Well... there's good news and there's bad news...
On the positive side, Salt Creek Grille boasts valet parking, a lovely view of the Navesink River (on the site formerly occupied by Fisherman's Wharf), youthful and energetic service and manager Steve Bidgood, a big and personable man with an equally big heart and genuine desire to make his customers happy.
Negatively, it has all the earmarks of a semi-upscale, gung ho chain chophouse attempting to impersonate its betters: a sibling in California, two more on the way, and God knows how many on the drawing board; reservations limited to parties of eight or more; a plethoric variety of squealing, screaming children; and variable vittles.
My biggest gripe, however, are the somewhat lofty tariffs. During one particular visit, for example, my wife and I shared an appetizer and a $19.00 bottle of vino; we then ordered two entrees, two desserts and two espressos. The damages: $110.00 (including tax and gratuity). Pricey. Too pricey.
In point of fact, all offerings seem designed to cause your wallet a major monetary infarction--and that includes the so-called "Martini Menu" (at $6.00 per libation) and the self-indulgent wine list. How many knowledgeable diners would shell out $120.00 for a 1995 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve in such middle-of-the-road surroundings? Or $110.00 for a 1994 Opus One? And the Kunde Chardonnay and Geyser Peak Shiraz, both going for $29.00, are no bargains either.
Should you elect to pay a call here, and be fortunate enough to find yourself without benefit of offspring for the evening, opt to dine in the bar. The cozy tables provide the best views in the house, the atmosphere is somewhat more intimate than in the tumultuous dining area, and the clientele also seems a tad more sophisticated. Best of all, however, you will not be treated to the rambunctious ramblings of someone else's perverse progeny. Yes, the cigarette smokers are in attendance (pipes and cigars are permitted on the porch only); but since the smoldering vapors drift freely into the larger dining room anyway, no matter where you happen to settle in, your lungs (and clothing) are bound to suffer some ill-effects from the pestiferous pollution; it's just a matter of degree.
But so much for prolegomenon... When it comes time to get down to the nitty-gritty of ordering your rations, bear in mind that they are exceedingly generous. In other words, unless you have the capacity of a ravening hyena, you will find that most appetizers are large enough to share and that most entrees will necessitate a doggy bag. And, while we're on the subject, don't forget to pack up the complimentary crusty Italian round bread and garlic/sundried tomato butter. They're simply too yummy to waste.
Other than the aforementioned items, you will undoubtedly find starters to be the most satisfying part of a meal here--and the oven baked goat cheese marinara ($7.95) and the tumbleweed onion rings ($6.50) are the hands-down faves. The former is a rich island of blended goat and cream cheeses floating in a savory sea of marinara sauce; it arrives surrounded by an armada of toasted baguettes for dipping. The latter is a veritable mountain of thinly sliced red onions served up with ramekins of tasty blue cheese dressing and Spence's BBQ Sauce. There's more breading than onion--but who cares? These scrumptious specimens are perfectly crisp, delectably seasoned and utterly addictive. For a smidgen more long green, you may treat yourself to the jumbo shrimp stuffed with horseradish and garlic ($12.95). They are wrapped in smoked bacon, mesquite grilled and then served with a fabulous chipotle honey dipping sauce.
Unfortunately, main courses are not nearly so efficacious as their worthy predecessors. Part of the problem, of course, is that many of the specialties are just too ambitious... and the kitchen has neither the culinary acumen nor the experience to carry them off. The blackened red snapper ($23.95), for example, is topped with a rather strange pico de gallo (tomato relish), and is entirely too dry. Even though the yellowfin tuna ($21.95) was requested medium-rare, it arrived at table suitable for sushi, totally resistant to the vigorous ministrations of various pieces of cutlery, and sent swimming back to the grill for another go. Even the fusilli chicken pasta ($12.50), a relatively straightforward dish, was surprisingly bland and the fowl woefully overcooked.
Given the inconsistences of the provisions here, if you're still hell-bent on parting with a copious amount of your hard-earned cash, ordering a steak is probably the best option. There are three possibilities from which to choose, but the filet mignon, grilled over mesquite with whole grain mustard sauce ($21.95), is by far the least of the evils.
Desserts are also disappointing. The Key lime torte ($5.95) is the right color but the wrong consistency... and the sweet coconut crust doesn't help matters appreciably. The mixed berry cobbler ($6.00) is merely so-so, and the chocolate baby cake filled with liquid Belgian chocolate ($6.95), while the pick of the litter, is still significantly less than outstanding.
If you want to stop by and blow the froth off a couple after work, or wash down an appetizer or sandwich with a glass of Mondavi Woodbridge ($4.00) while watching the game on one of their six TVs, you'll find Salt Creek Grille a fun place to hang out. Attempt to ingest anything more gastronomically innovative, however, and you'll leave with the feeling that both your palate and your pocketbook have been betrayed.
You can get better finny fare and burgers around the corner at Barnacle Bill's, and infinitely better steak just up the road at What's Your Beef?--and at comparable (or even more reasonable) tariffs. Looking for a fun evening and good food? Take a bit of advice: enjoy a preprandial libation and a few laughs at Salt Creek Grille... then dine elsewhere.
Cuisine: Mesquite grilled items, seafood, salads, pasta, sandwiches
Hours: Dinner: Sun - Thurs, 5 p.m. - 10 p.m; Fri & Sat, 5 p.m. - 11 p.m.; Cocktails: From 4 p.m. daily; Sunday Brunch: 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V, Diners Club
Smoking: Cigarette smoking in bar only; pipes & cigars permitted on porch
Reservations: For parties of 8 or more only
Handicapped Accessible: Yes, but restrooms are downstairs
Specials: Happy Hour Mon - Fri, 4: p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Web Site: saltcreekgrille.com