Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bonfire Earns Its Vanities

At last, a restaurant worth blogging about!! It’s been a long dry spell filled with mediocre meals, and a few real losers. In fact, my despair was so great it drove me to diet. We’d go out occasionally, but it was always easy to order a salad (my fat free dressing traveled with me) and not feel deprived. So it was with low expectations that we went to Bonfire Grill and Bar.
This five month old newbie is in Old Town Scottsdale, occupying the building that had housed Furio. That it is close to The Mission (see my 7/1/10 blog “Kiss My Grits) is no coincidence. Matt Carter, executive chef and proprietor of both The Mission and
Zinc Bistro created the menu, and his former sous chef Eric Guerin is now Bonfire’s executive chef. Carter mentored the manager of Bonfire, Jimmy Swann, a firefighter and newcomer to the restaurant business. It’s rare to find a team so eager to please their customers.
Bonfire serves elevated American comfort food. Many of the selections are cooked over a pecan wood fire, and this divine smell greets you in the parking lot. There were so many temptations on the menu, I knew my diet dressing would remain hidden in my pocketbook. We started by sharing a grilled artichoke ($8) filled with sun dried tomatoes, and served with a delicious garlic aioli. It was quite large, perfectly tender, and fed three of us. 
It wasn’t easy to select our entrees. One of everything would have been nice. But eventually I ordered the BBQ Short Rib Skewer sandwich ($9) served on MJ bread with beer braised onions, Tillamook cheese and a chipotle BBQ sauce. It came with fries, lightly dusted with onion powder and a homemade chipotle ketchup. The chipotle taste was evident, but the heat level was happily low. The chunks of short rib were tender and moist even though all the fat had miraculously disappeared. Ken had short ribs too, but his entree came from the brunch menu - Short Rib Hash With Buttermilk Biscuits ($10).
The chef obligingly put the potatoes on the side in a cute little iron pot. The biscuits were both chewy and fluffy. Ernest decided on the Skewered Grilled Cheese Sandwich ($7) With Roasted Tomato, Bacon and Arugula. He seemed very pleased. Anna’s Pecan Grilled Harris Ranch Burger ($9) looked good, but her Honey Mustard Coleslaw was the real hit. It was lightly dressed, yet full of flavor. Given the size and quality of these dishes, the price was truly a bargain. The only nit I might pick here (I had to find one so you wouldn’t think I’d lost my edge) is the over-use of the skewer concept.
Since I’d already blown my diet, why pass up desert? A Cast Iron Toasted Marshmallow Smores dish with Shaved Chocolate, Graham Cracker Cookies (homemade, not the flat board-like kind), and Malted Vanilla Ice Cream ($6) went with the Bonfire concept, but Jimmy urged us to try the Chocolate Bread Pudding with Banana Ice Cream ($6). Good choice! A huge portion of warm, gooey chocolate with hints of banana and caramel paired perfectly with the ice cream. Eventually I gave my spoon to Ken and told him not to give it back no matter how much I begged.
The ambiance is pleasant. Lots of dark wood, with an impressive wooden collage on the wall behind the bar, commissioned from a local artist. I think it would be nice if more art work took the place of some of the innumerable TV sets lining the walls. But at least their sound was muted, and enjoyable music was being played at a reasonable noise level (live music Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights). There’s a communal table, booths, high and low top tables, and very comfortable upholstered chairs. A good thing if you can’t bring yourself to leave between lunch and dinner service.
Bonfire Grill and Bar
7210 E. 2nd St.     Scottsdale      480-945-6600
Lunch daily 11-5    
Dinner Sunday - Thursday 5-10, Friday & Saturday  5-11

