Chain restaurants don't always deserve all the put-downs they get. Yes, the food is typically uninspired and leaves almost no room for personality. But corporate operations score points for consistency and value, and the most successful train their service staffs well. Yes, a lot of the newer restaurant chains shamelessly imitate their predecessors, but the best ideas are meant to be borrowed — and improved upon. It's the American way.
Which makes the North Carolina–based Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, which has opened an outpost in Overland Park, something like the Joseph Cornell of chain restaurants. It's a stylish collage that smartly reassembles menu and dining elements taken from other franchise outfits.
That's not a bad thing. In fact, it is this very déjà vu quality of Firebirds that most works in its favor. I mean, something is working here because the venue has been jampacked since it launched last month. (Reservations really are necessary, particularly on weekends.) Firebirds is not yet a well-oiled hospitality-industry machine, on the order of Houston's. The service is attentive but inconsistent. And the food plays it safe — it is thoroughly likable but not lovable.
The problem is that Firebirds wants to be loved, and wants it very badly. On each of my visits, I heard a mantra floating through the restaurant's vast, barnlike space: "Everybody loves this."
"Everyone just loves this," one server told me as he set the restaurant's signature starter, a lobster-and-spinach queso, in front of me. What everyone claims to love is a platter of corn chips with a soup-size bowl of chunky, orange-colored cheese (cheddar, cream cheese, pepper jack and asiago) that also contains chopped lobster. I feel somewhat guilty admitting that my heart didn't go pitter-patter, though it may have stalled a little had I finished the serving. The stuff is creamy and rich. And also kind of bland and ordinary.
The appetizer that I could have fallen for (a little, anyway) is a lineup of plump, ruby-red squares of seared ahi tuna, served with a squiggle of punchy mustard sauce and a "garnish" of mixed-green salad. (The salad is far more generous than a garnish and chock-full of sugar-roasted pecans, a recurring ingredient in many dishes here, including the green beans.)
The interior design here was inspired, I've been told, by a lodge in Colorado, though the servers insist that the room and the menu have a "Southwestern feel." I guess they mean that the macaroni and cheese (available as a side dish) is made with green chiles, and the house soup is a chicken-tortilla concoction. The latter, by the way, is another dish "everyone" loves.
Oh, there's the Durango burger, which is chile-spiced but topped with pickles and fried onions. If that sounds too adventurous, stick with the house cheeseburger, a thick beef patty blanketed with melted smoked cheddar (but not, you know, too smoky). If a basic cheeseburger is your acid test for a place like this, then Firebirds passes.
It's a more solid choice than the American Kobe meatloaf, which looks promising on the plate — thick, round slabs that are, on first taste, properly moist — but soon turns monotonous, even with a portabella sauce containing too much black pepper. I chose tater tots over cider slaw or fries, but these spuds were so salty that I ate just one.
"Sometimes things can get a bit salty here," a manager told me. "We're working on that." (Someone should also work on the loaded baked potato. I do like salt-baked spuds, but this one tasted as if it had been rubbed in a whole shaker of the stuff.)
There are a few things to love on this menu. The herb-encrusted prime rib I sampled was thick and red and almost fork-tender, and the 7-ounce prime filet mignon I ordered had spent precisely the right amount of time on the fire — the grill is visible from almost any spot in the dining room — and was delicious. The trout, thickly encrusted with those sweet, finely chopped pecans, is also very satisfying.
The dessert list has the five sweets you expect from a menu that mimics, with zero subtlety, places like J. Alexander's and Houston's: a warm chocolate brownie, Key lime pie, a hunk of chocolate layer cake, carrot cake, and a crème brûlée cheesecake. Also, as you'd expect, the staff gets a little wonky when you ask whether the desserts are made in-house. "Well, not all of them," one waiter told me. No, not all of them. In fact, none of them.
"Our desserts are made by area bakers and brought to us daily," Charlie Wade, the restaurant's general manager, told me later.
Whoever is making Firebirds' carrot cake is getting it right. The dish comes out as warm and soft as bread pudding, thickly covered with a swath of melting cream-cheese icing and sided with a pitcher of hot caramel sauce. It's luscious (raisin-free but plenty nutty), big enough to share, and smoldering enough to be a little sexy.
"Everybody loves this dessert," the server said. This time, yes.
And, hey, when enough staff and servers tell you about that love enough times — about the food, about the décor, about the chain, about the dessert you end your meal on — you can't help but feel seduced by the repeated suggestion. Everybody loves this, everybody loves this, everybody loves this. I bet a lot of people do love Firebirds.
I didn't, but I respected it in the morning.