Thursday, August 26, 2010

Coal Fire Reviewed By The City Paper, Or "Should I Care If A Restaurant Is Turning Into A Chain?"

I love people who try to create quality food, and I love seeing quality food become a success.  So I'm not sure why I can't make up my mind about Coal Fire Pizza.

The first Coal Fire opened in Ellicott City in early 2009, and I loved it at first.  The last few visits have been good, but unspectacular.  One was bad enough not to finish my slices.  

I had been thinking about why I hadn't felt inspired to return to Coal Fire, and the issue arose again last week with Tim Carman's review of Coal Fire Pizza's new Gaithersburg location.  Lydia R mentioned the City Paper review on Don Rockwell, and she was disappointed that Coal Fire purposefully limits the char and pops air bubbles to make the pizzas more consistent.  I get that.  Who feels special about a place that consciously makes everything more uniform?  Why shouldn't I be more excited by thoughts of dinner at Grace Garden?

But every restaurant can't be a Grace Garden -- so spare that it's run by a handful of people and offers inspired food, but not really ambiance or high-end service.  Coal Fire's concept was clearly born to franchise.  They're built on the lovely conceit that they do something special, but they're running a business with kids and part-timers and all the other hassles that make restaurants so hard to oversee.  It takes real skill to create unusual dishes -- to create char, but not burn or to create pizzas with individual flair, but never a failure that ruins a customer's night.  Can a chain even try to make something unique?  The Pizzablogger and I had talked about how Coal Fire's quality seemed to vary by the person running the oven, and uniform steps presumably help Coal Fire turn out more-uniform pies.  But six months ago, the PB declared his heart broken and the pizza lackluster.

I'm bummed.  I do like Coal Fire and respect the efforts to be more than a standard pizza place.  I see them making its own mozzarella.  They're sticking with their unusual sauces, which split commenters on the prior posts but certainly displays an individual flair.  But it isn't the same place that I thought was worth a long drive and some extra money.  I just hope that the artisanal efforts aren't fading as they rent more space in Frederick and beyond.

13 comments:

Marcia said...

I don't remember the name of the place in Connecticut whose pizza Coal Fire is supposed to emulate (Pepe's??). We have been to the place in CT (wonderful), and my thought is -- "Pepe's" is not a chain. There is one. The owner chose to stick with one restaurant where he can oversee operations, make sure the product is what he wants to sell, and he built a VERY loyal following (i.e. very long lines waiting to eat). I think places with a unique take on food should stick to one location and build a clientele. If they do it well, people will come. People are not really flocking to Coal Fire any more. We were very disappointed on our last visit, months ago, and have not gone back.

TJ said...

So, presumably they have already jumped the shark? That's sad. I'll have to give it one more try to see for myself.

Alicyn said...

Was the place in Stamford CT, Colony Grill?

Anonymous said...

I've been to the Coal Fire about four times now and every visit was different. The biggest problem is that they don't have a consistent product. I ordered the same food a couple of times with different results. I think the pizzas at Strapazza are better. I won't be going back to Coal Fire any time soon.

Kimberly Palmer said...

Pastablitz has good pizza every time.

Suzy said...

I think the pizza, brisket sandwich, and pesto pasta at Coal Fire are outstanding. I go there a minimum of once a week (Ellicott City), and have not had a bad meal - in fact, everything I've eaten there is awesome. The atmosphere is great, the bartenders and servers friendly, so how can anything be critical of such a place??

kam said...

I've enjoyed the few times I've eaten at the Ellicott City Coal Fire. I also really like the Clarksville Pasta Blitz. However, I've found the Ellicott City Pasta Blitz and the one in Laurel before it became Facci to be rather bland.

How do people feel about the multiple Pasta Blitzes? When did that become a chain? Do people regret not only having the original location?

~kam

pizzablogger said...

@Marcia: Frank Pepe's has indeed become a chain, with several locations in Connecticut and New York. The consistency of the Frank Pepe product is not as strong as it once was.

Some of my initial talks with workers at CFP seemed to indicate they were inspired by the New York-Neapolitan style coal oven pizzas in NYC (Lombardi's, John's of Bleeker Street, Patsy's East Harlem, Totonno's Coney Island, Grimaldi's)as much as the coal oven apizza ("ah-beetz") in New Haven, CT (Sally's and Frank Pepe).

As an aside, popping air bubbles is possibly a sign that the dough is regularly over-proofed (not what you want to do). And the beauty of really good pizza is that while the pizzas from one place are all very close in quality and appearance, it is expected that no two pizzas will be exactly the same, particularly throughout as an evening progresses, which is the beauty of it. --K

Marcia said...

Oh darn it, thanks for the update (I guess) Pizzablogger. Clearly I'm out of date. I guess my bottom line thought is that once you start to try for uniformity (as in what a chain restaurant wants) then you can lose some of your "personality". And that is what I like.

MaybeKathy said...

We went to the EC Coal Fire once and the food was barely edible. I guess we went on a "bad chef" night. I was wondering how it got so many good reviews when our experience was so lousy.

As to all the Pasta Blitzes, they aren't a chain. Some of the owners are related to some of the other owners but they are run totally independently. We go to both a lot and we got curious so we asked.

We like both Clarksville and EC equally but for different things. IMHO, the EC location makes the best cheese steaks in HoCo and their hot antipasto is delicious. The pasta at the Clarksville location is much better and their cold antipasto rocks. I've only been to the PB in Timonium once and I wasn't that impressed.

Matt said...

Mr. HowChow-I was wondering what could have made you (and Marcia) not able to finish meals there? I am so close that I only order take out (and have only gotten that pizza I crave), but I have gotten 15-20 of my favorite pizzas...
On another note, my parents were driving up to Martha's Vineyard a few weeks ago, and I begged them to stop at Frank Pepe's in CT after seeing it on the Travel Channel so much. My parents love it thin and crispy, and said Pepe's gave them one of the best pies they ever had. Did someone say that Facci or Coal Fire was emulating their product? I would be happy to know that...

pizzablogger said...

After a final visit here recently, CFP has revealed what the deal is to me.

If I lived close to it, I would likely order pizza from time to time as it is definitely better than delivery pizza. I am a firm believer that people need to support their local independent joints and eschew the big boys.

CFP fits the role of such a smaller, local joint which offers pizza better than a Dominos or Papa John's to a tee. For people that have spent most of their pizza eating experiences with chain pizza or from independent shops which offer a similar product, this joint is bound to be a big step up the pizza deliciousness ladder.

But as a place worthy of going out of the way for the enthisiast? Not anymore...and it has not been for some time.

I hope ownership here is successful with their expansions and I honestly wish them well. Steven Santos is a good guy and has been very open and helpful to me. But as a pizza enthusiast willing to travel in search of very good to great pizza, I can't honestly recommend anyone make a special trip to come here anymore. --K

Hoco Connect said...

Having had some great coal fired pizzas in other cities I was excited to see this place on a visit to Starbucks in the shopping center. Unfortunately the pizza we had was nothing like what i had other places.Maybe it will get better on another visit.