Wednesday, January 12, 2000

'Wood works

Posted on Wed, Jan 12, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Picture this: A smart-looking grill and tavern at Heathrow, part of an up-and-coming chain founded by a couple of Darden Restaurants refugees. We thought we knew the drill: big brews, plenty of animal protein and a menu that tastes like it was prepared by bookkeepers from corporate headquarters.

But we really loved Stonewood Tavern and Grill, and so does the neighborhood, even though the place has been open less than a month. Stonewood has become an instant player in the Lake Mary/Heathrow area. Part of its allure is the rustic elegance: The tavern and dining area are pulled together by stacked stone walls, rich wood tables and high-backed booths so plush you could take a nap in them. (And the jeans-clad waiters are so friendly, they probably wouldn't mind.) Lighting design adds to the feng shui; recessed into high ceilings, the lights illuminate the walkways, with a subtle spotlight aimed at the center of each table. The focus is on the meat lover's menu, highlighted by the many offerings that are smoked over an oak-wood grill.

From the start it was clear that our attempts to have a linear conversation would be useless: Every time a fresh wave of handiwork arrived from the kitchen, we forgot whatever it was we were talking about.

The "oak-grilled shrimp" appetizer ($7.45) is well worth the splurge; the bright-pink crustaceans were succulently steeped in tempting woodsy aromas, and they were excellent when dipped in the avocado-basil sauce. Attention also must be paid to "walla walla" fried onions ($5.95), which were jumbo onion sticks dipped in buttermilk batter, fried to a greaseless crisp and served with red-pepper sauce.

For an entree, you could fork over a bundle for the lamb chops ($19.95) encrusted with herbs or the "Pacific cliffs salmon" ($16.95) coated with almonds and brandied blueberry compote. But the sandwiches are excellent, too, and they come with heaps of fries. Or try the pan-seared grouper with ginger-wasabi mayonnaise ($8.45).

The tender and juicy "pork Adirondack" ($15.95), a tenderloin sautéed in white-wine mushroom sauce, is about as good as pork gets. And although it doesn't quite qualify as truly great, the scorching New York strip steak ($20.95) was still a source of pleasure. The prime-grade cut of beef was dry aged and sizzled with a bit of butter.

Service was great and collaborative; the whole team knew what they were doing, with the exception of a baked potato that arrived with the works on top, not on the side as requested.

For a new entry, Stonewood carries the smell of success.



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