Bag of Tricks 

Surprises await at Montana's Grill

Let's be blunt. When Dos Hombres on North Academy closed, my heart didn't break. When I saw a new restaurant there, I was excited about someplace with the potential to be really good. (I'm an optimist, so any restaurant at which I've never eaten has the potential to be exceptional. I'd rather give up Christmas than my belief that the very next restaurant could have the quintessential club sandwich, the perfect taco or the penultimate pie.)

When I finally visited Montana's Grill, my dreams were neither shattered nor fulfilled. My experiences were a mixed bag, and I think the restaurant is suffering from an identity crisis. Once they get a few rough spots ironed out, they could be a terrific addition to the dining scene.

The waitstaff is on the young side, but very friendly and enthusiastic. I'd give them an extra point for being great with kids, but I'd have to take it away for a lack of attention to detail. For example, we never got plates with our appetizers unless we asked for them, a steak that was requested medium-rare was written down as "medium" and, on another visit, our order for a cup of soup, which we watched our waiter write on his pad, never appeared. But we did get complimentary chips and salsa during one visit, our water glasses were kept full, and our waiters did check with us frequently to make sure everything was all right.

The food, too, is a mixed bag. Some items are excellent and some aren't anything to rave about. For starters, the salsa that came with the chips was thick, like tomato sauce, and lacked flavor. But the pico de gallo that came with a couple of entrees was delightful, fairly sparkling with chilies, tomatoes, onion and cilantro. They'd do better to forget the salsa altogether and stick with the pico. The one night we did get the soup we ordered, a cup of beef with barley, it was superb. The broth was thick, rich and beefy, with tender chunks of slow-simmered beef and fresh vegetables. Our order of Texas Nibblers ($4.99) -- batter-dipped sticks of onion and jalapeno, deep-fried and served with ranch dressing -- was outstanding. The sticks weren't greasy and the batter was crispy and flecked with black pepper.

When we got to the entrees, the filet mignon ($17.29) and rib-eye steaks ($16.99) were among the best, albeit the rib-eye was supposed to be medium-rare instead of medium. Both were well-flavored, tender pieces of meat, accompanied by large baked potatoes and a generous shrub of broccoli. The baby-back ribs ($14.99/half rack), however, were nothing to write home about. The sauce on the ribs was great -- zesty without being too hot or too sweet -- but the ribs themselves weren't particularly meaty, juicy or tender; they had a tendency to be dry where there wasn't any sauce. The Trout Almadine ($16.49) fell in between. The trout had a good sweet flavor, and was excellently cooked so as not to be dry at all, but tasted like broiled trout with a couple of slivered almonds tossed on top -- nothing special.

You can't order any of the salads (Cobb, taco, chef or chicken Caesar, $5.99-$6.99) after 3 p.m. You can, however, order the Garden Platter ($7.79), which more than makes up for it. This was one of the best entrees we tried. You get a garden salad topped with slices of ripe avocado, pico de gallo, cheese, olives and croutons. Served alongside is a large pile of baked red potatoes and perfectly grilled vegetables (including broccoli, zucchini, yellow squash and onions) in a delicious mustard sauce that enhances the vegetables without being too sharp or too strong.

There's a small selection of Mexican entrees, and based on my one sample, I'd ignore them. The big burrito ($6.99) was a flour tortilla filled with shredded breast of chicken and nothing else. The chicken wasn't bad, but white meat tends to be dry by itself and there was no seasoning to add any flavor. It is served smothered with melted cheese and chili, which tasted surprisingly like Pace picante sauce. The only redeeming quality was that pico de gallo on the side. The refried beans were good, with whole beans adding texture to the creamy mashed beans, and the rice was the same rice pilaf that came with the trout.

This is a good place to take kids because it isn't too fancy, and the staff is really understanding and friendly when dealing with children. On the other hand, I think the price for a kids meal is too high -- $4.29 for a corn dog and a handful of fries. You do get a cute plastic cup to take home, but every parent of a child older than 11 months already has enough of these plastic cups at home to open their own Dairy Queen. If you have more than one child, you'd be better off ordering the veggie burger and fries ($5.49) and splitting it between them. But the staff is accommodating. Adding rice and beans to any Mexican entree is only $1.50, and our waiter let me order that for one of our children.

There are four desserts on the menu ($4.99-$5.99), one of which is cheesecake, which I never order. I haven't yet tried the brandied peaches, which are seasoned with brandy and spices and served with ice cream, but I did try the fried ice cream, which is decent enough.

The Bananas Foster, on the other hand, is an incredibly delicious and overwhelmingly rich dessert. Do not try to eat this by yourself. Huge slices of banana are served with an addictive sweet sauce of rum and brown sugar, over melting ice cream, and the caramely syrup gathers in the bottom of the goblet waiting for the adventurous (or gluttonous) to scoop it up. The only thing I'd change is serving it in a flatter bowl, so I can get to every drop of that luscious sauce.


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