EAT YOUR HEART OUT

Rancho Pinot Grill will have to be doing business in the year 2050 just to match El Chorro's current streak, which started in 1937. Old age, though, hasn't slowed down the kitchen. This place puts out a first-rate meal in a first-rate setting. Nestled by the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, the restaurant's patio area, warmed with heaters, is the perfect place for intrepid lovers to gaze soulfully at the stars and each other. But if dining alfresco on a chilly February evening doesn't strike you as the ideal prelude to romance, indoor dining is a more than adequate alternative. That's because El Chorro is divided into several dining areas, furnishing a coziness and intimacy that huge dining halls can't match. Like the building, the fare dates from the 1930s. A chilled metal dish with olives, pickles and carrots greets diners as soon as they're seated. So does an ugly basket of plastic-wrapped crackers that has no business being here. Especially since meals are accompanied by a basket of El Chorro's justly famous sticky buns. These are good enough to divert the attention of even the most lovesick couples. And so is almost everything else the kitchen serves up. El Chorro offers only two appetizers, shrimp cocktail and oysters on the half shell. You get your money's worth from the five huge, meaty shrimp. But sliding oysters down your throat seems a much more sensual and appropriate Valentine's Day option. Go for the soup alternative with dinner. The two kinds we sampled--chicken and white bean, and minestrone--are exceptionally hearty and thickly stocked, with a long-simmering, homemade taste. In contrast, the salad plate consists of nondescript romaine brightened with a cherry tomato. The main dishes are the real dinner stars. El Chorro uses aged prime beef, and experienced carnivores know that other grades of beef can't match the quality. You can simply taste the difference. Take the superb culotte, the eye of top sirloin. This gorgeous, juicy, medium-rare hunk is tender enough to gum, and loaded with beefy flavor. There's enough animal protein here to make a guy pound his chest and howl, not a bad Valentine's Day combination. You won't be asking "Where's the beef?" if you order the beef stroganoff. There's a ton of gloriously moist meat in this rich, fragrant, dill-scented platter. In fact, my sweetie complained that there was too much meat. She was right--the beef-noodle ratio is out of whack. The answer, though, as any gourmand will note, is not less meat, but more noodles. El Chorro handles other entree fare just as skillfully as meat. Orange roughy and swordfish are obviously cooked by a practiced hand, since each left the flames at precisely the right moment. And the barbecued baby-back pork ribs surprised me, for both their meaty heft and tangy sauce. The side dishes, however, don't get nearly the attention they require. Baked potato and French fries are nothing special, and the mushy glop of unseasoned squash shows a dismaying inattention to detail. But for an additional $2.95, you can feast on addictive, thin-sliced cottage fried potatoes, sizzlingly crisp and crunchy. Sensible folks will be happy to make dessert out of the remaining sticky buns. But diners craving variety can opt for the chocolate-chip pecan pie. Coated with a vanilla bean sauce, it's very sweet, very rich and very good. The cheesecake, though, is too light and insubstantial for my taste. Guys, El Chorro does just about everything to promote romance except furnish a date. But a promise to bring her here is all it should take to sway any clear-thinking woman into joining you. @7col:Rancho Pinot Grill: Lentil cakes $5.50 Mixed grill 13.50 Fillet of salmon 14.00 Pear tart 5.50 El Chorro Lodge: Oysters $7.95 Beef stroganoff 19.50 Culotte 20.75 Pecan pie 3.95

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