Some restaurants have, apart from everything else, a likable quality. Diners pull for it and want it do well. On a recent Saturday night, the Grille at Maple Lawn was full, early-evening diners were smiling and there was the hum of general contentment in the air.
All of the basic ingredients are in place. There's a warm, energetic atmosphere, a hospitable staff, and an appealing, accessible menu that easily mixes American and Mediterranean dishes — "Ameriterranean cuisine and beyond," is how the Grille puts it. You can get a filet mignon, if you like, or paella, a house specialty.
The Grille is owned by two married couples. Restaurateurs Rocio and Adolfo Mendez own Cubano's in Silver Spring and Nellie's Sport Bar in Washington. Their friends and business partners are Javier Lecha, an aerospace technician, and Vangie Lecha, an accountant.
There really hasn't been much of a cosmetic overhaul to the sprawling, slightly theatrical interior space from when it was Venegas Prime Filet, the steakhouse that closed last summer. There remains a touch of Vegas glamour here, but the Grille feels warmer than Venegas. And the bar, which occupies a separate space near the restaurant's entrance, appeared to be a destination on its own.
But for all of its likability, which includes the hospitable service at the table, the Grille was having trouble executing its menu. This was so at the basic level, with a few dishes arriving with cold ingredients or others cooked unevenly. These things can be fixed.
A more fundamental problem might be that the Grille's menu isn't quite right for a high-volume restaurant. That's the kind of thing that takes longer to resolve. But the good news is that the Grille is already making adjustments — some restaurants never do. When we dined, the restaurant was no longer offering the grilled, skewered items listed on the menu.
Some things, like an appetizer of salt-and-pepper calamari, felt like they were rushed in preparation. Where, we wondered, was the coarse salt and cracked pepper we expected to find coating the squid's breading? The calamari was over-fried, too, and had a consistency and taste that made you think of used frying oil.
The appetizer list includes two versions of carpaccio, a traditional version made with beef and the other, which we chose, made with beets. This was a pretty appetizer, with the beet slices arranged to resemble a chrysanthemum. But the beets weren't sliced thinly enough for a "carpaccio," the Parmesan was shaved too thickly, and there was scant evidence of the basil chiffonade — think "ribbons" — listed on the menu.
Much better was a shrimp scampi, a simple but very effective dish of shrimp sauteed in a deliciously buttery garlic sauce. This is the kind of dish — it succeeds on quality ingredients but requires relatively little prep time or universal kitchen skills — that the Grille should focus on.
The Grille's paella, a "mixed" version with both meat and seafood, is priced, at $58, for two people but is portioned for three. We wanted the paella to be a dish to remember, but it wasn't. It was more like the versions of paella you find in a restaurant where it's not a specialty: a big serving of saffron-colored rice with a bunch of shrimp, mussels, squid, chicken, chorizo and what-not mixed into it. It just didn't add up, persuasively, to a paella, something that had been concocted just for you, and with that telltale crusting of rice at the bottom of the pan.
An entree of grilled lamb chops served with tamarind sauce was disappointing, too. The lamb chops were cooked unevenly, with pockets of redness, and were underseasoned. The tamarind sauce, described on the menu as "tangy," was too sweet, and the accompanying mashed potatoes were cold.
For dessert we had a thinnish panna cotta, topped with what looked and tasted like frozen strawberries, and a trio of rice puddings, flavored with almond, coconut and chocolate, that tasted like packaged food.
There is an eager audience in and around Maple Lawn. The Spanish restaurant Ranazul has enjoyed a good run in this suburban enclave, but the two previous occupants of the Grille's anchor position in this mixed-use community didn't last so long.
If its team of industry veterans makes some adjustments, the Grille could develop into just the kind of spot that the area has been looking for.
The Grille at Maple Lawn
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 8191 Maple Lawn Blvd., Fulton
Contact: 301-776-7711, thegrilleml.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily
Prices: Appetizers: $4-$12; entrees: $18-$29
Food: American and Mediterranean cuisine
Service: Friendly and concerned
Parking/accessibility: Ample lot parking in the Maple Lawn development
Children: The menu for children has items like spaghetti, chicken tenders and pan-seared salmon.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine throughout the restaurant. There are televisions at the bar with sound turned off.
[Key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]