I have an aversion to casual dining chains like Tumbleweed and O'Charley's that is second only to my deeply rooted dislike for Wonder Bread, suburban housing developments and anodyne television sitcoms: They each attempt to fabricate authenticity where none exists.
That's why I was pleased to learn that, when Baxter's Fresh Grille opened in Springdale in September 2004, it took over the location of a former Tumbleweed restaurant that had closed up and blown away. Baxter's Fresh Grille has definitely elevated things beyond the culinary level of the prior tenant. I enjoyed some pretty good food there. However, in terms of ambiance, the ghost of Tumbleweed past still haunts the place. To my mind, the setting doesn't match the level of the food.
Baxter's Fresh Grille offers American cuisine, serving fancy entrées like chicken and wild mushroom penne or sea bass with lobster champagne sauce, as well as more standard fare like burgers, steaks, salads, chicken and sandwiches. The lunch menu is heavy on the sandwiches, salads and pub standbys like fish-and-chips and meatloaf.
According to the chef, the restaurant aims to fill a space between chain restaurants and fine dining. It seeks a middle ground, offering high-quality food in a relaxed setting and delivering a good value.
What sets Baxter's apart from the chains below it on the culinary pecking order is the fact that many casual chains don't have real chefs on site. Instead they have kitchen managers who run highly efficient operations that depend heavily on industrial strength freezers and Fryolaters. In contrast, Baxter's has an expert chef with Culinary Institute of America training and a burning passion for food who gets fresh fish and produce delivered every day.
For starters, we tried the Sampler Platter ($9.99) — Coconut Onion Rings, Spring Rolls and Chicken Tenders. The onion rings were tasty; I liked the nutty, sweet taste of the shredded coconut. The spring rolls were a standout. They were moist and satisfying, made with ample amounts of blackened chicken, grilled corn and cheese, and came with a creole mustard sauce that had a nice level of heat. Chicken tenders were very fresh and tasted homemade. We also tried the Baxter's Crabcakes ($7.99), served over a red pepper coulis. These were very moist and dense, with lots of crabmeat.
For my entrée, I had the baked Glendale Halibut ($17.99), with a horseradish crust and a light citrus beurre blanc. The fish was moist and the crust flavorful, with just enough zip from the horseradish. The citrus accent in the beurre blanc was too subtle to make much of a contribution. The fish was accompanied with excellent roasted garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.
My companion opted for the 12-ounce New York Strip Steak ($18.99). This was a respectable steak that came out well cooked and served with boiled red new potatoes. Both entrées came with a salad and Baxter's freshly baked biscuits; these were oddly cakey and a bit too sweet for my taste.
Dessert options were limited to three choices: Turtle Cheesecake, an Oreo-brownie-chocolate mousse concoction called Chocolate Confusion (both $4.99) and Crème Brulée ($3.99). When pressed, our server said that only the crème brulée was made in house, so we went with that. It was appropriately crunchy on top, creamy and not too sweet.
Although a bit shaky to start, service got steadily better, and was overall friendly and efficient. One aspect of the service stood out: Our server carefully monitored the pace of our meal. When conversation kicked in after our appetizers and salads hit, she expertly slowed things down, holding off on firing our order into the kitchen until we caught up with ourselves. Basic, yes — but a lot of servers could stand to add this move to their playbook.
There are two Baxter's locations. The one I visited is in Springdale, not far from Tri-County mall. It has a big bar area, with live music on the weekends. The other is in Blue Ash.
Despite other positives, Baxter's needs to pay more attention to its ambiance. The dining room is a big, high-ceilinged space without distinction. With a big stone fireplace on one wall, it has a cavernous feel, like a ski lodge or cafeteria. It's worth noting that Baxter's menu calls out, "We never lose our focus on making our food great. It's what we are all about." I agree that this is a great mission, but I do think that Baxter's should focus some more attention on the physical space.
If it's trying to straddle a space between chain and fine dining, Baxter's needs to make sure to serve quality food in an environment that sets it apart from the Tumbleweeds of the world. ©
Baxter's Fresh Grille
Go: 11305 Princeton Pike, Springdale
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Prices: Reasonable to moderate
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Numerous salads, chicken and fish dishes