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oinker Inspiration

We’ve been to a few new places lately, some were even pretty good, but none inspired me to write. Until today. We had lunch at a brand new place in Old Town Scottsdale called Big Earl’s. It’s a BBQ joint run by the people responsible for La Petite Maison.  Nice to be so multi-faceted!
While you can get the usual BBQ suspects (ribs, brisket, pulled pork, etc.) the big treat for us was “Tasty Parts”. This section of the menu included fried sweetbreads ($8.99), oven roasted beef bone marrow with pickled okra ($7.99), and pickled pig’s feet  ($5.99). I know a lot of you are cringing at the thought, but believe me, this is great stuff.
We had crispy pig tails with ranch dressing ($5.99) - two big deep fried items that were the shape of hot dog buns. I was thankful that they weren’t curled. The meat, which you strip from the bone was succulent, especially when eaten with the fried batter, dressing, and a little BBQ sauce. I’ll admit the remains did look kind of gross. Roasted pork belly with caramelized onions ($6.99) was our second dish. It wasn’t quite as good as the tails since it didn’t crunch, but I was licking my fingers anyway.
We had started with an appetizer of  Barbacoa nachos of Texas beef brisket, Memphis Pork Butt and Velveeta Love ($8.99). The chips had been more than generously layered with the tender, smokey meats - so much in fact that I ended up taking home a large cupful of meat, which will make a great sandwich tomorrow. We also shared a blue cheese wedge ($3.99). The lettuce was nice and fresh and the dressing actually tasted like blue cheese. The bacon bits raised the salad to a higher level, so tasty and crunchy. 
Both of us were stuffed, but there was one dessert that we had to try - Pecan and  Date pie ($3.99).  OMG, this was to die for. Somehow the chef managed to control the sweetness, and the creamy, tangy topping was a brilliant touch. 
The restaurant is cute, not overly kitchy. There’s a great soundtrack of old fashioned cowboy songs playing quietly in the background. The servers are very attentive but unobtrusive.I LOVE THIS PLACE. There’s a lot more on the menu we want to sample. I think Big Earl’s will become one of our go-to restaurants.
Big Earl’s BBQ
7213 E. 1st Ave.    Scottsdale
open daily

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Family Values

     Once upon a long, long time ago life seemed simpler. Neighborhoods were more stable, everybody knew everybody. When you went into a store, the shopkeeper called you by name and probably knew what you were planning to buy. For better or worse (and it certainly wasn’t all good) those times are long gone - but we found a little slice of it last Friday.
     When we walked into Casella’s Italian Sub Shop at about 3PM, we were warmly greeted by Joe and Denise, a father/daughter team. Joe, originally from Philadelphia, opened the restaurant thirty-three years ago in this exact spot in a strip mall on Granite Reef, just south of McDonald in Scottsdale. Denise started working with him twenty some years ago. They instantly know if you’re part of the “family” or a newbie. If you’re curious about an item on the menu, you’re given a taste. Most of the things are made in house. Joe cooks 70 pounds of chicken breast a week for his famous chicken salad. Mom makes the meatballs, and Denise the cannoli filling. I could go on, but you get the idea. These are genuinely nice people who care about their product and want to please the customer. Joe gets in every morning at 7:30 (although service doesn’t start until  11 AM) and stays right through closing at 6 PM. He likes to know what’s going on. Saturday closing is at 3 PM so everybody can spend time with their families. And there’s a lengthy Christmas break for the same reason. Very nice.
     Naturally, Philadelphia Steak Sandwiches ($6.60 - $7.20) appear on the menu. Joe’s isn’t your typical greasy, cheese whiz loaded, meat too-tough-to-chew sandwich (which, I admit, often appeals to me): here the meat is meltingly tender, sauced with a little marinara, and topped with provolone, served on an outstanding roll made by a local family baker.
     We had to try the chicken salad sandwich ($3.70 fir a half, $7.20 full size) - we knew it would be fresh since Joe cooks up a batch most mornings. In the back cooler you can see huge jars of mayonnaise waiting their turn. The salad was very simple, not gussied up with lots of add-ins. I will say that when I ate the leftovers at home I added a dollop of cranberry sauce. I think I’ll bring some to Casella’s next time we go.
     After 2 PM, if you buy two sandwiches, you get a third free. So I chose the Italian Hoagie ($3.70/$6.80). Ken was astonished to find that he actually enjoyed this one. What made it truly delicious, oddly enough, were the onions. Thinly sliced, and sweet enough to be eaten on their own, they also graced the cheese steak. Our side of homemade coleslaw was one of the best versions in town. Can’t wait to try the potato and pasta salads. 
     Other sandwices on the menu include roast beef, ham and cheese, meatball, sausage, and pastrami (not made in-house). Also available are two entrees: Lasagna ($10) and Spaghetti & Meatballs ($8). 
     Now for dessert. Ken wanted a cannoli, usually not something I like. I’m now a convert, at least to Casella’s version. Denise makes the silky filling, garnished only with a few chocolate chips, and the large, wonderfully crispy shells don’t get filled until you’re ready to snarf one down. Homemade rice pudding is on the menu. We had a taste and it, too, was delicious, but it had no raisins. We’ll bring those next time, along with the cranberry sauce.
     Not much to say about the decor. I think it came from that long, long ago time. Basic wood paneling. There are photographs of years and years of Saguaro High (I think that’s the school) graduating classes. That’s about it. But the warmth of the Casella’s fills the room.
Casella’s Italian Sub Shop
5905 N. Granit Reef Rd.   Scottsdale    480-991-0770
Monday - Friday  11 - 6,    Saturday   11 - 3

