Black Rock Bar & Grill in Fort Lauderdale was festive on a recent Saturday night, with birthday balloons floating above one group, sparklers shooting from towering dessert “volcanoes,” and patrons sipping “Magic Potions,” a chameleon-like vodka drink that changed color from gold to purple when indeterminate liquid was added tableside.
And then there were the hot rocks. Lots and lots of rocks, smooth and flat and blackish-gray, volcanic bricks that had been heated to 755 degrees in an oven for eight hours and then wheeled to tables with hunks of raw, unseasoned beef. The rocks weigh 15 pounds each and they came in clunky trays that were cumbersome for servers and diners alike. Somehow the hot slabs made their way to each of us in a long booth, as did other plates – a raw tuna steak, a foil-wrapped baked potato, soupy mac-and-cheese, a lava skillet of flavorless sizzling mushrooms.
Our dining space was a cramped minefield. We didn’t have much room to maneuver. It was getting warmer by the minute.
If the fate of our planet could be translated to restaurant form, Black Rock perhaps is it.
Black Rock opened in April 2019 in a former TGIFriday’s on North Federal Highway. It is the first South Florida outpost of a chain that started earlier this decade in Michigan. There are now 15 in four states with other Florida locations in Orlando, Tampa and Brandon. The local franchise owner, Ilene Schleuning, says she and her husband were regulars at the original location in Hartland, Mich. They know the founding Morganroth family and now operate three locations, in Michigan, Ohio and Fort Lauderdale. She says Fort Lauderdale was chosen because co-founder Lonny Morganroth’s parents live in the area and “they really wanted a Black Rock nearby.”
The restaurant has 1,000 volcanic rocks at the ready, and each can be used only once a day because of the heating, cooling and cleaning processes (no chemicals, just a simple rinse).
Black Rock is supposed to be a fun, gimmicky place. By the time my dinner was over, I mainly felt despondent.
Imagine a restaurant that combines the frustrating surcharges of airline travel and mysterious pricing of the American health-care system within a top-down corporate system that compels franchises to follow illogical guidelines — and you have Black Rock. I kept hearing the phrase “that’s corporate policy” in interactions with staff in two visits and follow-up interviews with management. When all was said and done, the place isn’t exactly cheap (over $200, excluding alcohol, for two appetizers, five mains, a supplemental side and one dessert).
Did I mention the food was hit-or-miss, mainly miss? Much of a recent dinner was mediocre, although a follow-up lunch was better.
How did Black Rock disappoint? Let me count the ways:
- An empty plate brought for sharing appetizers was smudged with debris on the side and had to be sent back. Staff should notice dirty plates before patrons do.
- The DIY steaks and other proteins cooked on the rocks are not pre-seasoned. The chain prefers customers add salt, pepper and Montreal seasoning found on tables. But any cook can tell you that salt is needed before cooking to tenderize steaks and give them flavor. The chain says its steaks are Certified Angus Beef, but every cut I tasted at dinner was tough. I suggested to local management that pre-seasoned steaks be offered as an option, something they said they’d run up the corporate flagpole.
- One tablemate ordered a 6-ounce filet mignon ($30.99), but it also was tough and didn’t seem like filet. She didn’t complain. When the bill arrived, it turned out it was not filet but rather the the signature 6-ounce sirloin ($17.99).
- I ordered “Steak Wars” ($33.99), a special combo of “filet of rib eye” and a “Manahttan New York” strip sirloin cut. The rib eye had better flavor, but neither was satisfying. The lesson: Just like Trade Wars, there are no winners in Steak Wars.
- Servers give quick demonstrations about the slicing and cooking technique on the lava rocks, and then pass them to diners. But the trays are not user-friendly, with little divots that hold dipping sauces and cooked (or uncooked?) meat. If steaks are left on the hot rock, they burn, but there’s really no place else to cut meat on a crowded table. A seafood combo ($29.99) had raw shrimp and scallops on the rock, but raw tuna on a separate plate. I wouldn’t advise putting cooked food on that plate. The tuna had a dull flavor.
