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Roll With It

Have a ball -- and pretty good food -- at downtown's 4th Street Grill.

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Kansas Short Ribs are lusciously paired with your choice of 'tini (and bowling ball). - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Kansas Short Ribs are lusciously paired with your choice of 'tini (and bowling ball).

"I can see 14 television screens without even moving my head!" shouted a college-aged companion as we dug into our dinners at downtown's 4th Street Bar & Grill. Unfortunately, over the cacophony -- balls crashing, pins flying, bowlers squealing, diners laughing, and guitars wailing -- she could have been yodeling in Farsi for all we could make out.

That's just the way the ball bounces at this noisy, fun-loving eatery. Open since December, the 100-seat dining room is part of the Corner Alley complex, a high-energy hangout featuring 16 lanes of bowling, a fashionable martini bar, four billiard tables, dozens of HDTV screens showing sports and music videos, and a resultant decibel level that could give Marlee Matlin a migraine. Even so, it was clear our friend was digging the vibe: That jaw-spanning grin, those Cosmo dribbles down her shirtfront, and those twitchy fingers -- just dying to slide into a bowling ball -- were dead giveaways.

Eight p.m., and the TGIFing was nearly in full swing. Still, our party of three could have snagged an after-dinner lane. Wait a little longer, staffers cautioned, and we'd be out of luck: The place is invariably packed by 10 p.m. But at 35 bucks for an hour of weekend bowling (for up to eight bowlers), we had already determined to pass.

We'd had our fun the previous day at lunch, when a game costs $4.25 per person. (Snazzy mauve and gray bowling shoes set us back another $3 each.) Despite the cool footwear, the automated scorekeeping, and the rows of chaser lights separating the lanes, our skills were pretty lame. Then again, a surreptitious glance at our fellow pinheads -- a friendly mix of business types, midday slackers, tourists, and families -- failed to turn up a single PBA champ.

Plus, there's nothing like heaving a 10-pound ball down a 60-foot lane to burn off the avoirdupois. This isn't a minor consideration, given that the restaurant doesn't dish up much in the way of health food.

With cheese here, bacon there, and deep-fried goodness nearly everywhere, spa cuisine this is not. But thanks to zesty flavors and often imaginative preparation, the offerings, under the guidance of exec-chef Todd DiCillo, still beat the standard bowling-alley lineup by a long shot.

Among starters, options run from fried calamari and bruschetta to beef empanadas and egg rolls with a spicy chicken-and-black-bean filling. Crisp yet dainty deep-fried won tons, stuffed with bits of sautéed shrimp, jicama, avocado, and pepper-jack cheese, put a tasty Latin spin on the ubiquitous Asian spring roll. And the standard spinach-artichoke-and-cheese dip got a luxurious update with the addition of sweet crabmeat.

Among main courses, pizza, burgers, sliders, and sandwiches dominate -- in part, we're guessing, to make it easier for bowlers to nosh while they play. Pimped out, as ordered, in Swiss and bacon, a "classic" Black Angus burger wasn't as juicy as some, but had plenty of beefy flavor, and a French-dip sandwich, featuring thinly shaved prime rib on a pillowy hoagie bun, proved a hefty, hearty affair -- though the au jus was astoundingly salty.

But in retrospect, we're not sure what possessed us to add bacon and mushrooms to an order of four-cheese macaroni: The creamy blend of asiago, Gouda, parmesan, and pecorino Romano cheeses, tossed with firm elbow macaroni, made for a sleek, glossy indulgence on its own.

Happily, not every menu item is based on cheese and salt. For those inclined to avoid the most egregious sources, the homemade soup du jour would make a good starter. Sturdy Manhattan clam chowder was featured on the night we visited, and it tasted just right: brightly flavored but not too tart, with oodles of chopped clams in a robust tomato base. A simple toss of field greens, garnished with cucumber, carrots, red onion, and tiny grape tomatoes (the 4th Street Salad), was relatively wholesome too -- at least till we slathered it with the housemade creamy Italian dressing.

Both Guinness-battered cod and a duet of plump Maryland crab cakes (greasy, but smartly seasoned) hit the spot. Still, for homey comfort, it's hard to beat DiCillo's meaty, beer-braised short ribs. Fork-tender, fragrant, and seasoned with sweet and piquant spices, the ribs anchored a towering platter of garlic-mashed redskins, sautéed mixed veggies, and a mountain of crisp onion straws.

To wash it all down, the bar offers beer, wine, and an impressive array of sweet, fruity, and pricey cocktails. In fact, with names like Crème Brûlée (vanilla vodka, Frangelico, and Cointreau, dusted with cinnamon, $9.95) and Candy Cane (White Godiva, Peppermint Schnapps, and vodka, in an icing-striped glass, $12.95), many of the mixed drinks could double as dessert.

On this occasion, though, our actual dessert was a giant portion of so-so apple cobbler, composed of slightly undercooked apple slices and somewhat soggy pastry, beneath mounds of cinnamon ice cream and clouds of whipped cream.

Tucking into the oversized sweetie, we also took a gander at the activity outside the Alley's big windows. Knots of jeans-clad concertgoers heading toward the House of Blues, groups of well-dressed partyers strolling toward Pickwick & Frolic and Lola, and fleet-footed valets dashing up and down the narrow pavement formed a kinetic urban streetscape of which any city would be proud.

"This is a pretty cool spot," our companion bellowed approvingly. At least, over all the bang and clatter, I think that's what she said.

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