Friday, February 17, 2012


Finding a new restaurant at which the food is outstanding never fails to be exciting, and when the excitement remains on subsequent visits, it's even better. Such is the case at The Phoenix Fire Grill and Bar. My husband Jack and I noticed it on several occasions as we drove toward Canfield on State Route 46 (usually on our way to the White House Fruit Farm or the Mill Creek Metropark Farm), but we didn't work up the courage to check it out till recently.

And boy, we're glad we did! The food here is way more than a cut above the ordinary, and each time we've stopped since then we've found something new to love.

The decor has a Southwestern flavor - lots of dark wood and peachy colors - that complements the wo
nderful smells coming from the fire grill; and for the record, the interior is much larger than it appears from the outside (the restaurant is at the end of a small shopping plaza). There's a good-sized bar and an adjacent section with a few booths; on the other side is a much larger area with plenty of booths and tables. Still, it's small enough to be cozy (and be full of diners at peak meal hours, so plan your visit accordingly).

One of the reasons we hadn't stopped earlier, I must admit, is that it looked expensive; we're not frequent visitors at restaurants that cost an arm and a leg, so we figured we'd wait to come here for a special occasion. But on one of our trips, Jack stopped
in to look around and picked up a sample menu, showing us we had no need to hold off. The prices here are quite reasonable, and several of the dinner entrees are available in "lunch" portions until 4 p.m. each day. There's also a Happy Hour from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, when draft beers are $1 off and domestic bottles are reduced by a buck and a half.

On our first visit, we asked to sit on the "bar" side. Although we were in a booth, I did notice that this place has avoided one of my big pet peeves about sitting o
n a barstool, even if it's just for drinks: There's no convenient place to stash my purse. It takes up too much space if I plunk it next to me on the bar top, and I really don't want to stash it on the floor (after all, who knows where that floor has been).

Here, though, large cup hooks have been installed on the sides of the bar several inches from the top - a perfect solution, IMHO!

I'll also admit we probably made a mistake by asking the hostess to seat us in the bar section - after waiting for more than 10 minutes without seeing a server except on the restaura
nt side, we finally asked the bartender for help. After another 10 minutes, someone wandered over to check on us, apologizing and explaining they'd been "trying to figure out" who should be waiting on our table. Once they'd resolved that issue, though, the service was fine.

Deciding on what to try at a new restaurant, though, always presents a problem when it comes to the main reason we walked through the door. Do we go with something mo
re tried and true, like a burger? Here, for instance, the Fireburger - an 8-ounce ground chuck patty with Buffalo sauce topped with marinated peppers and melted pepperjack cheese ($7) was almost too tempting. In the end, though, the black-n-bleu pizza proved irresistible; diced blackened chicken on seasoned white pizza with garlic, sliced plum tomatoes, bacon, three cheeses and crumbled bleu cheese (and fire grilled, of course) simply sounded out of this world.

Jack wasn't quite as hungry and settled for a barbecue chicken quesadilla from the appetizer menu ($7). A crispy tortilla shell filled with roasted peppers and three cheeses, it comes with smoked onion dip instead of the usual sour cream and/or guacamole.

Our first surpr
ise was delivery of a basket of fresh-baked, still-warm rolls - not something we'd have expected with an order of a pizza and an appetizer. The rolls were excellent, and the herbed butter made them even more delectable.

Jack was exceptionally pleased with his quesadilla, which was stuffed with far more "insides" than we've ever seen in a quesadilla appetizer. It was delicious, and he said the smoked onion sauce added a special touch he loved (I tasted it, and it would be great on other things as well).

My pizza, though, was nothing short of wonderful. The crust is particularly flavorful, and the whole thing was oozing with so much melted cheese that it was hard to pick up without dri
pping. I don't recall seeing that amount of bleu cheese on anything that comes with bleu cheese before -- I love the stuff, and it was almost too much for me. The blackened chicken is cut in smallish chunks -- as well it should be on a pizza -- and the flavor is outstanding and blends perfectly with all that cheese.

Simply because we loved the place the first time around, our next visit came fairly soon thereafter and this time at lunchtime on a Sunday. We arrived around 12:20 p.m. in hopes o
f beating the after-church crowd, and at least on this day, it was perfect timing. We had almost the run of the place seating-wise (this time we opted for the regular dining room), but by the time we'd been served, the place was almost full.

We both thought the lunch portions of entrees would be a good way to go this time. My choice was the Shrimp & Scallops Jambalaya $9 for lunch, $16 for dinner), and Jack picked Chicken Marsala Portobello ($8/$14). But then, my eyes spotted something else -- and I threw caution to the wind and insisted I had to have it.

