By Donna Ellis
9:26 AM EDT, April 10, 2012
April 1st (aka April Fool's Day) marked the second anniversary of the grand opening of a strip center eatery that calls itself Smokin' Hot Bar and Grille. Don't let the name fool you, though. Yes, wings, ribs and pit beef are among the most popular items here, according to chef/owner Brett Arnold, but lots of crab cakes are consumed on (and off) premises as well. And too, the steaks get good play, especially on Tuesday, when a 12-ounce New York strip goes for $12.95, and on Wednesday, when the steak is paired with a crab cake for $15.95
But there are more complex menu items from which to choose. Understandable, since Arnold, a Baltimore Culinary School graduate with long experience in the biz, likes to go a little upscale with weekend chef's specials like veal and crab rabe and imperial oysters. Hence the "e" in the title word grille.
The 90-seat restaurant, located in Glenwood in the Inwood Village Center is rather unprepossessing. And while Brett can produce some "gourmet" entrees, he and his co-owner (and wife) Marcy wanted a casual ambience in their two-room space. Hence the word "bar" comes before the word "grille" in the name.
The ample bar area features high-top tables. The main dining room boasts comfortable banquettes along the sides. In both cases the tables are linen free. The color scheme is charcoal, burgundy and dark mustard. Walls are hung with for-sale art, some pen and ink, some pastels, some photographs.
In general, though, the menu is replete with traditional barbecue and pub favorites, along with ample updated items, like Texas egg rolls, crab fries and fried mac and cheese. Soups include black bean. Salads feature entrees and side offerings. Dressings are housemade. So are the nine barbecue sauces you can have with your ribs, or pulled pork, or pit beef. Oh, and the 16 side dishes from which you can choose accompaniments for your entree — they're also created in house.
Four for dinner
We like that desserts are listed on the front page of the menu — peach cobbler, sweet potato cobbler, bread pudding, brownie sundae, Dr. Pepper cake. Definitely some temptations to keep in mind as you're figuring out what else you'd like to order.
Service that Saturday evening was youthful, friendly and efficient. We liked the looks of so many of the appetizers that we opted to share the Smokin' Hot Sampler ($12.95), featuring Texas egg rolls, wings, frito pie, chicken fingers, fried mac and cheese and chili fries. And to get our share of seafood, we also ordered the crab fries ($12.95).
One thing we noticed as our meal progressed is that some of the items coming from the kitchen are quite dark brown and seem to be overcooked. But that wasn't the case, for the most part. Fried mac and cheese, for instance: A dark pyramid of noodles and cheese —brown, yes —but tender and moist, oozy and comforting. Frito pie was actually like a little nacho dip, with fried nacho chips as the base and toppings of homemade chili, cheese sauce and shredded cheddar. Other items in the sampler were well received. Only the wings, though flavorful, were somewhat dry.
The crab fries were an all-American —make that all-Maryland — treat. Crisp, hot, hand cut fries, very generously dolloped with a creamy, "sweet" crab concoction of dip consistency. If you like cheese fries and you like crab dip … .
And then some
Traditional and more adventurous palates shared our table that evening. The former pair opted for a half slab of XXXL St. Louis Ribs ($13.95), and for a two crab-cake platter ($20.95).
Our rib taster is also something of a purist, so ordered his without any sauce, which arguably is the best way to really taste the product. Smokin's ribs come dry-rubbed and slow cooked and you can choose such sauces (on the side, so you can do your own slathering ) as Texas Red, Carolina Sun, BBQ Vinegar, Bloody Mary, Black Jack and, of course, Smokin' hot hot sauce. The purist wasn't disappointed with his "naked" meat, though. The generous half-slab was meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender, albeit a mite salty.
His housemade side dish choices pleased, as well. Barbecue beans were lightly spiced, smoky and tender, and the applesauce was cinnamon-y, and soothing, in short, said he, "what apple sauce should be."
Crab cakes were generous in size and simple in preparation, with, happily, plenty of crab. To coin a phrase, "just what these Maryland favorites should be." In short, a commendable example of why you shouldn't get crab cakes anywhere but in the Free State. Standard sides with this platter included sweet potato fries (hot, crisp, nongreasy) and cole slaw, which featured red and green cabbage and carrot shreds in a creamy dressing. Again, " just what cole slaw should be."
Our "adventurous" diners fared well, too. One ordered sesame crusted tuna ($16.95) from the "Smokin' Hot Entrees" menu section. Generous serving of two pan-seared (for a rare finish) steaks with nutty, lightly crisped sesame seeds top and bottom and a light balsamic vinegar glaze adding moisture and mellowness to the whole.
A side Caesar salad accompanied — impeccably fresh, traditionally topped, with a creamy well-balanced dressing. Maybe a little too much dressing, actually.
She also sampled a crock of French onion soup — chunky onions, rich and beefy stock, homemade croutons, but a tad too much spice, making the result less comforting than expected; and veal Alexandra ($22.95), one of Chef Arnold's specials for the weekend. These tender, moist veal cutlets were wrapped around thin-sliced smoked ham, Swiss cheese and crisp-tender asparagus — which created a tasty and texturally pleasing combination — then drizzled with a mushroom-port wine sauce, adding mellow and earthy elements. Pale yellow, corny (of course), texturally pleasing and comforting polenta was served on the side. As well as crisp side salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and homemade croutons (she eschewed the proffered onions). Dressing, on the side, was a rich three-cheese creamy Italian.
All of our entrees came with a little hunk of corn bread. Most welcome.
Alas for our traditional approach of eating dessert last, instead of first. No room. Next time.
Smokin' Hot Bar and Grille (410-489-6001), 2465 Route 97 (Inwood Village Center), Glenwood. Suburban-casual strip center restaurant focusing on barbecue and pub favorites, with traditional and creative offerings from owner/chef Brett Arnold. Lots of locals are regulars but so, too, are folks from Olney, Brookeville, Ellicott City and elsewhere.
Arnold, a former owner of Heaven Scent Catering in College Park, encourages the use of Smokin' Hot's catering services for home and corporate parties. Visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
All menu items are housemade, with focus on local ingredients whenever possible. Good service, reasonable prices.
Open seven days. Rotating weekly specials. Creative chef's specials offered on weekends. Live music Friday and Saturday evenings. smokinhotbarandgrille.com.