Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight
Prices: Appetizers $5-9; sandwiches $6-9; entrees $10-23
Fare: Schizophrenic: game munchies & high falutin'
Atmosphere: Corporate luxury box
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
Like movie-star governors of California, restaurants run by retired sports figures are a long and venerable tradition. But where once those restaurants were neighborhood joints that didn't promise much except the occasional drop-in by the hero himself, recent years have seen corporations commodify the fan experience, hitching root-for-the-home-team passion to precalculated dining scenarios. The formula seems to be this: The star consults with the chef and suggests a few personal favorites; then the hometown is harvested for local staples, a few corporate home-runs are thrown in, and voila! A restaurant named after a person, yet curiously lacking in personality.
Was this the case with Jerome Bettis' Grille 36? Before we even stepped inside, we could see through the windows that the Bus' new dining venture surpassed every other local restaurant in at least one regard: ratio of flat-screen TVs to customers. It appeared to be at least one-to-one, especially in the sleek, spacious wood-and-chrome bar that suggests nothing so much as an upscale office lobby (perhaps that of ESPN). Once we were seated in one of the flanking dining rooms, only five televisions were in our immediate vision. Unfortunately, it was too cool and rainy to sit outside; Grille 36 is surrounded by broad, attractive decks with river views more stunning than any TV broadcast.
The menu seemed designed to please, simultaneously, patrons who hoped to dine in a sports bar and those who would rather be seated before a white tablecloth. World Champion nachos, piled high like a pyramid, or Pacific Rim tuna rolls? Should we have spicy sausage -- presumably from an original tailgater's recipe -- or chipotle shrimp with our rigatoni? We appreciated our waitress' frank guidance. She didn't warn us away from anything, but she also spared us the anodyne "it's all good."
Firecracker popcorn shrimp were neither as hot nor as small as their name suggested, but we found them tasty in their lightly battered and fried state, minus any unctuous glaze. Instead, a subtly sweet dressing provided the foil for the shrimp's slightly spicy savor. Shredded cabbage and ringlets of shaved carrot spilled out of a Chinese takeout container for an attractive and witty presentation.
The Grille's quesadilla, though listed as an appetizer, was as big as a dinner plate. We chose a filling of skirt steak, which was tender and pliant, packed with beefy flavor and well complemented by a melty mix of Spanish cheeses and crispy, roasted-tomato flour tortilla.
In the normal course of events, Jason would have ordered a burger and Angelique a plate of pasta, but at Grille 36 we mixed it up. Angelique likes burgers when they're really, really good, and she figured it was a safe bet that Jerome Bettis' venue could deliver. Unfortunately, she lost. Though the Spicy Spinach Burger had a big, fat patty, the meat itself had a mediocre flavor, as though it were a not-fatty-enough cut of meat. The bleu cheese was not melted, and the buffalo sauce was not spicy enough to live up to the sandwich's name. Happily, the French fries were excellent, crispy on the outside and fluffy within.
Jason tried black-and-gold lobster ravioli, the idea of which was disconcerting on several levels, but the menu description won him with a promise of sherry and lemon cream sauce with basil oil, plus fried leeks and red peppers. Sure enough, the ravioli were striped black and gold, but the visual gimmick mattered a lot less than the sweet cheese and succulent lobster filling, and the sauce -- two sauces, really, with basil and cream on top -- was sophisticated and successful. The only caveat was that Jason found the whole dish a bit on the sweet side and wished for a better balance of flavors.
Finally, Ultimate Mac and Cheese was just that. A blend of four cheeses lent a nutty, tangy, grown-up flavor to the cavatappi, corkscrew-shaped pasta with a more interesting texture than ordinary elbow macaroni. Diced tomato and bacon added smoky, sweet, salty notes to the otherwise uniformly creamy dish.
One of the things Steelers fans love about Bettis was the way he wore down defenses. The first half might feature a lot of two-yard slogs ending well short of a first down, but by the end of the third quarter, the other team was tired of getting knocked down by the Bus. Those runs up the middle blossomed into 5, 10, 20 yards, until the game was over. Jerome Bettis' Grille 36 may not share his personality, but it understands his game: Despite a patchy start, the restaurant won us over in the end.