"It" was the Tuna Carpaccio appetizer, or Sashimi-style Ahi tuna marinated, rolled in spices, pan se
ared rare, sliced and served on assorted greens with ginger soy sauce. I'd become totally enamored with rare Ahi tuna on previous trips to the North Carolina Outer Banks (I found what I consider to be the best in the world at Basnight's Lone Cedar Cafe in Nags Head), so even though this was a relatively pricey $9, I wasn't about to let the catch get away even if it is inland.

Delicious? Oh my. The coating on the tuna is a titch crusty, and the sauce is rather salty and ever so slightly less tasty than at Nags Head. That said, I didn't want to eat anything else; and the slices were so numerous that the appetizer would have been sufficient for an entire lunch for me. Even Jack, who wants nothing to do with anything "rare," tasted a piece and agreed it's superb. If nothing else, I'll make a beeline for this place often just so I can have more of this!

Our entrees came with salads, and interestingly, mine was mostly head lettuce that Jack prefers while his was mostly my favorite assorted greens ("rabbit food," as he calls the stuff). Since we poured on different dressings before we noticed, we weren't able to switch, but next time we'll know to look before we dress and adjust accordingly.

His grilled chicken breast and portobello 'shrooms were served over rice pilaf and topped with fire roasted veggies and a lemon with a white wine and garlic butter sauce. The breast was a little on the skimpy side, he noted, but it was quite good (the sauce was outstanding) and the portobello slices were plentiful. Meanwhile, I was oblivious to what he was eating once I stuck my fork in the Jambalaya. It was a bowl of rice pilaf topped with two very large tiger shrimp, two equally large scallops, a few slices of Andouille sausage, all sauteed with bell peppers and onions and simmered in sherry wine sauce with a touch of marinara.

The flavor was outstanding (and properly cooked seafood is a deal-breaker for me any day of the week). The lunch portion isn't huge, but it would have been plenty for a dinner entree for me, especially with the salad (even without the appetizer, which next time out will be my main course for sure).

Except it wasn't. On our next visit, I decided to sample another dish that sounded wonderful - Mediterranean Pasta with Shrimp & Scallops ($10 for the lunch portion). Jack had liked the Jambalaya I got on the other trip so well that he ordered it for himself this time -- and except for a few slices of that Andouille sausage that he gave to me (he's not a sausage fan), he polished off the entire bowl.

My choice came in a bowl as well; the shrimp and scallops sauteed with artichokes, roasted red peppers, red onion, kalamata olives and feta cheese in butter, garlic and lemon sauce tossed with linguine and Parmesan cheese made for a very different taste sensation, but a sensation it was. I'm still partial to that Jambalaya (and of course the Ahi tuna appetizer) though, so looks as if we'll be coming here fairly regularly. If you see us there, stop and say hello!

If you go:

The Phoenix Fire Grill and Bar
5231 S. Canfield-Niles Road
Canfield, Ohio
(330) 533-9999

Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Friday, February 3, 2012


In the good old days, it didn't take much to entice my husband Jack and I to go out for lunch or dinner. Sometimes, the spark came from watching a TV commercial; other times, we'd read about a restaurant in the newspaper. Most of the time, we didn't need any outside help - we were hungry, so we'd just look at each other and say, "Where to this time?"

Times have changed considerably, as everyone knows; these days, discretionary income is in short supply, and we're forced to pick and choose carefully before heading out the door. That also means we've become far less adventurous than we once were; we tend to stick with the tried and true rather than shell out the bucks at a new-to-us place for what turns out to be a disappointing culinary experience.

But we still enjoy the thrill of the chase, so when we get a recommen
dation from a friend who shares our love of eating out, we start salivating. The most recent heads-up took us to Boardman, Ohio, and the wonderful Blue Wolf Tavern.

It's such a neat place (and the food's so great) that we've returned more than once. Better still, we were excited to learn that by the time you read this, a second location will be almost ready to open much closer to us! Located just inside Creekside Golf Dome in Girard, Ohio, the new place - named the Wolves Den Bar and Grill, or so the company website says - is expected to open sometime this month. We popped in a couple of weeks ago, and looks as if renovations are coming along nicely. We promise to keep an eye on things, and you can be sure we'll be among the very first customers!

But for now, I'll tell you about the Boardman location, where there's a banquet facility that can accommodate 200 for brunch, lunch and dinner, a WiFi hotspot and lots of beautiful pictures of - you guessed it - wolve
s. On the website, executive chefs Joe Rzonsa and Brant Newton say the restaurant's name and ambience resulted from a postcard showing a wolf in front of burning woods, giving the animal a blueish hue. We say we love the decor; the place has the look and feel of a hunting lodge dining room, complete with a lovely fireplace.

Our first vis
it came during the Christmas holidays after we'd stopped at the visitor center in Mill Creek Park to check out the beautifully decorated trees and then at the Boardman Wild Birds Unlimited so Jack could look at the winter Tilley hats. He didn't find anything, but I bought a bar of Burt's Bees Garden Tomato Complexion Soap, which I absolutely love - it's like washing your face with cream.

