The warmth of an Aspen lodge awaits you at the Salt Creek Grille, the newest addition to the dining horizon along Route 1. Tucked behind the Westin at Forrestal Village (be sure to follow the well-needed signs to find the entrance!), the approach is a bit daunting when you are greeted by valet parking. Never fear, there are plenty of D-I-Y slots once you ask.
We arrived very late on a Saturday afternoon, or conversely very early on a Saturday night, and the place was jumping. At 5:30, there were tables readily available but the atmosphere was anything but the lull between the lunchtime crowd and the evening diners. We were seated at a spacious table and settled in to soak up the warm, dark wood; the vaulted ceiling; the subdued lighting; the roomy bar; and the crackling fires from the two huge fireplaces. One of these is open to a sheltered terrace at the entrance that features comfy chairs and lap robes to make the wait for a table a bit of a change.
Everything suggested a relaxing dinner until we became aware of the clatter of the open kitchen. Trying to hear the waitress over the sounds of dishes being readied from the washer, and orders arriving for pickup was a challenge. At times, it sounded like a school cafeteria. Seeing the flames from the grill might be visually interesting but some sort of glass wall would have helped keep the noise level down.
The high posted main dining room is naturally loud and the night we were there, several children were among the diners, including some itty bitties, and not all of them were as quiet as the group we saw glued to a video screen the parents had positioned on the table, apparently the 21st century solution to teaching your kids how to behave in public.
However, once the piping hot bread with the olive butter arrived and we began to peruse the menu and smell the mesquite smells, we were eager to try everything. The menu is small, a sign that they know their niche and revel in it. Starters ranged from $8 to $15 and included the usual suspects. The house salad had tasty glazed walnuts and was more than enough to share.
Main entrees focused on the famous mesquite grill. Salmon was featured in a couple of different ways and the special was swordfish prepared to choice for $25. The herbed chicken was $17 and $1 of this was dedicated to autism research, a nice touch of giving back. Of course, there were a goodly choice of beef cuts (up to $36) to enjoy a la mesquite.
I opted for the “must have” pork chop, touted by food reviewers as the best on the planet. And it was huge, moist, and a good choice for a first dinner. My friend had a vegetarian stack that was equally generous and quite filling. Luckily, we both wanted to try the signature garlic french fries, crisp, light and very garlicky, a fun twist on an old favorite.
Drinks choices were plentiful and included a Tigertini, made so by the addition of a chocolate swirl. The table next to us ordered one and it did look like a tiger’s tail drifting down. Wines are a special attraction at the Grille and they offer the interesting opportunity to create your own flights of three 2.5 ounce tastes in case you are unsure of what you want or just want to stretch out and try something new. Wines by the glass run from $6 to $35 but don’t despair at not being able to try the creme de la creme. The Grille has special nights when bottles are half price and when glasses are half price.
The bar was particularly roomy and the regular menu is offered at the many tables there. A community table offers single diners the chance to dine and chat, or not, as the mood strikes them and the feeling is not as crushed as some other venues around. An ample waiting area exists for those awaiting a table. And there is jazz several nights a week for the mingle and mix crowd.
Salt Creek Grille is a welcome addition to the choices on the highway and is several steps above the other chains. It is a favorable complement to the often-crowded P.F. Chang’s and Big Fish. Reservations are accepted but on weekends only for parties of six or more. It is informal but not too, only one baseball cap was to be seen. It will be a good choice for taking out the boss or for a night of good eating. Once the noise gets under control, it would be an inviting setting for a romantic dinner, with live jazz several night a week. There’s something about a roaring fire and a cozy couch, snow optional.
Salt Creek Grille, 1 Rockingham Row, Princeton Forrestal Village. 609-419-4200. www.saltcreekgrille.com.