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Amaro's, Not Your Mama's Pizzeria

     There’s an odd disconnect between the name, the menu, and the ambience of Amaro Pizzeria & Vino Lounge. I’ve never seen a pizzeria that looked like this: dark wood paneling, carpeting, a huge chandelier, cloth napkins. It’s a very traditional, upscale Italian look which I think would appeal more to the 40-and-up crowd than the 20 somethings. The menu has way more than pizza on it, and some of the dishes are even a little adventurous. Prices fall in between the two concepts.
     The team behind Amaro has had lots of restaurant experience, including stints at Kazimierz Wine Bar and The Estate House. Chef Bernie Kantak of Cowboy Ciao played a part in developing the menu. In fact he loaned his name to the signature salad, The Kantak Chop ($12). This salad alone makes the trek to Cave Creek worthwhile. It comes to the table with bands of finely chopped smoked salmon, asiago cheese, dried corn, pepitas, currents, couscous, arugula, and tomatoes. Our waiter dressed it lightly with pesto/buttermilk dressing, and tossed it for us. The melding of tastes and textures was perfect. I’ve never had dried corn before; its sweet crunch is a revelation. 
     We decided to try the Dolce Arrabiatta pizza ($15). Our server asked if we liked spicy food. When I asked how spicy, and he said “VERY”, we opted to have the Calabrian chili peppers on the side. A good decision. We carefully picked all the seeds off the tiny pieces of pepper before gingerly putting them (sparingly) on our slices. Even so, it was a sinus-clearing experience, but truly delicious. The pizza here reminds me of an Americanized version of the outstanding pizza served at Pomo (where you should go if you haven’t yet). The crust is a little firmer than Pomo’s and the topping choices more familiar. In addition to the chiles our pizza had lots of Taleggio cheese, both sweet and spicy sausage, and caramelized onions. We added some sliced garlic. We used perhaps one tenth of the peppers that were brought to us in a little ramekin - the full amount (including seeds, the hottest part of the pepper) is what is usually put on the pizza. Beware.
     There was a very unusual dessert on the menu, Baba Au Rhum, with a twist. The large brioche was soaked in rum, split, and filled with marscapone mousse and fresh raspberries, drizzled with hazelnut/milk chocolate sauce, sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts, and served warm. It was soothing, and put out the fire raging in our mouths. For $7, this dessert was big enough to serve 4. 
     As I said, this isn’t your mama’s pizzeria. There’s a choice of 9 antipasti including shrimp scampi and meatballs (both $9); 5 pasta dishes, and 4 entrees, ranging in price from ($17 - $23). The Filet Marinato, a house specialty, sounded good - an 8 ounce piece of beef tenderloin in a black peppercorn demi glace served with an asiago baked potato and pancetta sauteed spinach. Eight pizzas, plus a design-your-own range in price from $10 -$15 and can feed two or three people.
     The wine bar, separated from the restaurant by a clear plastic partition is large and attractive. I understand its jumping on weekends. Happy Hour is from 4 - 6 daily, and Reverse Happy Hour from 9 - 10 daily.
     All in all, Amaro’s is a very nice place to come if you want something more upscale than the usual formica tabled neighborhood place. More interesting food for not much more money. A good deal.
Amaro Pizzeria and Vino Lounge
28234 N. Tatum (at Dynamite)  Cave Creek      480-502-1920
Monday - Thursday & Suday  4PM-10PM,   Friday & Saturday  4PM-11PM

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Beaver Choice Responds

     I thought you might be interested in reading the response of Hannah, the owner of Beaver Choice
to yesterday's entry Scandinavian Survival Kit:

