The Stanford Grill achieves a reassuring balance of sophistication and informality.
Part of the Columbia-based Blueridge Restaurant Group, which also has operations in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, this establishment has the clubby-but-not-too-exclusive look down pat — lots of wood; crisp white shirts and black vests for the servers; rows of cozy booths; a long rectangular gas fire casting its refined glow; a suave jazz combo playing nightly in a corner of the bar area. (It’s too bad the noise level can make it hard to appreciate the music in the dining room.)
For all of the hustle-bustle, there’s plenty of attentiveness from an amiable, obviously well-managed staff, which gets food out from the kitchen in a timely manner even when the place is packed, as it was for us on a midweek evening. After we were seated next to the busy front door, a request for something a little farther away was graciously granted, which put us in a much more receptive mood for the rest of the evening.
So did some authoritative cocktails, especially the finely balanced gimlet. If the food turned out to be a little less consistent, the total experience still made for a pleasant night out.
Evaluating the kitchen by its roast chicken seemed appropriate, since Stanford Grill lists its version as a specialty and keeps whole chickens spinning in full view on a wood-fired rotisserie. The plentiful portion that arrived had skin short on crispness, meat short on flavor. Fresh green beans gave the plate a visual lift, but that was all. The accompanying mound of redskin mashed potatoes likewise disappointed, the texture thick, the flavor unremarkable.
A lean, strip steak sensitively seasoned with burgundy satisfied, without quite standing out. But it went well with a California cabernet from 75 Wine Co., one of several imaginative reds on the wine list (enticing if you don’t mind $15 a glass, a price point I wish the restaurant world had never reached). The mashed potatoes that came with this entree were said to be cognac-infused; I had to take that on faith.
No disappointments, though, with the Danish barbecue back ribs. The meat lived up to its billing as “fall-off-the-bone tender” and benefited from a sweet-with-oomph seasoning. The go-withs were perfect — hot, thin, grease-free fries; a coleslaw of exceptional freshness and subtle tang.
As for first and last courses, pleasures included the snappy fiesta egg rolls, an appetizer filled with chicken, corn, black beans, cheeses and more; crispy wonton slices made a fun side.
Speaking of crispy, I wish that had been the consistency of the coating on the otherwise enjoyable coconut shrimp. Fried calamari is a standard done so well in so many places that the soggy treatment here came as a surprise. The squid itself, though, tasted very fresh and tender. (That we were expected to keep our appetizer-used forks and knives for the entree course struck a declasse note.)
At dessert time, our chocoholic-heavy party could not resist ordering the “chocolate uprising,” but we also couldn’t resist requesting a substitute after a taste of this bland caloric tower of tough brownies, vanilla ice cream, nuts and a glob of whipped cream the size of a baseball (and nearly as dense). Our server soon had a replacement on the table in the form of a warm, exquisitely spiced and textured bread pudding.
It had major competition, though, from the Key Lime pie, which, except for another glob of that curiously thickset whipped cream, easily passed muster with the native Floridian at the table. This was the real deal — tell-tale pale yellow color, perfect custard consistency, unmistakable piquancy of authentic key limes, and heavenly graham cracker crust. Can’t get a better meal-closer than that.
Tucked away in one of those nondescript office building/lodging/parking lot mazes that dot Columbia, the Stanford Grill could be mistaken for many another suburban restaurant, in look, vibe and menu. But it exudes such a welcoming personality that diners looking for traditional American grill fare should find it a worthwhile choice.
8900 Stanford Boulevard, Columbia
The vibe: The handsome, wood-accented space bustles with conversation, live jazz and a very genial staff.
You’ll fit in wearing: Casual attire
Don’t miss: The Key Lime pie
Best for kids: A varying children's menu may include chicken tenders, grilled cheese or kids' portions of rotisserie chicken.
Handicap accessible: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $6-$15; entrees, $16-$37.