We enjoy our urban existence but must confess that, sometimes, we are susceptible to the allure of the suburbs, especially the old-fashioned kind. When we're in this mood, we head on over to Aspinwall, the picture-perfect poster town for imagined suburban bliss, just across the Highland Park Bridge. The leafy streets of handsome homes, large and small, have a small-town feel, and the business district bustles politely with Main Street familiarity.
Aspinwall boasts several worthy restaurants, but what seems to be the unofficial town clubhouse is the Aspinwall Grille, in a storefront a couple doors down from a dollhouse store and the municipal building. Small-town social life has traditionally revolved around luncheonettes and taverns; the Grille splits the difference, with a bar on one side and black-and-white vinyl booths on the other. Little League pictures abound, as do cards for local businesses and other trappings of Aspinwalliana.
On the menu, the expected bar and diner classics are all present and accounted for, but the kitchen expands upon them with unusual presentations, like a shredded Buffalo chicken dip; unusual ingredients, like a ponzu glaze on calamari fra diavolo; and actual invention, as with the "#1 Seller" Grille Burger, topped with blackened tomato, grilled red onion, and pepper jack and asiago cheeses.
With so many intriguing choices before us, we threw caution to the wind and ordered enough for four. Our appetizer of crab-stuffed peppers was itself large enough to serve as a modest entrée. Three piquant banana peppers formed crunchy cornucopias for their stuffing of seasoned crabmeat, which, appropriately, had the character of a mild seafood sausage. Over it all, a creamy tomato sauce studded with pine nuts was ample, thick and hearty.
Fried calamari had a light, crisp crust. The sweet-sour saltiness of the ponzu a citrusy soy sauce that accompanied it made an excellent marriage with the mild seafood and a welcome alternative to the traditional marinara dip.
Strawberry salad, offered only in season, was also entrée-sized. In addition to the fresh strawberries, it featured a generous bed of greens, strips of grilled chicken, red onion, gorgonzola and almonds in a raspberry vinaigrette whose sweet, tangy richness echoed that of the ingredients.
That Grille Burger sounded pretty good to Jason, and it tasted even better. He couldn't figure out whether the intense flavor came from the toppings or from seasoning in the burger itself. Regardless, the hearty roll had enough character to hold it all together, and the two cheeses the highbrow asiago and the parochial pepper jack blended beautifully. On a burger menu with a lot of choices, this is the best seller for a reason.
Angelique ordered one of the chef's specialties, seafood capellini, a delectable mixture of Gulf shrimp, sea scallops and lobster meat sautéed with diced tomatoes in a garlic clam sauce. The seafood was perfectly tender, with the chopped clams adding yet another texture and dimension of briny, beachy flavor. The tomatoes, not yet at the peak of their season, served mostly as garnish, while the garlic was the subtle presence that made the sauce sing.
Aspinwall may trade on its nostalgic ambience, but good food is truly timeless. And, readily available at the Aspinwall Grille.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars