Like a Hemingway novel, the words Olé Fire Grill conjure images of heat, passion and flavor. Grilled steak and a glass of Rioja come to mind at the sight of the red, glowing logo of Cranford's newest dining establishment.
The interior of this restaurant, however, hardly says heat, passion or flavor. Warm colors may induce hunger, but this sterile dining room is reminiscent of a Panera Bread or Chipotle Mexican Grill, right up to the tall ceilings with exposed ducts. Perhaps the proprietors hands were tied by the restrictions of the building, the monstrous Cranford Crossing, but some aspects of the design are under their control, like the flat screen television in the dining room. Watching a fútbol match in a bar might be appropriate for a Mediterranean theme; over dinner at a BYOB, it's an unwelcome distraction.
But on to the food. Owners Alex Lopez, a Perth Amboy teacher and Scherrer Street resident, Enrique Outeiral and Manuel Martinez, both natives of Spain and graduates in finance from Rutgers University opened the doors in March. With an open charcoal barbecue, a chef trained in Spain and a menu more creative than the Spanish restaurant on the other side of the tracks, their new restaurant does a decent job at bringing the flavors of the Western Mediterranean to Cranford's South Avenue.
Waiting a few weeks after its opening to allow the proprietors to work out any kinks, I stopped in for dinner recently, armed with a bottle of Spanish red, which was promptly opened and poured. The dining room was fairly quiet, expected for an early weekday evening.
I started with the gambas al ajillo, shrimp in olive oil with garlic and cayenne peppers (8.95). The shrimp were small and succulent, with a spicy bite that was not overwhelming until I took a bite of the actual cayenne pepper. My friend started with the Clams Casino from the specials menu – eight clams served on the halfshell with bread crumbs, bacon, garlic and butter.
For my entree, I chose the pork tenderloin in a sherry-raisin sauce (19.95). The plate was huge – several thick slices of pork, a large helping of yellow rice, steamed vegetables and fresh, crisp potato chips. The pork was extremely tender and the raisins plump and sweet, but it needed more flavor, more sherry in the sauce perhaps. The steamed carrots and broccoli were just that -- plain steamed vegetables.
My friend ordered the paella marinera--prawns, shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams over saffron rice ($21.95). She was disconcerted and confused about the heads on the shrimp – eyes and all. I, on the other hand was pleased to see the entire shrimp in the paella – about three of them. I helped her remove the heads, sampling a bit of it myself. The seafood was succulent, the rice flavorful and plentiful.
Plentiful is an understatement. We had plenty to eat, and more than enough to take home. My leftovers were actually enough for two lunches. As my Manhattan friends would say: Jersey portions.
Other tempting items on the menu include lamb chops with shallots and rosemary in a Spanish Port wine sauce (23.50), certified Black Angus sirloin grilled with either a mushroom, gorgonzola or pepper sauce (20.95) and homemade potato gnocchi in savory pesto sauce (14.95).
Olé Fire Grill's lunch menu includes a selection of wraps, from chorizo to cordon blue ($6.50-$7.95), as well as burgers (the Conquistador burger looks formidable: ¾ pound of freshly ground meat with bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, provolone, an egg, and ham for 12.95) and a handful of items from the dinner menu. It also includes ribs and chicken from the charcoal barbecue pit ($12.95-$13.95).
For dessert, the owner rattled off a list that included homemade flan that they were unfortunately out of. We instead ordered the next best thing: crème brulee. The crème was thick, creamy and just a little cooler than room temperature. The top lacked the sugary crunch that I was looking forward to, but tiny, faint scorch marks on it led to to believe that it was in fact freshly broiled or, better yet, torched with a tiny flame.
When it comes to food from the Iberian Peninsula, I still prefer the restaurants of Newark's Ironbound district for their ambience, authenticity and consistent quality. But unlike the Spanish restaurant on the other side of Cranford's tracks, Olé Fire Grill isn't trying to be another Iberian restaurant. With a charcoal barbecue pit and homemade pastas on the menu, the owners of Ole Fire Grill are aiming for something unique, in this area at least, and for that they deserve credit. The dining room may not be the warmest, but for a filling Mediterranean meal close to home, Olé Fire Grill does well.