Thinking of our cave-dwelling predecessors squatting next to a fire and roasting hunks of animal flesh for their dinner, I’m thankful that this cooking method&emdash;time-consuming and blisteringly hot&emdash;has been refined over the millennia.
Stonegrill & Bar
2110 L St.
However, everything old becomes new again as fashions shift and restless foodies search hungrily for The Next Big Thing. Primitive cuisine appears to be making a comeback. Today, local food aficionados weary of shellfish foam can channel their inner cave persons at midtown’s Stonegrill & Bar.
Here, diners cook hunks of raw meat on a very hot volcanic stone right at the table, taking, as the restaurant’s website says, the concept of dining to new dimensions. While I might argue that it takes diners back a few million years, it certainly sounded like an entertaining way to spend an evening.
With family in tow, I recently visited. What I hadn’t banked on was the intense interest my children would have in our Very Hot Stone. Being thoroughly modern children&emdash;accustomed to neatly sliced sushi rolls, Mr. Pickles’ paper-wrapped ham sandwiches and microwavable macaroni and cheese&emdash;they were thrilled by the idea of cooking their own food at a restaurant. On our first visit, I fought a barrage of lemon slices, mini corndogs and water dribbled from straws as my children, vying for position on the hot stone, desperately sought to channel their own inner cave persons. Aw, Mom, my son whined in frustration, I just want to know what happens when I put my napkin on that stone.
Elbowing them aside, I managed to brown all my pork tenderloin as my husband (across the table, sans children) expertly flipped his lamb lollipops. This is fun, he said, dipping his perfectly cooked, very tender meat in its blue cheese-bacon butter. I sawed into a piece of pork, only to find it was still raw inside. You’re supposed to cook the slices, my husband instructed cheerfully, enjoying his status as the Stonegrill crackerjack chef.
As I waited for my meat to cook, I tucked into the pretty vegetable accompaniment: crispy-sauted and very tasty broccoli florets and sauted red and yellow bell pepper strips. The mashed sweet potatoes, however, tasted pasty and bland. The perky asparagus spears, sauted pearl onions and sweet cherry tomatoes that flanked the lamb lollipops were excellent, though barely warm, while the yellow fingerling potatoes were downright lukewarm. I continued to tend to my meat but was never able to coax it to a temperature (or texture) I found particularly pleasing. I managed to knock the meat slices off the stone (and into my lap) several times while attempting to cut or reposition them. Vexed and out of patience, I decided the stone-grill process was simply too much work&emdash;and too hot to boot. If I’m going to pay $18 for pork tenderloin, I pondered blackly, I would rather have the kitchen cook it properly for me.
As we wrestled with our meats, a moist fog of fishiness engulfed our table. Our neighbors had ordered salmon and scallops, and the searing of raw seafood created an odor that wafted pungently through the room. The fishy aroma, our waitress explained apologetically, is an ongoing problem for the restaurant staff, who has tried humidifiers and other creative methods to clear the smell.
On a subsequent visit, we decided to avoid the stone grill and sample some of the kitchen’s other dishes. I was very impressed with the Cajun jambalaya pasta, tossed with a well-balanced, spicy tomato sauce and featuring vibrant strips of yellow bell pepper, enormous tiger prawns and thinly sliced andouille sausage. The artfully presented lobster Cobb salad was piled high with sweet chunks of lobster meat, crumbled bacon, avocado and hard-boiled eggs, all on a bed of mixed greens that were beautifully fresh and crisp.
For dessert, I thoroughly enjoyed the blush-pink strawberry tiramisu, with its interesting combination of creamy sweet fruit and espresso flavors. The huge crÃ¨me brÃ»le was velvety-smooth and expertly caramelized, and the dessert arrived as it should: with a freshly flamed hot top and a cool custard underneath, an execution that restaurants often botch. I didn’t care much for the overly dry, dense cheesecake, but I liked the dueling chocolate mousse, a puzzlingly liquidy but very flavorful duet of white and dark chocolate mousses layered in a pretty goblet.
While it seems unlikely that our ancestors savored hand-rolled gnocchi or sun-dried tomato bruschetta, I’m confident they mastered the art of searing raw meat on a very hot surface. If I had their skills, I would have enjoyed my stone-grilling experience far more than I did. However, as I looked around the restaurant, I saw lots of smiles. For many diners, stone grilling seems to be a novel and very amusing experience.
Stonegrill & Bar: 2110 L St., Sacramento; (916) 492-2727; stonegrillandbar.com
Hours: Lunch Mondayâ€“Friday 11 a.m.â€“2:30 p.m., dinner Sundayâ€“Thursday 5â€“10 p.m., Fridayâ€“Saturday 5â€“11 p.m.
Prices: Moderate (lunch); moderate to high (dinner)
What makes it different: Where else can you sear a New York steak and jumbo prawns on your very own volcanic stone?
Find a babysitter: The 750-degree stones are not kid-friendly.
Who to bring: Adventurous (and grill-savvy) friends.