Rustic Timberfire packs 'em in

Call of the Wild 

Rustic Timberfire packs 'em in

Timberfire: Like an evening at the lodge. - WALTER  NOVAK
Even a 90-minute wait wasn't enough to discourage the hungry horde of diners at Chagrin Falls's new Timberfire restaurant on a recent Saturday evening. Rather than setting out to find some faster victuals elsewhere, members of the friendly crowd -- mostly family groups dressed in their Land's End catalog casual best (think cashmere crewnecks and cotton Drifter sweaters) -- passed the time chatting with friends outside the expansive log structure or lounging in one of the oversized Adirondack chairs on the restaurant's covered veranda, while recorded folk music rippled over the outdoor speakers.

It was almost enough to make you think you were vacationing in an exclusive Rocky Mountain resort, which is undoubtedly the effect Timberfire's originators (Gamekeeper's Hospitality owners Tom Lutz and Erik Heatwole, along with members of the Larry Dolan family) had in mind when they constructed this picturesque lodgepole-pine cabin, with its three huge stone fireplaces, a shiny open kitchen, soaring ceilings, and Native American artifacts. The 250-seat space abounds with interesting details, like the three-dimensional tableau simulating sunset over the mountains, tiny stars set into the blue "sky" above the lounge, and a grouping of rugged leather chairs and sofas pulled up to a fireplace. Portraits of Lewis & Clark and Thomas Jefferson hang below a massive mural mapping their legendary trek. Miniature tepees serve as lampshades. Indian rugs are used as window dressings. Soft Pendleton trade blankets (or something that looks like them) double as upholstery.

But while the space may be novel, the menu is less so. Those expecting the same type of fancified cookin', with an emphasis on game, as is available at the area's four Gamekeeper's restaurants are in for a surprise. At Timberfire, casual is definitely king -- as in burgers, ribs, rotisserie chicken, steaks, and chops. Still, the large menu has something for almost everyone, including picky children ("Look, Bitsy: Chicken tenders!"), portions are ample, prices are moderate, and the kitchen cranks out the food at an admirable pace.

From among the six meals we sampled across the course of two visits, a flavorful rosemary-crusted, grilled pork chop was the standout. The modestly sized rib chop was perfectly done: just past pink, but still tender and juicy. It came with a serving of chunky Fontinella-streaked mashed potatoes and a dollop of delicious, warm cranberry "preserves" that gave a mellow sweet-tart tang to the satisfying meal.

The menu's eight grilled steaks, chops, and seafood entrées include a choice of two simple salads. The house salad was a generous mix of fresh greens, with a few slices of surprisingly tasty tomato, some cucumber, and a pair of seasoned croutons. With it we chose the housemade balsamic vinaigrette -- a thick, well-balanced dressing served on the side. The Caesar Salad was also good, with lots of crisp Romaine tossed in a pleasantly cheesy dressing with hints of lemon and anchovy. (The same salads are available with pastas and other dinner selections for an additional $2.75 or à la carte for $3.25.) Another special touch: All entrées come with dense, crisp-crusted hard rolls from the Breadsmith bakery.

Among the other entrées, a large, thin filet of chargrilled Atlantic salmon, in a mildly sweet Asian barbecue sauce, had a wonderful, crunchy crust from the caramelized juices, but was a little overcooked, especially around the edges. It came sided with a big helping of pedestrian white-and-wild-rice pilaf, dotted with bits of carrot and red pepper.

More arousing was a platter full of cavatappi (curly, ridged pasta tubes, sort of like fanciful, overgrown elbow macaroni), tossed with oil, garlic, tender bits of chargrilled chicken breast, chopped fresh basil, tomato, roasted red pepper, scallion, and shredded Romano cheese. The pasta had been pulled from the water in time to ensure it still had a pleasantly firm texture, and the add-on goodies were all fresh-tasting and flavorful.

We also sampled a combination platter with half of a rotisserie-roasted chicken and a four-bone half-slab of baby back ribs. The plump chicken had a delightfully crisp, rosemary-infused skin; basil butter had also been spread between the skin and the meat, adding even more flavor. As for the ribs, they were meaty and tender, although the sweet barbecue sauce lacked much zip. The platter came with lots of plain and simple French fries.

