Whatever image the motorcycle conjures, it likely isn't food. Certainly not a sit-down restaurant where the host asks whether you have a reservation. A roadhouse where the food is merely a cushion for the next shot of whiskey seems about right.
Enter Triumph Grill. This three-month-old addition to midtown's suddenly teeming restaurant scene is attached to the Moto Museum and named for the classic bike brand. (Triumphs are British-made, but they were a highly visible American accoutrement: Brando and Dean each owned one. So did Dylan.) It looks nothing like a roadhouse. Quite the opposite: The dining rooms feature cushy booths and banquettes, and the motorcycle-based sculptures — a collection of speedometers, a "chandelier" made of wheel hubs and spokes — suggest some sort of art gallery.
If Triumph Grill has a kindred spirit in the motorcycle world, it's the Harley-Davidson store. Both venues are impeccably branded and full of stuff for sale. A gigantic lit-up sign graces the restaurant's roof, and along the pathway from the front door to the host's stand, assorted Triumph Grill T-shirts for sale are displayed behind glass. (If you fail to notice this display, the T-shirts are also advertised on tabletop placards.)
The lengthy menu is difficult to categorize. It includes many of the dishes that spring to mind when you call a restaurant a "grill" — wings, calamari and onion rings; nine different salads and more than a dozen sandwiches; steaks, pork chops, chicken breasts and salmon — but with occasional, unexpected touches from the cuisines of Japan, India and the American Southwest.
Edamame "hummus" is a blend of soybeans, soy sauce, ginger, chiles and wasabi. The large scoop of wasabi-paste green matter approximates the texture of true hummus, but the flavor is strikingly bland, with only a whisper of ginger and no heat from the peppers or the wasabi.
Another appetizer is best described as an Indian quesadilla: Between thin wedges of roti (Indian flatbread) are "Indian-spiced" chicken breast, red onion, mango, sun-dried tomato and melted jack cheese. For all these ingredients, the impression they make is blunt — something like a smoldering-hot mango chutney; as for the Indian spices seasoning the chicken, I detected cumin and not much else. On the side were ramekins of sour cream and a beige-color sauce, slightly tangy, that for the life of me I couldn't pin down.
But there is a larger miscalculation at work here: Calling something "Indian-spiced" is no more precise than calling it "American-spiced." If anything can define the multifarious cuisines of India, it's the staggering variety of spices and combinations of spices used. These Indian-spiced quesadillas are lazy fusion, employed only to differentiate an otherwise uninspired appetizer.
Better to start your meal with the hot soft pretzels, imported all the way from Milwaukee and appropriately paired with a mustard-beer dipping sauce. The pretzels also come with the restaurant's housemade potato chips, which are thick and crisp and very good.
The entrée selection largely avoids fusion for fusion's sake. The best dish I tried, risotto with shrimp and blue crab, succeeded by virtue of its simplicity, with the sweet flavor of fresh crab, generously portioned; basil added a bright counterpoint to the seafood. My only complaint: The risotto was more cheesy than creamy (a common shortcoming around these parts).
"Far East" fish and chips isn't half as daring as the name might suggest. The tempura-battered sole possesses a crisp exterior and a tender, flaky interior, but the soy-based dipping sauce is too salty, and the wasabi aioli, like the edamame "hummus," is devoid of the requisite zip. The accompanying French fries have no Far Eastern pretensions — and are better for it.
Grilled-vegetable and three-cheese lasagna was thick with squash, portobello mushrooms, spinach and bell pepper, but the grilling mutes the vegetables' distinct flavors, and the cheese (a blend of ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan) added more texture than taste.
The "Cowboy" strip steak brings enough food to feed a motorcycle club: A thick steak is served with a cabernet-shallot reduction and Gorgonzola-rosemary butter, along with roasted-garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus; on top of all that is a heaping tangle of fried onion slivers. The steak, cooked medium-rare, was tasty, albeit a little on the grainy side. The fried onions were a nice touch but made the butter and the cabernet sauce superfluous.
There's a great deal of overlap between the lunch and dinner menus. At lunch you can order any of the salads and sandwiches, as well as most of the appetizers and smaller portions of several of the dinner entrées. From the sandwich board I opted for the "Cowboy" Reuben, which provided another example of pointless fusion: Thinly sliced house-smoked beef brisket is topped with pepper-jack cheese, cabbage slaw, roasted poblano peppers, caramelized onion and "spiced-bbq" mayo on grilled brioche. The Southwestern touches might have been interesting, but few of the individual ingredients registered because the sandwich was overfilled with brisket. The meat was tender and pleasantly smoky — but that can only take a sandwich so far.
The bar aims both high and low. High: Wines by the glass from a short list, available as three- or six-ounce pours; and a list of cocktails. Low: Natural Light on draft. Smoking is permitted in the bar, which, given the proximity of the dining rooms, is particularly unwelcome. On a related note, when the place is crowded, as it was both times I went for dinner, Triumph Grill is exceptionally loud.
There were other unappetizing moments: At lunch I watched as a server clearing another table thoughtlessly swept more crumbs onto an already filthy carpet in the dining room. At dinner, just as my food was being conveyed from the kitchen, a hand reached out to carelessly scatter a forgotten garnish.
Unlike its two-wheeled namesake, Triumph Grill is a long way from achieving iconic status. Addressing the scattershot execution and menu, and applying a muffler to the noise problem, would be a good start.