I wasn't paying attention. It opened in a strip mall inAugust 2008. There was some buzz, a little hubbub. But two weeks ago when I went to eat at Grille 54 for the first time, my jaw ka-thunked against my strappy sandals. This place is a scene. The hostess said, "Do you have reservations?" Um, no? She led us past a thronged bar, through an absolutely packed dining room and out to a less-crammed, but plenty busy covered patio. The music was loud, bargoers were duded up date-night fancy and servers seemed on the verge of breaking a sweat.
It's not Tampa's MacDinton's/South Howard level of mayhem, but it's no small feat to get so many folks in southwest Pasco out on a Saturday night. And what's the draw? Sushi. Oh, and steaks. And Italian food. There's also seafood, raw bar items and a lot of dishes from the wood grill. It's a menu with a more-is-more aesthetic.
This is risky behavior. Few kitchens can handle such a vast menu, especially across several cuisines. By and large, though, Grille 54 pulls things off. Sushi can be sloppily made and too reliant on cream cheese and mayo sauces, but there are plenty of specialty rolls that make nice foils for the bar's many sillitinis (I was too embarrassed to order an Ecstacini, but the Long Island Mini Skirt brought a tasty gin-tequila roundhouse). A tempura shrimp Mexican roll ($5.75) and a crunchy crab roll ($11.95) both made for balanced, plush pairings, the latter with sweet snow crab meat, avocado and little crunchy bits.
We tried to sample from all parts of the menu, making for meals every bit as schizophrenic as those we saw at other tables. A bowl of straightforward edamame ($3.75) and a fairly lackluster miso soup ($3.95) - nothing strange about that, but then add in a gooey-cheesy spinach bread ($2.25) and a workhorse Caesar salad ($2.50) and it starts seeming a little devil-may-care.
One person feels in the mood for spaghetti and meatballs ($9.95), which comes in Jacuzzi-sized crockery, and this gets another person reading through the Italian entrees until the Chicken 54 ($13.75) catches her eye. Two grilled chicken breasts are topped with spinach, tomato and molten mozzarella, then nestled in a little cream sauce adjacent to a big swirl of linguini. A very generous dish, easily sharable, agreeably executed.
The grill station needs to pay closer attention to temperatures, though. One night's 6-ounce filet mignon and grilled grouper with ponzu sauce (each $19.95) were both overcooked, the latter with a leathery hardness at the edges that rendered it nigh grouper jerky. It's a volume situation, servers and kitchen staff working hard to meet demand, but medium-rare means medium-rare.
Desserts reflect a couple of big national trends: Mini sweets are offered for $2.50 a piece, a scant commitment financially or calorically, or in a neat metal wire tabletop stand that cradles a half dozen for $12, an entertaining table-wide game of Spoon Twister as everyone reaches to nab a little cheesecake, red velvet or Italian rum cake. It's a nice idea, very in keeping with Grille 54's overarching focus on fun.
The restaurant threw itself a one-year birthday party on Aug. 26, with live music and a big tent. Even without the birthday hoopla, it's nice to see a newcomer that breezily maintains its cachet in these tricky times.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.
10900 State Road 54, No. 105, Trinity; (727) 376-0254 or grille54.com
Cuisine: Italian, steak and sushi
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
Details: Amex, V, MC; reservations accepted; full bar
Prices: Appetizers $2.25 to $9.75; entrees $6.95 to $19.95; desserts $2.50 to $12
Rating out of four stars: Food: ** Service: ** Atmosphere: *** Overall: ** 1/2
Review key: **** Extraordinary *** Excellent ** Good * Fair
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