everyone approach to take into account current enthusiasms and fetish foods. While GrillSmith bartenders are called barsmiths, servers are just called smiths, something Morrissey might be tickled by. The Carrollwood location smiths are mostly young adults, but many of them have the kind of assurance and familiarity with the menu that signals longtime employment.
Fourteen years is a long run for a small regional chain. GrillSmith has renovated and reimagined elements in such a way that it's easy to hope for 14 more.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.