Oh, Red Fire, what am I to make of you?
When I heard word that this funky new sushi-bar-meets-hibachi-grill was opening at Southridge Centre — and it was going to be owned and/or managed by the same genius responsible for my beloved Su-Tei in Kanawha City — I couldn’t have been more excited.
Then I went.
While Red Fire Asian BBQ Grill may share the same ultra-hip modern vibe, it is no Su-Tei by a longshot. And I’ve since heard Su-Tei owner Andri Purwanto is no longer a part of Red Fire, which would explain a lot.
Over the course of several months, I popped in often. But just like Forrest Gump and his big box of chocolates, I never knew what I was going to get.
I’ve had really good food and some subpar offerings. I’ve had pretty competent and friendly service, but also some that’s been severely lacking. I’ve had one animated hibachi chef, but most just seem to be going through the motions — and rather unenthusiastically, at that.
All in all, Red Fire has been up, down and everything in between.
It’s that inconsistency that makes me worry about its future. Not that a hibachi restaurant at Southridge really needs The Food Guy’s stamp of approval to succeed, because mediocre restaurants seem to thrive out there anyway.
But over time, only the strong will survive. Red Fire is not in that category right now.
Interestingly enough, though, most of the problems I’ve experienced there have little to do with the food, which ranges from decent to pretty good — depending on when you visit.
The Kobe Roll (which you have to ask for, a waitress told me, because it’s not on the menu) is fantastic. Featuring thinly sliced kobe pepper steak rolled with asparagus and crunchy shrimp inside, scallions with a spicy sauce drizzled on top, and a shredded spicy crab salad on the side, it’s easily the best thing I’ve had in 10 visits.
I’ve also heard good things about the Nagasaki Roll’s blend of spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, Japanese mayo, chili sauce, sliced jalapeno, spicy mayonnaise, scallions and black tobiko with seared salmon on top.
The chicken satay skewers I had were perfectly cooked (just lacking that garlicky, peanut punch) and the hibachi dinners are fine.
Service and management issues, however, have been prevalent.
One time, there was no hostess available and I waited a good 15 minutes before a server finally came over to seat me. One time, I sat down at the bar and waited just as long for someone to come see what I wanted. (I was the only soul at the bar, too, so this wasn’t a crowd issue.)
One time, we were seated at a hibachi table FOREVER — making uncomfortable conversation with the strangers around us — with no waitress, manager, hibachi chef or anyone, for that matter, acknowledging we were even there. When service finally came, it was glacially slow all night.
When I walked out that evening — some two hours later — I said, once again, “never again.” And I really thought I meant it.
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But then I got excited earlier this year when Red Fire announced it was opening the state’s only Korean barbecue room, where you actually order and cook your own food on small grills at the center of each table.
This could be cool. This should be cool — a really neat “experience” you can’t get anywhere else around town. But our first time trying it was a hot mess.
As soon as we were seated, a waitress came over wanting to take our order without explaining how the concept works. As first-timers, we had no idea what to order, how much food we would need, if we were cooking everything ourselves or only some items, if someone be on hand to guide us, and so on.
They just turned on the grill, brought us plates of raw food and handed us a bottle of oil. Finally realizing we were on our own, we drizzled a little oil on the grill, loaded it with meats and veggies — and nearly burned the place down. No kidding.
Our grill started smoking so badly that the waitress had a coughing attack and a manager rushed over to pull our charred grill-top away, replacing it with a clean one from another table.
Yet, still, there was no advice, so we really poured on the oil and started cooking again — this time with far better results.
Although the “galbi” (Korean short ribs) were tough and a bit of a letdown, the lamb chops we grilled were fantastic. The steak and salmon were nice and we enjoyed plenty of fresh grilled vegetables.
Don’t get me wrong, we had a nice time laughing at our own misadventures and managed to make a fun night of it. But I think most people would’ve walked away pretty disappointed that the special meal they were expecting didn’t come close to living up to the hype.
Based on my experiences so far, I’m not a big Red Fire fan at the moment. There are just other far-better restaurants to choose from (Su-Tei, Ichiban, even Taste of Asia maybe) if you’re in the mood for some great sushi or pan-Asian fare.
I am, however, still curious about the outdoor cabanas they offer at Red Fire, which do look pretty chic. I may very well check them out — but probably just for cocktails.
IF YOU GO: Red Fire Asian BBQ & Grill is located at 2815 Mountaineer Blvd. in Charleston. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 681-265-9146 or visit www.redfireasianbbqgrill.com.
Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and an occasional food blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/foodguy/. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by email at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Facebook as “WV Food Guy” and on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as “WVFoodGuy”.