Comment from hanna g. of Beaver Choice 12/13/2010    « Hide
user photo
well unfortunately we did ask you to leave our bistro after the unacceptable way you were behaving from the minute you walked in.
here follows some explanations and  corrections to your review.
1.yes,  all food is prepared on spot and delivered when ready and we are not going to change it.
2. we do not defrost the fish because we do not use frozen products other then shrimp,  fries and burgers. i am not going to comment on the imaginary parasites.
3. we informed you that the coffee we serve is strong but you insisted to have it anyway.
4. yes we do have only 6 burners in our kitchen. we will add more as soon as we can afford it.
5.i did have seared gravlax but it was to pricey for you. i was serving this popular dish throughout the day.
6.somehow you forgot to  pay for one of  your meals. but it's fine with me.
7. you came around 12.30 and you were asked to leave around 1.40 after you finished your meal.
8. you presented yourself as a well known food critic. we do not treat food critics in any different or better way then other customers. all customers have the same value regardless of their position and wealth.
9. when Chris mentioned Howard Seftel it was more as a reference to the article where he himself explains our way of cooking and serving.
10. you never told me about your 2 pm engagement, you asked me with a mean undertone if somebody is cooking in the kitchen.
To my all other valued customers Howard Seftel included thank you so much for your support and ratings. Thank you so much.

     Needless to say, we don't see eye-to-eye on the events of that afternoon. So I guess we'll just have to agree that the food is delicious.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Scandinavian Survival Kit

     The food at Beaver Choice Scandinavian Bistro is delicious; a little unusual, but easily understood. Hearty and reasonably priced. You can find out all about it at in an article by Howard Seftel. Then, after reading this survival guide, you should go and try it.
     Things you will need:
1. An afternoon or evening with no commitments other than your meal. This could take a long, long time.
2. A pen and a piece of paper on which to write your order (along with an alternate choice).
3. Dining companions who all enjoy the same foods and are willing to eat off the same plate.
4. A snack to tide you over until your food arrives.
5. A sense of humor (but try not to laugh out loud),
     Here’s our experience:
     Four of us entered the small, 20 seat restaurant at 12:10. There were six other people seated at the minimalist glass top tables. A large, and very appetizing looking catering order was taking up another table. We were given menus and told to order at the counter. There were many, many choices of entrees (a few warned that they would take between 20 and 35 minutes to prepare - we avoided those), and each one came with a choice of four side dishes. You can see why a paper and pen might come in handy. Ken went to place our order, but he had to wait for three other people who had arrived before him. It took a while.  Then he was told that my entree choice was not available because they had run out of gravlax. I came up with another selection, and Ken went back to the counter - where another group of people had taken his place and were ordering. Another wait, then my second choice wasn’t available either. The sauce had to be reduced and wouldn’t be ready until Tuesday. I figured I’d be safe with a third choice of Swedish meatballs, so I yelled over to Ken who saw that each of our orders was being written on a separate piece of paper. Odd.
     We settled in to wait for our food. Our drinks were brought to the table. Sena’s eyes popped when she sipped the pitch black coffee. The waitress said it was always that strong and that there was no milk or half and half available, but she could bring out some heavy cream. I noticed that food was coming out of the kitchen painfully slowly. One dish to one table, a while later, one dish to a different table. Companions were left twiddling their thumbs. It so reminded me of Hell’s Kitchen - I could hear Gordon Ramsey going ballistic: “Shut it down you &*#$%!!!!” . At about 1 PM my Swedish Meatballs were delivered. I put the plate in the middle of the table and invited everybody to dig in. Luckily the servings are large. We finished that off and waited another ten minutes before Sena’s chicken schnitzel arrived. That too was shared. At about 1:35 Ken’s entree was brought. That left Leon, who had ordered Tilapia. We flagged down the owner and told her that we had a 2 PM engagement and would like our remaining dish. She said she’d look into it, went into the kitchen and was not seen again. A while later another staff member came over and told us that there had been a large catering order, that they had only a six burner stove  and that 2 employees had called in sick. I mentioned that I didn’t think it was right to serve some people at a table and not others. “This is the way we do it, we’re not going to change it, and Howard Seftel thought it was all right”, was the emphatic reply. More waiting. At 1:50 a different staff member came over and said it would be a few more minutes. To our disconcerted rumblings he said - and you’re not going to believe this - “The fish has to be defrosted slowly because of the parasites....”  At this point, I’ll confess, I started to laugh loudly and somewhat
hysterically. It may have been rude, but I couldn’t help myself. 
     We were out of time, so Leon decided he’d take the fish to go. Ken went up to the counter and gave one of my Valley Vittles cards to the “parasite” staff member, saying that the food was great but the service terrible. At which point the staff member had a melt-down, yelled at Ken to get out of his restaurant, then went slamming through the kitchen kicking something on the way out. 
     This was truly one of the oddest dining experiences I’ve ever had. Very Alice in Wonderland. But if you go equipped with the five items mentioned above, you’ll have some excellent food. 
Beaver Choice Scandinavian Bistro
1743 E. Broadway Rd.  Tempe   480-921-3137
Tuesday - Saturday 11-9    Sunday  12 - 8

Friday, December 3, 2010

Southwest Averse? Try This!