At any rate, by the time we got to the Blue Wolf we would have happily eaten anything on the menu that they could bring quickly. Reason prevailed, though, and we decided we'd better
try an appetizer to get things moving along (well, after ordering a couple of on-tap beers to take the edge off). It was a tough decision, but I finally settled on spicy marinated peppers ($5.99) while Jack opted for Zucchini Parmesan, also $5.99.

The decisi
on on entrees took even longer; we eyeballed the daily specials first, but ended up picking from the regular menu. My choice was cheese-stuffed ravioli with red sauce and a meatball - other options were available at a slightly higher cost, like alfredo sauce. Instead of a salad, I picked a cup of wedding soup for a 69-cent upcharge.

Jack went for the heart-healthy bourbon chicken with a salad and one side ($8.99). In keeping with the heart-healthy thing, he went with a viniagrette dressing and pasta as the second side. On the latter, too, there were several choices, and he picked linguine with chunky marinara sauce.

The appetizers, which were delivered quickly (I suspect the server noticed we were close to desperation hunger-wise) and acco
mpanied by a basket of fresh, warm crusty Italian rolls and butter. My peppers included hot banana, cubanelle, green bell and red roasted varieties marinated in homemade viniagrette and served with provolone wedges. I'm not going to claim they were particularly hot - but keep in mind that I have yet to find a hot pepper that's too much for me to handle. These are quite delicious with a slightly sweet edge, though, and I wouldn't hesitate to order them again. The chunks of cheese made a nice alternative to the usual bread or pita triangles.

Jack, who usually isn't much for vegetables beyond green beans and corn, really liked the lightly breaded zucchini that was topped with marinara, provolone and Romano cheeses - and I concur. Wonderful!

Then came my soup, and I'm delighted to report that it came piping hot (one of my big pet peeves with most restaurants is that soup is served tepid). Filled with veggies, chicken pieces, tiny meatballs and other "stuff" - but not so much that I couldn't find the broth - the flavor was fabulous. After one bite, I put this at the top of the best I've ever had - and I vowed to try a bowl next time out.

I got six good-sized ravioli for my entree, and while the red sauce was quite delicious, I wouldn't call it spectacular. Jack's chicken breast was ample, sitting on top of a mountain of rice. He said the flavor was a little on the "blah" side, but I've found that's often the case with so-called "heart-healthy" dishes. In the end, he added some zest with a few leftover hot peppers from that terrific appetizer - if you can believe that - and ended up cleaning off his plate.

Our next official visit also was at lunchtime, and I wanted to try the wings. Ordering the appetizer portion (12 wings for $8.99), I chose my favorite garlic sauce. Once again, Jack stuck with good-for-you options, this time a house salad with greens, olives, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, carrots, shredded cheese, hard-boiled eggs and croutons at $5.99. Surprisingly (since I can't recall the last time it happened), our server asked if he wanted her to "hold" anything, so he gratefully declined those croutons.

Knowing I'd be quite happy to fill up on those wings, I was feeling a bit more adventurous this time and chose the Chicken & Shrimp Jambalaya as my entree. At $9.69, it features bell peppers, garlic, onions and Andouile sausage in sherry wine and marinara sauce over seasoned rice. It comes with a side salad, and I picked Gorgonzola viniagrette.

We knew immediately that our wings were on the way since we could smell the garlic all the way from the kitchen (okay, in the interest of full disclosure, we were sitting fairly close to the kitchen, but I think you get the point). The wings also are gigantic - perhaps the largest I've seen at a restaurant. The breading is crispy and absolutely delicious, but something made it a bit different - made from breadcrumbs, perhaps? The appendages were resting amid lots of buttery chopped garlic, and the meat was juicy and tender. Had the meal ended here, I'd have been a happy camper. We saved four to bring home, but that was only because we wanted to save at least a little room for our entrees.

Jack's salad was quite large, and since he'd made his usual request for double the regular amount of dressing, his came in a bowl instead of the small plastic container that held mine. Both were quite good, though, and except for the hard-boiled egg (which he allowed me to eat), he finished off the whole thing.

When I ordered the Jambalaya, our server said it's one of her favorite dishes here. To Jack, I said, "Yeah, right; that's what they all say." That was before I'd taken a bite, though - once I'd done that, I said she's absolutely correct. A whole chicken breast plus two large shrimp and several chunks of Andouile sausage topped a substantial portion of rice, and all of that was smothered in an absolutely tantalizing sauce that had a bit of a kick. I managed to eat most of it even though the wings had filled me up, and once Jack tasted it, he willingly polished off the rest so we had nothing to bring home (that is, except for the leftover wings, which lasted all of a couple of hours before we devoured them as well)!

If you go:
1295 Boardman-Canfield Road
Boardman, Ohio 44512
(330) 726-1736

Dining room open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 8 p.m. Lounge is open till 11 p.m. on Sunday, till 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday and till 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.