The Goods on Aventura's Grill on the Alley

Between frenzied flings with wasabi foam, foie gras ice cream, and other frivolous foods, diners regularly return to the safe and steady steak house. They do so for the sidecar martinis, shrimp cocktail, and oysters on the half-shell; for gargantuan steaks, Buick-size baked potatoes, and wodgy wedges of iceberg lettuce glopped with blue cheese dressing; for mile-high cheesecake and key lime pie — at a tab of $$$$$. So consistent, so reliable, so comforting in its predictability. No frills, ills, or unexpected thrills. The Grill on the Alley is all of the above.

Grill Concepts, which operates six other Grill on the Alley-branded establishments outside Florida, might take exception to the "steak house" designation; its aim is clearly to re-create the classic grills of cities such as New York and San Francisco. To this end, the spacious indoor/outdoor 250-seater, located across from The Cheesecake Factory in Aventura Mall, is a stylized, chrome-accented take on the streamlined deco look of yesteryear. As guests enter the restaurant, they walk through a lounge area with illuminated glass-tile pillars rising above a long horseshoe bar. The two main dining rooms are likewise supper-club-suave: dark coffee banquettes and white linen-draped tables set upon polished mahogany floors, a Palm Steakhouse-like panoply of framed photos and sketches scattered on the wainscoted walls. All that's missing is cigar smoke.

The menu, executed by executive chef Arnold Dion, also pays homage to the traditional American grill: "Finest in Prime Steaks, Chops, and Fresh Seafood... Since 1984" (the year the original Alley first rallied Beverly Hills A-listers; it remains a draw for Hollywood power players). Yet the Grill's bill of fare is pretty similar to that of a steak house — with the addition of meat loaf, braised short ribs, and chicken potpie. The last comes with a flaky crust covering a low, wide-rimmed soup bowl brimming with carrots, mushrooms, peas, and moist morsels of chicken in a milky, milquetoasty cream sauce.


The Grill on the Alley

19501 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura; 305-466-7195. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 4 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 4 to 10 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

A sharp, courteous, and well-trained service staff gets a basket of hearty sourdough bread to the table pronto, along with butter and a side dish of marinated peppers and onions. Lest readers think steak houses have no potential for surprise: A little jagged piece of dark gray glass (or pottery or whatever) was discovered in our steak tartare when a guest at the table took a luckily bloodless bite. We informed the waiter, who immediately apologized and took the tartare away for replacement. An equally contrite manager came by shortly after we were brought another serving — not as sharply flavored as the first, but pleasing via minced onion, capers, and mild anchovy-mustard notes; toasted rye points come on the side. The situation was handled reasonably well, although I was surprised the tartare wasn't removed from our bill.

The Grill's USDA Prime steaks are corn-fed, dry-aged for 28 days, hand-cut, and char-broiled. Offerings include a 16-ounce New York steak, either regular or with cracked pepper, bacon, and onion (each $41.75); an eight- or 12-ounce filet mignon with bordelaise sauce ($33.95/$39.50); and a delectable 16-ounce rib eye ($36.95) with a darkly charred, thickly seasoned crust and a warm, juicy red center. Diners get to choose one vegetable from prosaic sides such as steamed broccoli or carrots; grilled asparagus; sautéed green beans, mushrooms, or zucchini; and spinach steamed, sautéed with garlic, or creamed in decent if unremarkable fashion. Potatoes come mashed, baked, shoestringed, Lyonnaised, and hash-browned — the last a flat, lackluster rendition.

Double-cut chops of either lamb or Kurobuta pork complete the carnivore's choices, although at lunch a skirt steak is offered for $21.75; it would be consumer-friendly to provide diners at dinner the same lower-end steak option. And why not place the $9.95 lunchtime Angus hamburger (hand-formed, zestfully seasoned, and served with fries or coarsely chopped coleslaw) on the night menu alongside the American Kobe burger with black-and-white truffle mayonnaise ($19.95)? Or a second pasta pick to go with shrimp and angel hair pomodoro ($23.95)?

Memo to Grill Concepts (and all the other new restaurateurs barreling down the pike): We're in a recession.

A pristine piece of pan-seared mahi-mahi amandine didn't come "crusted" as advertised, but more sensibly dappled with a slight scattering of sliced toasted almonds. "Lemon butter sauce" was possibly broken, or else the description is just a poetic means of saying "melted butter with a squeeze of citrus;" either way, it was a fitting foil for the exquisite fish. A buttery blend of spinach and mashed potatoes on the side makes this a fully gratifying meal.

The only other seafood selections are Scottish salmon (cedar-planked with barbecue-citrus glaze or char-broiled with salsa fresca); pan-fried Dover sole that gets sauced, like the mahi, with lemon butter; and crab cakes, also in lemon butter (but labeled "beurre blanc," presumably for the sake of seeming distinctive from the rest). Fish prices hover around $28, excepting the $42.50 Dover.

The Grill's global wine list comprises some 125 bottles, with plenty of choices for $40 and under. The nationally compiled menu is being regionalized, which for Miami's branch will mean more South American labels. On hand is a nice range of bottled and draught beers.

Sweetly frosted six-layer carrot cake came lusciously scented with cinnamon and studded with pecans, but its size and heft make it more suitable for two to share. We also relished a hot cobbler du jour of apples and peaches capped with brown-sugared walnuts, which only got better as a scoop of vanilla ice cream melted into it. Cheesecake, key lime pie, and the remaining desserts are steak-house formulaic — or shall I say grill formulaic? Whatever. Sometimes a restaurant, be it steak house or grill, is only a restaurant. And sometimes that's all we want.

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