GRILLS IN THE MIDST

The main dish has always been my least favorite part of a restaurant meal. Give me some warm bread right out of the oven, and a zesty salad with lots of greens, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and a zippy homemade dressing.

Let me nibble on hot wings, pan-fried dumplings, crispy pakora, quesadillas or calamari. Ethnicity doesn't matter, just bring on the appetizers.

Fill me up with a thick clam chowder, a comforting matzo ball and egg noodle, or a sinus-clearing hot-and-sour soup.

Blow me away with a rich cheesecake, a tart fruit pie or a creamy crøçeme brulee and a strong cup of coffee.

Then put a fork in me: I'm done.
But a visit to two new Valley grills has completely upset my beliefs about the restaurant universe. Like a culinary Copernicus, I've discovered that meals can revolve around entrees, with the other courses orbiting like planets. Z'Tejas Grill, an Austin, Texas, restaurant that's just arrived looking to strike gold in Scottsdale, promises dining South by Southwest." The menu ranges from New Orleans to Yuma, and so does the decor.

A casual place, Z'Tejas parks you at thick wormwood tables adorned with white tablecloths, votive candles and some fresh flowers. At booths you'll sit on slatted wooden benches with comfortable cushions. The look here is desert bayou, the color scheme running to pink, blue, lime and canary. Faux windows with shutters line one wall, while palm trees are painted on the wall behind the bar. The lighting is particularly well-done, the wall fixtures cleverly arranged to illuminate the food while the rest of the room recedes in a dim twilight.

On pleasant spring nights, you can place yourself beyond the reach of the interior designers and eat on the patio. Appetizers are tasty, but insubstantial and pricey. The menu described Navajo roll as Navajo bread stuffed with cheese, crab meat, peppers and onions. Actually, it was more like an egg roll, cut into quarters, with a peppery mayo sauce for dipping. The dish seems about as Navajo as moo shu pork. It comes on a nice bed of crispy fried spinach, but good as it was, $6.75 seems steep for this little nosh.

Don't bother grazing here; jump to the meat. The trio of grilled chicken, beef and pork we sampled were reasonably priced, great tasting and plenty filling.

Grilled chicken adobo was a large, moist, herb-encrusted chicken breast, dribbled with fragrant goat cheese and a mild adobo sauce. The flavor combination and creamy texture kicked my sensory organs into fourth gear.

The menu's description of stuffed beef tenderloin sounded so mouth-watering I was sure it could not meet my expectations: medallions of Angus beef loin stuffed with pumpkinseed pesto, roasted red and green peppers and Jack cheese in an ancho chile cream sauce.

What came were two hefty slabs of fork-tender, juicy beef enfolding everything the menu promised. It was imaginative and expertly prepared, one of the tastiest beef dishes I've had in the Valley.

I didn't think the beef could be topped, but somehow the stuffed pork tenderloin pushed my taste buds into overdrive.

Four healthy chunks of pork tenderloin were stuffed with a mild chorizo, Jack cheese, grilled onions and poblano peppers. A roasted-garlic cream sauce was artistically drizzled on top. At $10.75, this might be one of the best main-dish buys in town.

Diners frightened by the prospect of chiles with their main courses shouldn't be alarmed. None of our entrees had the remotest hot or spicy chile kick. The chiles provide flavor, not heat.

The main dishes all come with a choice of two side orders. We tried all six offerings. By far the best were the corn custard and black beans. The custard was a yellow cloud around crunchy bits of green pepper and kernels of corn. The rich black beans get some help from onions, although a bit of sausage could have done even more.

The other choices-rice, new potatoes, steamed broccoli and julienne vegetables-seemed like afterthoughts, however.

As the main dishes were cleared, we all remarked how we felt satisfied without feeling stuffed. Then we remembered-the French bread never showed up with our meals. Could this be a cagey management ploy to prime us for dessert? Or was it the sign of a staff that's still getting its act together a couple of months after opening? The bola-tied servers were pleasant enough, but the pacing was a bit uneven.

As it turned out, I was glad to have room for dessert. Ancho fudge pie sounded about as promising as turnip cheesecake. But our server assured us that the ground chiles simply intensified the flavor of chocolate. It was plenty intense, a goopy butterscotch pie with luscious globs of chocolate. Equally appealing was praline cheesecake. It's more pralines than cheesecake, but who cares? Drenched in a praline sauce and sitting on a firm graham-cracker crust, this cheesecake will keep you in sugar orbit.

In contrast, the rum-flavored chocolate fudge cake in banana sauce stayed firmly earthbound.

Another excellent spot to launch your cholesterol and insulin levels into the stratosphere is Skip's Grill.

As casual as Z'Tejas, Skip's also favors lots of wood and effective art-deco-style lighting. Tweed-backed booths give the place a clubby feel, although weird, framed, crumpled-copper panels on the back walls look like they've escaped from some nearby art gallery's remainder bin. Here, too, you can eat outdoors, and gaze at Scottsdale's snowbirds searching for genuine Navajo artifacts.

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