       I’ve deleted the opening lines of this blog entry at least ten times. I think it’s because I don’t want to put Renegade Canteen in a niche - doing so might cause some of you not to go, and that would be a shame.
     So I’ll start by telling you what we had to eat. We shared a wonderful Caesar salad, replete with white anchovies ($7), more than enough for two. I chose to have soup for my entree: Oxtail and Onion Soup with Caramelized Shallots & Sweet Onion topped with Gruyere Cheese ($13). It was delivered to the table in a soup bowl that had a very large, inwardly tilting rim around it on which were sitting three slices of grilled baguette. The bowl itself was covered with a lid. When the server removed it, the toast slid down into the soup, ready to sop up the broth. An oxtail bone was in the middle of the bowl, surrounded by lots of meat (way more than would be on one segment of bone). It struck me as both odd and clever. Presentation is a big part of the experience of eating here, and it’s done with flair. The soup was gorgeous, sweet and savory, the meat succulent, and the onions perfectly caramelized. At first I was mildly disappointed that there wasn’t a huge amount of cheese, but the oxtail was so rich that more cheese would have been cloying. Ken ordered the special of the day, Roasted Rack of Lamb with Creamed Spinach ($20). The five double chops were lined up on a long narrow plate, the bones of one chop leaning on the meaty portion of the next, all of them balanced in a ribbon of creamed spinach. The meat was cooked perfectly to order, but it was the spinach that blew Ken away. Rather than being pasty, it was lightly sauced and beautifully seasoned. Now, hopefully I’ve caught your interest, so I can go back to the niche part.
     Robert McGrath, formerly of Roaring Fork is the chef here. He’s won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in America-Southwest. But this isn’t the hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-chili-pepper Southwest food. The peppers sing quietly in the background, getting along happily with the rest of the well thought out flavors. While many of the dishes have a Southwestern twist, there’s lots that are straight American.
Chef McGrath has bought along his famous “Big Ass Burger”, now called Bob’s Big Burger - 12 ounces for $13 - one of the best in town. Steamed Pacific Clams with Copious Amounts of Butter, Garlic, Wine and Bread are $12. A 20 ounce Berkshire Pork Porterhouse weighs in at $22. One of the more entertaining specials is Friday night’s
“Peter;s Smelly-Old Fish From Last Week”.
     The only bad thing, and it really was a bummer, was our dessert. Rather than go with  the flourless chocolate cake, i decided to be different and try the Red Beet Root Cake with Carrot-Vanilla Gelato, Candied Pistachios and Carrot & Beet Powder ($7). What was brought to the table was a desiccated scoop of ice cream, too hard to even get the tines of a fork into, and cake which was not much better. Our waiter was appalled by this, saying that the ice cream had been pre-scooped, and he went running back to the kitchen to replace the dessert. Its texture was somewhat better, but for me, the whole concoction was pretty much flavorless. I detected neither beet nor carrot. The candied pistachios were good though. As an apology, our waiter comped Ken’s double espresso.
     The ambience is upscale but not stuffy. Lot’s of dark wood, big upholstered chairs at the dining tables. There’s a stunning fireplace on a small patio out back, and a larger patio for diners to one side. Up front there’s some leather upholstered couches and arm chairs, which is a good thing, because there were lots of people waiting. The place was shockingly busy for a week night, and I’ve heard it’s a zoo on the week ends. Reservations would seem to be a good idea. I can certainly understand the popularity of Renegade Canteen. It manages to be trendy yet unintimidating for us non-trendy people, has great service and excellent food (I’m willing to overlook the dessert), and very reasonable prices.I think you’ll enjoy it, even those of you who are Southwest food averse. 
Renegade Canteen
9343 East Shea Blvd.    Scottsdale    480-614-9400
Daily  3-10 PM