SECOND HELPINGS

Hops! to It: About 18 months ago, I had a rather hit-and-miss meal at Hops! Bistro and Brewery. I loved the beers, but the food had some occasional glitches. Prices, too, I thought, leaned toward the high side. But the dishes have been somewhat revamped, and a new chef, from the Hops! branch in La Jolla, California, has been brought in. The place still isn't where you want to go if you're on a cheap date. But the fare is now pretty much first-rate, hearty, American-bistro food that goes exceptionally well with the homemade brewskis. The appetizer list is a bit top-heavy with bar-type munchies that show no culinary imagination. But the baked oysters ($7.50), a twist on oysters Rockefeller, are worthy of serious dinner attention. You get six critters, draped with cheese, pancetta and spinach. The smallish, seven- to-eight-inch pizzas make an ideal starter to share. Last time, I enjoyed the spicy chicken version, intensely seasoned with fresh herbs and sun-dried tomatoes. This time, I tried the smoked-salmon model ($8.95), which also tapped our pleasure buttons. Lots of mildly smoked salmon sat on thin, crisp crust coated with chive cream, all topped with capers, artichokes and caramelized onions. It's offbeat, and it works. Gone from the menu is the ridiculous paella, about which the previous chef didn't have much of a clue. These days, diners are much better served by marinated pork chops ($14.95), two thick, expertly grilled hunks of meat, with excellent whipped sweet potatoes and a squash medley. This two-fisted platter should dent even a he-man appetite. The spicy gulf shrimp plate ($15.95) has also undergone significant improvement. Last time, I liked it; this time, I loved it. I got seven meaty shrimp, sizzled in beer, a heap of artichokes and spinach, all floating in a large bowl of fragrant tomato broth. Three thick slabs of fresh garlic toast were also inserted into the bowl to facilitate sopping up.

I made a Jacques Cousteau-type effort to locate the promised wild mushrooms, but each time, I came up for air empty-handed. If you're more in the mood for a sandwich than a full dinner with your suds, Hops! will accommodate you. My choice: the Philadelphia cheesesteak ($8.25), fashioned from flavor-packed Angus beef and smoked Gouda. The waffle fries alongside, however, are nothing to get excited about. (This place should be serving sizzling, fresh-cut spuds, right out of the fryer. What could be more bistrolike?) The homemade desserts are straightforward and effective. The Heath-bar pecan cake ($4.50), served with a scoop of praline ice cream, sports a pleasing blend of smooth and crunchy textures. The three mammoth, ice-cream-stuffed profiteroles ($4.95), drenched with chocolate and toffee sauce, impart an unmistakable sugar high. A word about the beers: They're good, particularly the German-style wheat beer (hefe-weizen) and the full-flavored, English-style amber ale. I didn't care much for the brewmaster's special--the raspberry ice beer tasted too much like a fruit drink. But beer mavens will be happy to know they can get a radler, a mix of Pilsner and lemon-lime soda popular in Germany and France. Hops! serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. It's at 7000 East Camelback in Scottsdale, in front of Fashion Square. A new branch is scheduled to open soon at Biltmore Fashion Park.

 
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