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.

You get soup or salad with dinner at Buster's. Actually, you have your choice of three types of salad: tossed green, Caesar or spinach. We opt for the latter two. The Caesar looks and tastes better than expected. Dripping with tart eggy-lemon dressing, it features crisp romaine lettuce. Unfortunately, the spinach salad is also eggy, because of a too-hearty helping of chopped hard-boiled egg. Tomato, mushrooms, hickory-smoked bacon bits and croutons also top this salad, which is flavored with a sweet-and-sour dressing. With all this egg and bacon, I feel like I'm eating breakfast. And what's a tomato doing in a spinach salad? It simply doesn't work.

Thankfully, the zucchini and sourdough breads which come with our salads are both excellent. Too bad we had to wait so long for them.

Believe it or not, the couple in the next booth is still nursing that big goldfish-bowl drink. Our entrees arrive. Both are presented in the same unimaginative way: meat or fish, dull-looking steamed vegetables and, on a separate saucer, potato or rice. Awkward, boring and really coffee-shop.

Not to mention underdone. Steak Diane requested medium looks capable of mooing. The dark brown Dijon-brandy sauce tastes mostly of mustard, but it can't disguise the unpleasant mealy texture of this filet. It's a loser.

Fresh Hawaiian Ahi is better. The half-inch tuna steak is tender, tasty and nicely seared in a teriyaki like sauce. However, the fresh pineapple salsa that accompanies it is laughable: it has no kick whatsoever.

When we mention to our waitress that we're interested in dessert, she goes dreamy-eyed and recites our options. A Haagen Dazs ice cream eclair and flourless chocolate pistachio torte sound pretty good. She goes off to fetch them and we're left staring at our dirty plates again. For the second time tonight, we must beg someone to remove them from our table.

It is now more than obvious that Buster's needs to work on its busing. During the course of the evening, we watch three different groups of diners refuse various booths near us because of crumbs on seats, unwiped tables and so forth. Oh, for the pampered life at The Bistro!

I don't hate dessert, but even real whipped cream can't redeem the way I feel about Buster's. With tax and tip, we spend $66 here this night. And no, that doesn't include wine.

It'll take a blizzardy day in Phoenix before Buster's will ever get that kind of money from me again.

Though I despise Buster's, I can understand how other people might like it. Jennifer's is another story--one filed under "Mystery." Determining its raison d'etre would give Agatha Christie a migraine.

But let me start at the beginning.
Jennifer's is a homey little Scottsdale restaurant on Stetson just north of Fifth Avenue. We arrive on the early side, hoping to salvage some of the evening for other things.

When we enter, Jennifer's is positively morguelike. There are only two parties seated in the mauve-and-maroon dining room. Neither the choice of radio station ("Your favorite mellow hits from the Seventies") nor the forced cheer of the decor (little baskets and woven things stuck to the walls) make it feel any livelier. This place is deader than Gerald Ford's political career.

One waiter handles the entire room. Clad in polo shirt, shorts and athletic shoes and socks, he is dressed more appropriately for a sports bar than for this somewhat feminine place. Clearly, he's not up to the task at hand. We experience the same inattention to detail as at Buster's: plates left too long, water glasses not refilled, dessert forks forgotten. It is not a fun evening.

For starters, I hate Jennifer's menu. When I see sandwiches listed on its center panel, I ask the waiter if we have the dinner menu. "It's the lunch-and-dinner menu," he replies. Still confused, I ask, "So it is the dinner menu?" "It's both," says he. Oh.

And what a miserable melange of outdated trends it is. Teriyaki chicken, blackened fish, taco salad. Ugh.

A "fresh catch" advertised on chalkboards around the room grabs my eye. "How is the trout prepared?" I ask our waiter. "Any way you like," he says, rattling off a list. "Baked, broiled, pan-fried, grilled." Pretty darn exciting. "We do use olive oil when we pan-fry," he volunteers. Then there's the food itself. An appetizer sampler is dismal. Buffalo wings are decently spiced and tender, but I suspect the sauce is laced with monosodium glutamate.

Cheese-topped potato skins are clunky-looking and greasy--more potato than skin. They're a far cry from Buster's light and crunchy version.

Tempura mushrooms are an insult to the Japanese chef who invented this much-maligned cooking technique. Fried to a dark brown, these whole beer-battered mushrooms look like UFOs. They're definitely alien to me. Another foursome enters the restaurant. They are attired in shorts and tank tops, but seem to be discussing a work project. Aha! Out-of-town business folks touring Scottsdale. I pity them for wandering in.

A tossed salad proves to be both wilted and chilled. The Parmesan-based house dressing spiked with peppercorns can't hide this fact. Homemade vegetable soup is slightly better. Hearty, hot and healthy, it's chock-full of carrots, summer squash and lots of tomato seeds.

I nearly laugh out loud when a basket of rolls is delivered. They look like those break-apart aluminum-tray rolls we were served in our high school cafeteria for the special Thanksgiving lunch. Please! More ludicrous yet, the butter balls are delicately scored. I just don't get it.

But the meal goes on. Shrimp scampi ($13.95) is woefully underdone. My dining accomplice wrestles with several ungarlicky shrimp before he can cut through them. Broiled trout has no eye appeal and tastes of celery salt. Fresh broccoli is overcooked and olive green in color but, oddly, a baked potato-- without foil--is perfectly done.

Though we are itching to leave, we stick it out for dessert. Why, oh why, did we bother? Rocky mountain pie, cut right out of the tin, is loaded with brown sugar and obviously nuked--the plate is incredibly hot. Beyond sugar, it has no distinguishable flavor. Ice cream-filled crepes the size of burritos ($3.50) are gummy and covered with aerosol whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. If I want this, I'll go to Dairy Queen, thanks.

Jennifer's is an easy target. The restaurant is well-meaning, but lacking in purpose and direction. I guess when I go to a place that calls itself "An American Eatery," I expect the best this country has to offer, not the worst.

Buster's, Mercado del Lago, 8320 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 951-5850. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

Jennifer's, 7108 East Stetson, Scottsdale, 423-5350. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday.

I haven't ordered potato skins since Ronald Reagan's first term, but I'd elect to have these again.

The last thing I want to stare at is the uneaten half of that oyster Rockefeller in front of me.

When I go to a place that calls itself "An American Eatery," I expect the best this country has to offer, not the worst.

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