WHAT KIND OF FOOD AM I?

It's tough to review restaurants that represent everything you hate: the type of place that you, as a private citizen, would never frequent in a million years unless maybe some of the girls at work took you out as a surprise for your birthday, or you were shopping in a strange part of town and got so hungry you'd lose your mind if you didn't eat immediately and this place looked, well, open.

My job isn't all fun and adventure, you know. But they pay me okay, so every now and then I feel obliged to visit restaurants that in some alternative life I would never set foot in. Like Buster's and Jennifer's. There's been quite a little buzz about Buster's lately. A perennial Flagstaff favorite, this "seafood" restaurant (seafood? in Flagstaff?) decided recently to branch out into the Big Valley. A gutsy move, to be sure. It's one thing to be successful in an interstate-exit-Taco-Bell town, quite another to make it in an area teeming with exciting eating alternatives. I'd say there's just slightly more competition here than up in lumberjack land.

So I'm kind of surprised when on the Friday night we make the drive to North Scottsdale, I have to circle the Mercado del Lago parking lot twice before a space materializes. Transplanted into the former Rick's Cafe Americana, Buster's seems to be a TGIF kind of place.

Indeed, to the left as we enter there's a large cocktail lounge with an elevated television tuned to sports. Much rubbernecking goes on as the still-dressed-for-work crowd surveys us-- and everyone else entering the place. But to our right, the waiting area reminds me mostly of JB's. Fortunately, my dining accomplice and I have reservations and are spared this sterile, banquetted limboland.

A fashionably dressed hostess asks us to follow her. Trailing in her perfumed wake, we turn a corner and enter the dining room. As soon as I see it, I want to leave. Your standard Red Lobster is more appealing than this room. Booths, booths and more booths. Ceilings so high I feel like we're in a gymnasium. Coffee-shop acoustics and a harried, hustling staff. This is the famous Buster's from Flagstaff? This is it?

You can pretty much tell people's perceptions of a restaurant from the way they dress. Judging from the range of attire--shorts and rubber thongs to dresses and high heels--I'd say everyone here is as confused as I am. Is Buster's an upscale coffee shop where you grab a sandwich before a movie? Or is it a seafood restaurant where you can dress up and have a nice dinner? Frankly, it looks like the former, but costs like the latter. We discover this when we peruse the menu, which, for the most part, leaves me colder than frozen cod. With minor variations, I've seen it all before: potato skins, fried zucchini, swordfish, prime rib, veal Oscar. Yawn.

What is a little different is the "oyster bar" selection, though how such a thing is possible in Arizona I'll never know. From this menu, we decide to sample hickory-smoked trout and oysters Rockefeller. Because Buster's is that kind of place, we also order the potato skins. You know, "When in Rome . . . "

The primary intent of service here is not graciousness, but speed and efficiency. Our young, blonde waitress takes our order and runs off to the prechecker to plug it in. We receive our beverages promptly, then endure a long wait before our appetizers appear. This gives us time to check out our neighbors. The couple in the booth adjacent to ours sucks an orange-colored goldfish bowl-sized drink through straws as long as TV antennae. An athletically attired foursome in the booth across from us is eating sandwiches for dinner. Two middle-aged wheeler-dealers seated behind us boss the staff around and order a giant lahvosh cracker the size of a pizza. A decidedly mixed crew with mixed expectations.

But here come the potato skins, et al. Light and crispy, the skins are loaded with two cheeses and bits of real bacon. We dip them into a crock of sour cream and chives in the center of the plate. I haven't ordered potato skins since Ronald Reagan's first term, but I'd elect to have these again.

You'll be amazed to know I also love the smoked trout, though I'm not exactly sure how to assemble the fixings that come with it. I play around with the lahvosh crackers, Havarti cheese, sliced Granny Smith apple and scrumptious sour cream-dill spread, and create different combinations with great success. Now for the bad news. I was expecting it. Oysters Rockefeller are not so pleasing. Six plump, bloated bivalves, bedded in spinach and topped with bland, institutional Hollandaise, come to us in a piping-hot indented metal tray. There is nothing "rich" about them. In fact, I find them borderline disgusting and struggle to eat one and a half. My dining accomplice likes them. He eats the other four. I can't watch. Our waitress has checked our progress periodically while we've been munching. When we wave the white flag, she takes our serving dishes, but leaves our used plates. As you can imagine, the last thing I want to stare at is the uneaten half of that oyster Rockefeller in front of me. When she doesn't return to clear the rest of the table, I snag a bus boy, who does. This kind of inattention to service goes on all evening.

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