Too darn hot 

Heat and Southern fusion coalesce at Fire Bar and Grill.

Stepping into Fire’s flaming orange building on the north side of W. Kennedy Blvd. is a bit like entering one of the outer rings of a mod Dante’s Inferno. Flames surround the 360-degree bar; on the streetfront patio the fire is in the form of tall gas heaters for those diners in search of more warmth. Inside, red leather booths line the walls under huge yellow, red, and orange murals that swirl and writhe. But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

The wide-ranging menu features freshly prepared Southern fusion food with Chef Ryan Kelly’s personal rustic flare.

Fire’s appetizers cover many popular dishes: wings, sliders, tuna, goat cheese, and a Southern-style caprese salad featuring fried green tomatoes.

We opt for the house-made maple miso cured pork belly with cream cheese grits and crispy chicharrón. Unfortunately, the pork belly has too much chewy meat and lacks the lusciousness that marks this ingredient at its most seductive, and the cream cheese is too bland to make much of an impression in the grits. The flash-fried calamari with smoked tomato emulsion, pepperoncini, and garlic lime aioli is served in a huge portion with oodles of flavor but without the crispiness to be truly memorable.

The entrées fare better. The perfectly chargrilled 8-ounce “kustom” burger, made with all natural beef, comes on a golden toasted bun with a yummy à la carte spectrum of toppings.

The tomato-free “signature pizza” is a thin crust with garlic oil, caramelized onions, aged Gorgonzola, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and pine nuts. As with the burgers, you also have the option to create your own pizza from a broad selection of fresh veggies.

The sandwiches include some interesting variations on ham and Gruyere, grilled chicken salad, and a garlic bread grilled cheese. Or there’s the delicious chimichurri grilled flank steak sandwich with wild mushrooms, caramelized onions and Manchego cheese finished with I.P.A stone ground mustard on a Panini.

All sandwiches come with terrific crisp waffle fries, kettle chips, or grilled veggies for the carb-averse among you.

The signature Fire entrées contain the heat promised by the name; dishes include jalapeño, sriracha, Kung Pao chili, and chipotle. If you’re not sure you can handle the heat, there’s an absolutely delicious house-made gnocchi with smoky bacon, bright English peas and earthy wild mushrooms in the magic alchemy of a sherry-cream sauce.

The blackened 10-ounce New York strip is bargain-priced but full of zesty meat flavor and complemented by aged Gorgonzola and balsamic glazed onions. The surprise, however, is the boniato (a Caribbean white yam) puree, that seems more a scalloped/mashed potato hybrid. In any case, it is wonderful. My dining companion was drooling and cooing and moaning between forkfuls.

Fire’s kaffir lime dusted salmon is roasted on an oak wood plank till just translucent. It comes with a sugary salad of cucumber carpaccio, Thai basil, cilantro, mint and lime that reminds me of another Southern staple, the bread and butter pickle. It’s an inspired combination if you don’t mind the sweet-savory combo.

The desserts include s’mores for two and an Elvis tribute with peanut butter, bananas and candied bacon that I couldn’t sell to my table. We did finally reach consensus on salted caramel crème brûlée, made in-house daily, that is pitch perfect. Crunchy dark sugar, luscious creamy custard and a salted caramel base reminiscent of flan but better; it is just terrific.

As is the key lime pie cheesecake’s great balance of zesty citrus with silkiness. The whipped cream on the plate has an odd texture, though.

It seems to be from an overcharged CO2 canister that aerates it beyond creaminess. The result is fresh lime zest on dry foam. The taste is right, but the texture is wrong. It’s only annoying because the cheesecake is so good.

Our final dessert is a wood-oven candied apple with vanilla bean ice cream that just needs to be rethought. The ice cream is fine, as is the pool of caramel sauce covering the plate. But the apple is the original sin, a Faustian bargain gone wrong. The fruit is peeled, cored and filled with ground spices, notably cinnamon.

The result is neither a crunchy apple with a candied exterior, nor soft-baked sweet fruit infused with spices. What arrives at the table has a soft edge with a crunchy center. This requires a knife to cut the apple into pieces and when you pop a chunk into your mouth, you gag on a chalky blob of spice that hasn’t absorbed enough juice to be palatable.

In theory, the caramel sauce must be designed to provide sweetness in contrast to the fruit’s crunch—just like a traditional candy apple. Unfortunately, this dessert needs to be reconceived or include detailed instructions.

Brimstone-filled quibbles aside, Fire is worth a visit. Just choose wisely, say a few prayers, and you’ll have a heavenly spice-filled evening.

NEXT WEEK: ABC Seafoods

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