- The 18-page something-for-everyone menu, complete with full-page pitches for “Fry-tastic truffle fries!” and an “out of this world” bunless burger enveloped by fried “mozzarella moons,” was a bit overwhelming. But the separate four-page drink menu was downright baffling. There were no prices listed for cocktails or beer. The two-page wine list, by the glass and bottle, had prices. We asked our server the cocktail prices. “Around $7 or $8,” she said. We ordered a margarita, a smoked old-fashioned and a Kenutcky mule.
- My tablemate said the margarita was no good, all mix and scant tequila, and she sent it back. When the bill arrived, the margarita ($8.95) was removed. But the other two cocktails each showed a price of $11.50. That’s not $7 or $8. The server could not explain why the chain omits prices from the drink menu. The explanation I received from local management: “The cocktail menus are printed in bulk [nationally] and due to prices being different from state to state the prices are not listed.” Hmm, then perhaps drink menus should be printed locally? A manager says the server may have been confused because drink prices were recently raised. One more reason they should be clearly listed, not left to the memories of overburdened servers. It only can lead to angry customers when incorrect information is relayed. My beef isn’t the price – $11.50 isn’t out of line for a cocktail in Fort Lauderdale – it’s the obfuscation and miscommunication.
- The lobster cheese dip ($14.99), served with toasted pita chips, was a bit salty. The Jamaican jerk chicken wings ($11.99) were fine, but came with a mismatched sweet chili sauce, a cloying dip that I’d expect to find on some bad chain Asian calamari or shrimp dish.
- Surcharges can add up. Two kinds of sauce come free with steaks (casino butter and a creamy, garlicky signature sauce) but other varieties are 50 cents. Some sides are free, others cost an extra $1.99-$2.50. Soda and iced tea refills are free, but refills for housemade root beer ($3.29) are not. At dinner, a tablemate was charged $3.29 for soda water, but I wasn’t charged for the same item when I ate lunch at the bar.
- Not all was bad. Andouille sausage on a combo platter with sirloin ($23.99) burst with spice and flavor, and crisped to crunchy satisfaction on the stone. Baked potatoes and fresh green beans were good. A housemade clam chowder ($4.99 cup) was of the thin variety, not thick and creamy, and had good clam flavor and chunks, along with potatoes, carrots, celery and corn. The towering volcano dessert ($12.99), with a base of chocolate chip cookie-cake, vanilla ice cream, an upside-down cone, and cascading lava flows of whipped cream, was an Instagrammable hit among the two teens at my table.
- Truffle fries turned out to be an ordeal. The server forgot to bring them at dinner, and we told her not to bother when we realized it. I ordered them with lunch but got regular fries instead. I mentioned it to the bartender and he hustled to the kitchen. “There’s that truffle-y goodness,” he said. They were crunchy but tasted more chemical than true truffle, not worth the extra $2.50.
- A cheddar-burger at lunch was hefty and cooked properly to the ordered medium-rare (a blessing there’s no corporate prohibition against bloody beef) but it also had no seasoning. And price confusion reigned again. The lunch menu lists the burger at $8.99. I was expecting a $9.99 charge after adding mushrooms and fried onions (50 cents each). But the bill showed the burger priced at $11.99. Strange, because the burgers start at $12.99 on the regular menu. Where did $11.99 come from? I saw that I wasn’t charged for the soda water, shrugged my shoulders, and considered it a draw.
Black Rock Bar & Grill
6200 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale
954-368-2525, or blackrockrestaurants.com
Cuisine: American, featuring steaks cooked on volcanic rocks
Cost: Moderate to expensive. Soups, salads and appetizers cost $4.99 to $15.99, sandwiches and burgers $10.99-$15.99, steaks and entrees $16.99-$44.99, supplements $1.99-$12.99, desserts $8.99-$12.99
Rating: 1 1/2 stars (middling-to-fair)
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily (until midnight Friday-Saturday)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Call-ahead priority seating
Bar: Full liquor with specialty cocktails, craft beer and wine list that runs from pedestrian to luxury-brand expensive, including Dom Perignon Champagne ($225) and Joseph Phelps Insignia red blend ($290)
Noise level: Background music on speakers, a little loud when crowded
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot or valet
Please see more list about The hot rock bar and grill 2021