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By Laura Hahnefeld
House of Tricks, 114 East Seventh Street, Tempe, 968-1114. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m.
It's amazing what insights you can get when you're strapped into a dentist's chair.
For the past few weeks, I've been undergoing treatment for a condition illustrated in dental textbooks by grinning hockey players. The treatment consists of massive doses of pain and a large extraction from my wallet.
114 E. 7th St.
Tempe, AZ 85281
Each trip, I'm confined to the dentist's office for a couple of hours, about the same length of time I linger in a restaurant dining room. The experience has made me aware of how acutely sensitive I am to my surroundings. I've discovered that in my own way, I need environmental protection as much as the spotted owl.
For instance, after spending two hours in the same room with Muzak, gleaming, high-speed drills and explicit posters depicting the latter stages of periodontal distress, I invariably feel down.
I now realize that restaurants affect me in a similar way. Two hours numbly staring at celebrity photos on the wall or gazing out the window at cars pulling into a strip-mall parking lot inevitably take an unconscious toll, no matter how good the food. But the converse is also true. A visit to two absolutely charming Valley restaurants furnished plenty of evidence to back up my environmental theory.
Tempe's House of Tricks is a bucolic-looking cottage just far enough off Mill Avenue to make the setting plausible. Named after the owner-chefs, Robert and Robin Trick, it looks like the kind of place you wish your grandparents had lived in.
It's got lots of Victorian clutter. Corner crannies hold old pitchers and kitchen utensils, and tastefully framed small pictures adorn the walls. Lace curtains and old-fashioned Venetian blinds hang from the windows, while fresh carnations brighten the tables. Beyond the front dining room and its huge wooden hutch lies a friendly open kitchen and a collection of shiny copper pans.
The stone fireplace may also remind you of a cozy visit to Granny's, but only if she racked her wine bottles next to it.
There's no cavernous main dining room. Instead, the dozen or so inside tables (there's an outdoor patio, too) are wedged into a little nook, a narrow foyer and two small rooms. If you've come to House of Tricks looking for clatter, bustle and party-time atmosphere, you've been misinformed.
But you'll be rewarded if you've come searching for generous portions of inventive, reasonably priced fare.
House of Tricks offers one of the more interesting appetizer lists in town. There's not a wing, battered zucchini strip or shrimp cocktail anywhere on it.
Instead, look for ginger beef in phyllo pastry. Two small turnovers, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, shared a plate with grilled eggplant and a scoop of pungent hummus. It's a heady variety of distinctive flavors. Equally stunning was the grilled Portobello mushroom, layered with mild goat cheese and cilantro pesto. Big and thick as a pincushion, this fungus doesn't take much getting used to.
The warm saffron pasta is an exuberant way to glide into the meal. Delicately sprinkled with saffron, wide noodles came with chunks of chicken breast and marvelous wild mushrooms on a bed of wilted greens. Happily, the appetizers were substantial enough not to require bread. The sourdough rolls in the breadbasket somehow managed to be both soggy and chewy, not exactly a baker's daily double.
Topping out at $12.75, the main dishes seemed far too intriguing for the price. With one exception, they displayed a flair that belied the homey cottage setting. The lasagna doesn't look anything like the sheets of noodles you get at neighborhood Italian joints with red-checked tablecloths and candle-stuffed Chianti bottles. Here it's a gorgeous whole eggplant, roasted and pulpy, crammed with goat cheese, ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes. Not everyone is an eggplant fan like I am, but this dish should preach to more than the converted.
Once the pork tenderloin got passed around the table, conversation stopped. Crusted with peppercorns, the four juicy medallions, simmered in wine, required full attention to savor. Simple as it looked, this pork was one of the better meat dishes I've had in the Valley.
The carbohydrate nestled alongside enhanced our appraisal. Instead of the usual potato or rice, the Tricks spooned up an offbeat helping of couscous and raisins. This kitchen cooks like it doesn't want to get caught in a rut. The shrimp entree, too, avoided the hackneyed. Firm and meaty medium-size critters arrived in an oblong chafing dish, crusted over with puff pastry. Bubbling next to them were quartered artichoke hearts in a light, Parmesan-and-basil-tinged tomato sauce. The lamb chops, though, were a disappointment. This platter was so routine I couldn't believe it exited the same stovetop. Two dull lamb chops relied on lemon chutney to perk them up, but the condiment wasn't up to the task. It didn't help that the advertised orzo was replaced, unannounced, by the most ordinary heap of rice this side of an Uncle Ben's box.
Desserts are brought in, rather than homemade, but two of the supplier's offerings were first-rate. Baklava cheesecake, a blend of nuts, honey, cheese and phyllo dough, quickly disappeared among several dueling forks. So did the overpowering chocolate truffle cake, which required lots of coffee to wash it down.