Two large gaslight lanterns flanking the entrance to Chop House Grille take some of the chill out of the fall night air and help you forget the restaurant is in a sprawling shopping center.
The warm welcome is reinforced in the dining room and bar, where alabaster chandeliers, maple woodwork and gilt-framed harvest landscapes on textured khaki walls combine for a look that is at once polished and comfortable. If you're lucky enough to score a table in the small back room with a fireplace, you'll be downright cozy.
The menu appears calculated to appeal to a broad range of tastes and moods without venturing too far outside reassuringly familiar territory. At one end of the spectrum is traditional steakhouse fare: shrimp cocktail, iceberg wedge and all the usual grilled red meat suspects. At the other is a contemporary American offering whose most adventurous options include a sashimi tuna filet with pineapple-mango relish, and a Cajun mixed grill of tilapia, shrimp and andouille sausage.
A similar philosophy guides the wine selection, whose 80-plus listings (more than two dozen by the glass) are dominated by familiar labels.
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Your appetizers arrive, served on stylish white plates with a "CH" logo. Fried green tomatoes, stacked in alternating layers with baby shrimp and skewered with a rosemary sprig, tower over a prosciutto-flecked puddle of honey-Dijon sauce. Fried lobster ravioli, their shells striped black with bands of squid ink-dyed pasta, nestle in a festive wreath of marinara, pesto and crumbled Gorgonzola.
A lot of planning has gone into every detail of the dining experience -- the sort of planning that's typical of an upscale chain restaurant. In fact, Chop House Grille is a chain, albeit a small one. The North Raleigh location, which opened in April, is the first in the Triangle of a Greensboro-based chain. A second is slated to open in Cary's Stone Creek Shopping Center this weekend.
For all its planning, a restaurant is only as good as its execution. Chop House Grille succeeds on that score better than many chains, but there's room for improvement.
Shrimp bisque, for instance, is richly satisfying, its concentrated flavor tinged with sherry. And the fried green tomato appetizer is as much fun to eat as it is to look at. But the delicate lobster filling in the fried ravioli is overwhelmed by the intense flavors on the plate, particularly a thick marinara cooked so long it borders on caramelized. And a large crab cake, packed with crabmeat and served over a toothsome butterbean ragout, would be first-rate if it weren't burned on the bottom.
Evidently, the kitchen pays closer attention to the doneness of steaks, grilled or otherwise. A bone-in New York strip, ordered rare, comes within a whisper of that juicy, cool-centered ideal. A hefty slab of prime rib is spot on medium rare as ordered, and fork tender to boot. Same goes for tenderloin beef medallions in a gratifyingly understated Grand Marnier orange sauce.
Fried Argentine flounder, moist and flaky under a delicately crisp cornmeal crust, is a winning alternative for non-beefeaters. Served in ample portion with excellent wedge fries and a creamy, fine-textured slaw, it's a well-spent $17.95. For that matter, even the steaks are competitively priced, given that their tab (in the $20-$30 range) includes a salad and your choice of a side dish (besides the wedge fries, worthy options include cabernet mushrooms and rosemary scalloped potatoes).
Unfortunately, Chop House Grille appears to suffer from the spotty service that is all too common in chain restaurants. On one occasion, our server disappeared for long, thirsty stretches. On another, a different waiter was pleasant enough but insufficiently trained.
Both servers got one thing right, however: They recommended the chocolate chip skillet cookie for dessert. Served warm in a small cast iron skillet, topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, it hits the comfort food spot.
And that, I suspect, is precisely the target Chop House Grille is aiming for.