The Rose Garden offers up a tasty gimmick

May 26, 2004 at 4:00 am
Remember the Seinfeld episode where Kramer recruits investors for his chain of make-your-own-pizza parlors? "I'm tellin' ya, people, they really want to make their own pizza pie!" he proclaims. "We give you the dough, you smash it, you pound it, you fling it in the air; and then you get to put your sauce and you get to sprinkle your cheese, and then you slide it into the oven." Predictably, George Costanza attempts to rain on the parade. "You know, you have to know how to do that," George points out. "You can't have people shoving their arms into a 600-degree oven!" But when Kramer counters with, "It's all supervised," it sort of makes sense. Until Seinfeld pipes up, anyway: "I can't imagine anyone in any walk of life, under any circumstance, wanting to make their own pizza pie -- but that's me."

Seinfeld came to mind at Andy and Earlene Acomb's Rose Garden restaurant, which has been open since December across the river in Godfrey and offers the Stonegrill dining experience. The process is available in restaurants from Korea, Malaysia, Japan and Africa to the United Kingdom, Vancouver and Australia (where it started), but Rose Garden is one of only five Stonegrill-equipped restaurants in the United States.

The Stonegrill concept is pretty basic: Your main course is brought to the table just slightly seared and is accompanied by a thick, square slab of volcanic granite that has been kiln-heated to nearly 800 degrees. That's "four times the sterilization temperature in a hospital," as each and every Rose Garden staffer you meet will inform you at some point during your visit. You get your choice of main ingredient: beef tenderloin, shrimp, lobster tail and/or sea scallops, offered in different combinations (there's also a vegetarian selection). Simply portion off as much meat as you want, sear it to the desired doneness and voilà, you're a chef! Because the stone cooks your food at such a high temperature, oil isn't needed in the cooking process. As those Rose Garden employees will tell you, "It's the healthiest way to eat!"

In other words, it's a gimmick -- a cross between the cooking-as-performance-art Japanese restaurants that were spawned in the '70s and those Chinese restaurants where you get to boil your own tidbits in broth. But I'm a sucker for gimmicks. So while the menu features plenty of food that comes to the table already prepared, I went straight for the Stonegrill. Dish No. 1, a ten-ounce hunk of Angus beef tenderloin, was borne to the table with its hot rock, which was mounted in the middle section of a three-section ceramic plate. The other sections contained sautéed vegetables and roasted new potatoes, respectively.

My love of gimmicks aside, watching one's meal prepared tableside is one thing; cooking it yourself on a slab of searing-hot granite is something else. Think of it as Fear Factor for the cooking-impaired. Fortunately, the owners and waitstaff will explain the process in great detail and are more than eager to assist. Once you get started, the process is addictive. The stone remains hot for about an hour, and I found myself warming up the thin, crisp green beans and potatoes, which had been carved to look like mushrooms.

Dish No. 2, surf 'n' turf: On the menu, the abovementioned filet can be paired with shrimp or lobster tail, but our server was happy to substitute scallops. Scallops are a bit tricky for the uninitiated Stoner -- you don't want them raw, but they're easy to overcook, which results in an unappealing rubbery mouthful. Enter executive chef John Litwicki, who sends out the scallops with a lemon slice under each one, the better to buffer the mollusk from the intense heat (and add a gentle citrus flavor). Simply slice off a piece and cook or slide the whole scallop onto the stone for a few seconds' searing.

I do wonder why the Rose Garden's three Stonegrill beef offerings are so very similar to one another: tenderloin, filet mignon and filet. What's the difference? Worse, why offer only one cut of beef? A thick, nicely marbled rib-eye or strip steak would work just as well -- maybe better, given that those cuts have a higher fat content and are more grill- (or Stone)-friendly.

Though the Stonegrill patron/cook is limited to beef and shellfish, the Stone-challenged diner can choose from a full menu of charcoal-grilled steaks, pork and salmon, chicken and pasta dishes -- even calf's liver -- all served on regular (albeit fancy) plates. Medallions of honey-roasted pork loin were a bit dry but received a flavorful boost from an accompanying raspberry sauce. The sauce served over a chicken breast sautéed with mushrooms was rich with the concentrated flavor of white wine, but it suffered from the globbiness that betrays an attempt to rethicken the sauce with cornstarch or something similar. While Stonegrill entrées are served with both a starch and a vegetable, with these you get one or the other. But as with Stonegrill items, these come with homemade soup, a salad and a palate-cleansing sorbet interlude. Potato soup was thick with chunks of carrot, potatoes, celery and bits of smoky bacon -- basic, and quite tasty. Another visit showcased a superb chicken-and-rice soup, as well as a sweet five-onion soup made with beef stock and house-made croutons. House-made dressing helped the salad, as did strawberries, raisins, pecans, pepperoncini and segments of canned mandarin orange. The lettuces were ordinary -- a mix of iceberg and romaine. The menu also includes a selection of appetizers, from fried artichoke hearts to baked Brie to seafood-stuffed mushrooms.

Andy Acomb comes from a baking family, and it shows. All breads and rolls are baked fresh. Desserts are house-made. Cheesecakes are big, and more cakelike than the typically heavy New York style. Cakes are multilayered and luscious. But I knew I was in the presence of a great baker when I tasted the coconut cream pie: flaky crust, fluffy meringue and a filling so pure with coconut flavor that I contemplated seconds -- and at $3.70 a slice, I should have followed through on the impulse. The Rose Garden showcases Acomb's skills with its own bakery, which offers several cakes and pies to go.

The Acombs say they thought Alton and Godfrey were ready for a high-end restaurant and banquet center, and it's obvious they've sunk a ton of money into renovating the old house that holds both. (For the latter, they've even got a DJ sound system and a limo.) But putting aside the Stonegrill, between the almost disconcertingly elegantly set tables, the white gloves the waitstaff don before serving the entrées and the menu, it's as if the Rose Garden was designed to cater to graying Midwesterners whose culinary expectations are stuck somewhere in the early 1980s. Baked Brie? Stuffed mushrooms? Calf's liver? Then again, they do it well. Not so the bordering-on-embarrassing wine list, which contains only two red wines by the glass, a Kendall-Jackson merlot-cabernet blend and -- get this -- a Lambrusco.

Alton and Godfrey may well need a place like the Rose Garden, which probably comes in handy for weddings, graduations, birthdays and the occasional lazy lunch. If the Acombs were to lighten up on the formality, pipe in something better than easy-listening piano and revamp the wine list, I can see this Stonegrill gimmick taking off. I can imagine all sorts of people, under all sorts of circumstances, wanting to grill their own steak and seafood on a stone.

But that's me.