by Lauren McAllister

I really want to like Rock City Grill. It's locally owned. It started about the same time that The Inlander came on the scene. It has held out in downtown through the lean years. Hey, they even want to "rock" me!

Rock City -- An Italian American Grill -- amid much media fanfare, moved in and revamped the spot abruptly vacated by Chevy's at River Park Square late last year. So on a recent evening, my trusty companion and I went to check out the new digs. The restaurant's interior is laid out nearly, if not exactly, the same as it was during Chevy's tenure, although the d & eacute;cor has been toned down with deep earth pigments and dark stained wood. There's a lively bar up front, with most of the restaurant seating toward the back, along the big windows looking out at Spokane Falls Boulevard.

Although there were many empty seats by the windows as we were arriving for a late dinner, we were seated far back in the restaurant, under a looming psychedelic VW Bug with neon headlights bursting through the back wall. This struck me as a bit of a throwback -- a gimmick that was clever about 10 years ago. Nonetheless, we did have a good view of the big wood-fired oven that pumps out Rock City's pizzas and calzones.

To start, we opted for crab and artichoke dip with foccacia ($10.35) as an appetizer. It was the standard cheesy affair, but stood out because of the nice big pieces of cracked crab. The garnish of chopped tomatoes and scallions really helped to give this dish some interest in the texture and color department. The oven-roasted vegetables ($6) -- including baby carrots, new potatoes, red and green peppers and zucchini -- looks like a good choice, too.

There are a wide array of entr & eacute;es, sandwiches and pizzas on the menu. Most entr & eacute;es come with a house Caesar salad -- on some, it can be added for an additional $2.25. The salad of romaine with a little sprinkle of grated parmesan and a few croutons was truly and completely uninspired. At least it was free with my dinner.

My companion opted for the deluxe calzone ($13) with pepperoni, salami, Canadian bacon, marinated chicken, red onions, black olives and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. It was a thing of beauty, golden brown with a pretty braided edge. Inside was lots of gooey cheese and a generous amount of all the tasty filling ingredients. The calzone's time in the wood-burning oven had imparted a nice lightly smoky flavor to the crust.

After much deliberation, I settled on the Tequila Chicken Pasta ($15). I had been tempted to try one of the low-fat menu items. Kudos to Rock City for offering some choices for those who want to keep their hearts functioning for a few years. But our server steered me away from the PG Girls calzone ($10) -- with artichoke hearts, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, mushrooms and marinara sauce. "It's our least popular calzone," she said. "A calzone without cheese? What's the point?" Perhaps honest, but not exactly an endorsement.

So I threw caution to the wind and ordered the tequila chicken pasta with mushrooms and cilantro in a garlic cream sauce. I went ahead and ordered the full-size version so I'd have enough for lunch the next day and the portion that arrived was certainly plenty for two meals. The chicken had a nice delicate flavor of lime and tequila and went well with the cream sauce with just an occasional hint of cilantro. I would have enjoyed more of the sliced fresh mushrooms. Again, the chopped tomato garnish helped to add a little texture and taste to this dish, which began to seem oily and bland after a few bites.

Desserts included a cr & egrave;me brulee, a tira misu and a "heavenly seven chocolate cake" ($4.50), which we opted to share. The fairly moist layers of dark chocolate cake were layered with a creamy cheesecake layer and chocolate and cream cheese buttercream frosting. The cake was similar to the standard chocolate birthday cake from any grocery store bakery.

Service was adequate throughout the evening.

And that pretty well describes the food at Rock City Grill as well. Outside the stuff coming out of the wood-fired oven, which is very good, it is just adequate. You won't leave hungry, and you probably won't have to spend half your monthly car payment to feed two people, even if you enjoy a drink or two with dinner. But the menu lacks creative energy. The same sauces appear over and over. The Thai sauce shows up in appetizer satays, over pasta, on a pizza, on a sandwich and in a calzone. I half expected to see it served over ice cream for dessert. The attempt at low-fat menu items falls flat, either because the items don't taste very good, or because the staff hasn't received much training about those items. A salad is nothing more than chopped lettuce heaped on a tiny plate.

Rock City seems to be the kind of playful restaurant that just wants to have fun, which is admirable. The world's a serious place these days, and a little respite is welcome. But it would be even more enjoyable if the plates included the same kind of colorful detail lavished on that VW van.

Publication date: 05/20/04

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