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Belly Up

High and Low Sierra

Hampden's New Southwestern Grill Still Earning Its Spurs

Sierra Grill

This location is closed

By Susan Fradkin | Posted 5/9/2001

We were faced with a fine dilemma, C.C. and I. Our friend Raquel would be out of town on her husband's birthday, so we decided to take up the celebratory slack. But Collin, who delights in being difficult, insisted that no fuss be made; in his own words, a birthday is "just a day like any other day." But we were not to be denied. We stowed the bah-humbugging birthday boy in the back of C.C.'s van and headed for the new kid on The Avenue in Hampden, a Southwesterner called Sierra Grill.

The big, open room with windows and a raised seating area streetside seemed somewhat sterile at first, but once settled in we began to appreciate the cool rain-cloud gray and baked sandstone red of the walls and the warm, natural wood of the French doors at the back. Our table had a candle, but some of the others sported chimineas, little terra-cotta stoves. Collin, fresh from a working Saturday, started to relax.

A couple of hours later, we emerged from Sierra Grill quite content. Some of the food was excellent, most was decent, but a few things require reworking. The staff is pleasant and helpful, and I can't help thinking that most of the new-eatery glitches will get worked out. I hope so, because the place appears to have already won a fair measure of popularity.

What was very good? Collin's Buckaroo ribeye steak ($13.50), for one thing. It's the most expensive dish on the menu, one of only two that cost more than $10. Collin's steak was big and juicy and tender and perfectly medium rare, as requested. He took a bite, closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair, and sighed, "This is what steak used to taste like when I was little." Now there's a birthday treat for a jaded adult--a dinner that revives the childish delight in a special-occasion meal. The accompanying Spanish rice was excellent too, not awash in tomato sauce or soupy-soft, like some versions. (Wild rice or mashed potatoes are also available with entrées.) The seasoning was deft, and each bite contained some crunchy grains.

We all liked the soups, which are included with the entrées or available as a side for $1. Collin's choice of the three available this night, mushroom barley, was thick with large hunks of fresh, woodsy-tasting mushrooms. My tortilla-bean soup was thick as well, with corn, kidney beans, lentils, carrots, green pepper, onion, and some barley.

My lusciously light lemonade cake ($4, as all desserts are at Sierra) was elegant. The lemon flavor and the moist yellow cake and creamy filling made for a sweet, cloudlike ending. Collin enjoyed his carrot cake, dense but not dry. C.C.'s Dixie lime pie, a take on the classic key lime, was a tart frozen confection, just the thing to cool you down on a warm evening.

What didn't work? My grilled salmon ($11.50). I liked the cilantro/citrus marinade and the drizzle of tomatillo sauce on top, and it was a fine piece of fish, large and fresh (though it appeared to be poached, not grilled). But it was totally overcooked. Believe me, when C.C.--she of the raw-fish-phobia--complains the fish is overcooked, it's way past overcooked.

That can be corrected, as can the fact that while C.C.'s Rio Grande burrito ($8.99) with rice and beans, arrived hot, on a very hot plate, its side of black beans--supposed to be hot--was cold. Not lukewarm, but cold, as if they'd been scooped out of the fridge. The burrito itself, an enormous thing stuffed with grilled chicken (beef's also available), onion, green pepper, and cheese, was satisfying, although the ranchero sauce that covered it was uninspired. The same sauce dampened the appeal of the cream-cheese- and cheddar-stuffed jalapeño poppers appetizer ($5.50).

The rest of the meal was OK. Tortilla chips and a thick, not-too-spicy salsa ($3.50) provided satisfactory snacking. A better starter, the Seattle spring rolls ($4.99), were wildly spicy--smoked chicken, black beans, toasted corn, and poblano chilies wrapped up in a tomato-hued flour tortilla. The dipping sauce cooled the heat, but that's about all it did--it tasted like a mix of sour cream and ketchup.

The salad bar (available on an all-you-can-eat basis along with the soups for $6.75) was fresh and varied but nothing out of the ordinary. C.C. prowled the length of it, searching in vain for the advertised breads and muffins, but found only individually wrapped crackers. Bread is clearly available--other tables had baskets--so our otherwise capable server may simply have forgotten it. Sierra Grill still has its rough edges, but if they can be filed down it will no doubt take its place among the proven eateries along The Avenue.

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