Carla Meyer

Dining review: After a wobbly start, Sacramento’s Iron Grill has found its legs

The rib-eye steak special, with blue cheese and topped with battered shallots, is a winner.
The rib-eye steak special, with blue cheese and topped with battered shallots, is a winner. Bee staff

Since it opened five years ago with the enlightened notion of being an affordable neighborhood steakhouse – complete with a no-corkage policy that allowed people to bring in their own bottles of wine – Iron Grill has retooled some aspects, reconsidered others, and evolved into something smarter and more appealing.

Early on, it was hard to imagine this restaurant, near Broadway and Riverside Boulevard, could go anywhere but up. The food was inconsistent, and the servers, personable and energetic as they may have been, were some of the greenest we have ever encountered.

In December 2009, I gave the restaurant (initially called Iron Steak) an overall rating of two stars. In the service category, I noted that they hire “very nice people, some of whom don’t know what they’re doing.” By April 2010, convinced that Iron Steak had shored up its weak spots after hiring an expert server to run a waitstaff boot camp, I upgraded the rating to two-and-a-half stars.

Slowly but surely, this eatery – stylish and casual – continues to improve. But is it good enough to break into the three-star club? That’s a designation reserved for places that routinely serve you a high-quality meal as well as a consistently elevated experience.

Let’s see: The room is as cool as ever, with a full bar and a long, narrow dining room that is well-appointed and comfortable; the food is now approaching superb, with a broader array of dishes than when it was conceptualized as a steakhouse; and those service issues that seemed so blatant back in ’09 have been banished to the history books. The servers of today are so professional and engaging that they could oversee their own waitstaff boot camp.

Three recent visits found Iron Grill showing much more than a name change. Led by executive chef Keith Swiryn, the kitchen handled everything we ordered with aplomb, including a rib-eye special with blue cheese; surf and turf featuring wonderful lobster; crisp, golden-brown fried chicken; flavor-packed jambalaya with prawns, andouille sausage and free-range chicken; a simple yet stunningly delectable tempura green bean appetizer; and a thick and juicy “Battle Burger” topped with a slab of tender pork belly.

Even its wedge salad, a steakhouse staple that’s often awash in watery blandness, was a wonderful little dish, complete with thick and delicious cubes of house-cured bacon.

If all that sounds terrific, don’t assume this is going to be a break-the-bank steakhouse experience a la Morton’s or Ruth’s Chris, where nearly everything is an a la carte add-on.

The large burger, which comes with fries or salad, is a very competitive $12 (with the pork belly, pickled apple and smoked cheddar, it’s $14); the fried chicken served with mashed potatoes, onion gravy and grilled asparagus is $16; the hearty and wonderfully finessed jambalaya is $19.

Sure, the steaks are the big-ticket items. But even as beef prices continue to rise, these steaks – $26 for an 8-ounce New York, $34 for 8-ounce filet mignon and $29 for surf and turf – are less expensive than those at high-brow steakhouses.

Because steaks are approaching the special-occasion-only price point for many people these days, Iron Grill opted to diversify its menu to give customers more options. In addition to less expensive entrees, its well-rounded menu also includes some noteworthy side dishes – mac and cheese that is creamy, smooth and mildly smoky; and a rather amazing jalapeño polenta with a spicy Cajun vibe that’s suitable for sharing.

When it first opened, this restaurant worked hard to create an identity and lure people with value, but that message didn’t always translate. Its corkage policy, which I saw as a going-out-of-business concept, allowed patrons to bring their own bottles of wine and enjoy them free of charge. Most restaurants charge a corkage fee – often $15 to $25 per bottle – to pay for the stemware and serving of the wine.

Restaurants tend to make their highest profit margins on cocktails and wine, so encouraging folks to bypass the wine list may have been taking budget-friendly to self-sabotaging heights. According to owner Bill Taylor, a customer showed up one day with a large group of friends, and thought it would be a good idea to bring in 28 bottles of wine. Soon after, an exasperated Iron Grill clamped down. Now you’re limited to uncorking one bottle of your own wine free of charge.

The biggest boon for Iron Grill in recent years has been its brunch. The restaurant has developed a reputation as a great place for this Sunday favorite, which has long been dominated by nearby Tower Cafe, where a wait for a table can be an hour or more.

Iron Grill is now thriving at brunch, so much so that it’s serving it seven days a week – a very unusual concept for a mainstream restaurant not connected to a hotel. But Taylor (founder and owner of Willie’s Burgers) clearly believes in his chef. Swiryn sees brunch as an opportunity to be creative and a touch daring, with dishes such as crab cakes and eggs, a prime rib scramble, a smoked salmon eggs Benedict and a Denver omelet, all of which are superior to the offerings at Tower Cafe. Brunch begins at 9 a.m. daily.

Finally, there’s the matter of service, which is what led us to frown upon this restaurant at its outset nearly five years ago.

Good service is a vital to connecting with customers. Good service makes food taste better, the meal more relaxing. That’s what we’re seeing here now. Factor in a true talent in the kitchen, a smarter and more diverse menu and an unusual and superb daily brunch, and you have a restaurant that routinely delivers an excellent experience.

In other words, Iron Grill has climbed into the very respectable ranks of three-star restaurants.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

Iron Grill

2422 13th St., Sacramento,

(916) 737-5115

www.irongrillsacramento.com

Hours: Brunch daily 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; lunch daily 2-3 p.m.; dinner daily 5-10 p.m.; happy hour in bar area only, 3-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 5-10 p.m. Saturday.

Beverage options: Full bar, including small but well-rounded wine list by the bottle or glass; some craft beers, and a full selection of cocktails.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes.

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise level: Moderate

Ambiance Modern, cozy, stylish. Outdoor seating.

Overall

After some initial struggles with service and concept, Iron Grill has emerged as a restaurant that does everything well and has a talented chef who can take it to even greater heights in the years ahead.

Food

The more eclectic menu gives executive chef Keith Swiryn room to showcase his broad repertoire. While the kitchen still makes a very fine steak and an excellent gourmet burger, it’s also doing very good jambalaya, superb fried chicken and an excellent array of brunch dishes.

Service

Once its weakest link, service pitfalls are in the rearview mirror. Now the service staff, including the bartenders, are seasoned pros who know how to handle all of the little details that add up to a positive restaurant experience.

Value

The steaks are in the high $20s and above, which is not cheap, but given the absence of mandatory a la carte add-ons, it’s still good value. Beyond steaks, the menu shines with full dinner entrees under $20. Brunch is also very affordable. Still no corkage fee for the first bottle of wine you bring.

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