Among the sandwiches, our favorite was a voluptuous grilled portobello mushroom, topped with tender leaves of fresh spinach, roasted red pepper, grilled onions, and melted Gorgonzola and Monterey Jack cheeses, on a vaguely sweet, chewy grilled bun. We'd order this one again in a heartbeat, just to savor the rich, smoky flavors and the juicy, gratifying mouth feel. A standard-issue half-pound of ground Angus beef topped with melted cheddar and two strips of bacon -- the Dakota Burger -- was good, with plenty of grilled taste. Unfortunately, the burger came rare rather than medium-well, as ordered -- one of several fairly predictable missteps on that hectic Saturday night, including salads that never arrived, rolls that had to be requested, and the appearance of dessert while the plates from our main dishes still covered the table.

Probably the least impressive part of the menu is the appetizer selection -- a mundane collection of mostly breaded and fried items. Both the crunchy fried calamari and the crisp-crusted fried mozzarella wedges were generously apportioned, although the cornmeal breading was pretty bland; each came with a cup of nondescript marinara for dipping. Two soups -- a creamy portobello, full of big chunks of meaty mushroom, and a sweet roasted onion, with plenty of melted mozzarella and toasted ciabatta croutons -- were a bit more interesting, and a warm crabmeat and artichoke dip, served with tortilla chips, was suitably saucy.

But if your budget or your figure require you to make some sacrifices, skip the appetizers and go with the desserts: a homey collection of some really excellent treats. Tops on our list was the huge rectangle of moist, not-too-sweet carrot cake, studded with shredded carrot and bits of walnut, and crowned with a dreamy cream-cheese frosting with the texture of whipped marshmallow. Also just right was a serving of pineapple upside-down cake: two big squares of tender yellow cake, covered with rings of fresh pineapple and chopped pecans in a fruit glaze, beneath a cloud of whipped cream.

On both visits, our servers recommended the Warm Toll House Pie. The first time, we passed it up as probably too childish, but on the second trip, we succumbed. And, boy, were we glad we did, as we tucked into the decadent sweet, composed of a meltingly gooey filling -- just like a hot-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookie -- in a light pastry crust, sided with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream and slathered with hot fudge sauce. We also wouldn't say no to another go at the Reese's Ice Cream Pie: a chocolate cookie crumb crust loaded up with rich chocolate-peanut butter ice cream and topped with lots of hot fudge sauce. The only less-than-satisfying choice was the Warm Cinnamon Apple Sundae: The bits and pieces of apple were few and far between, and the hot cinnamon sauce had pretty much turned the ice cream to milk before it reached the table.

Timberfire has a full bar and a cozy lounge with five televisions tuned to sports, making it the seating area of choice for the young and the hip. The wine list has about two dozen selections, most by the bottle and the glass, and the bar carries a nice assortment of domestic and imported bottled beers. Speaking of beverages, we were surprised to find that the restaurant serves its iced tea and soda pop in plastic rather than glass tumblers; some diners find that plastic lends a slightly odd taste to the drinks and has an institutional feel in the hand.

Service and preparation were dependable on a relatively slow Thursday evening, when the wait for a table was a modest 20 minutes. But, not surprisingly, both suffered during the gangbusters Saturday night rush. Besides the forgotten rolls and salads, the uncleared plates, and the underdone burger, the noise level that night was intense -- fine for families with small fry or groups of uproariously funny co-workers, say, but not so good for couples looking for a little tête-à-tête time. Similarly, our seats in one of the tall, enclosed booths obscured our view of the colorful surroundings and made us feel cut off from the rest of the world -- almost like we were back on the cube farm. And the narrow aisle between our row of booths and the tables beside us meant servers were constantly squeezing past with heavy metal trays, held menacingly above our defenseless noggins.

Then again, when you answer the call of the wild on a Saturday night, you have to be prepared to take some chances. Even if the unexplored lands are no farther away than bucolic Chagrin Falls.

More by Elaine T. Cicora

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