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Marco Polo Supper Club, 8608 East Shea, Scottsdale, 483-1900. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
When it comes to watching summertime television reruns, you know just what you're going to see: the exact same show you saw the first time around.
But restaurant reruns don't necessarily follow the same fixed script. When a successful restaurant opens a second location, customers no doubt expect to be guided on a comfortable trip through a familiar menu. But any new eating journey inevitably takes some unexpected twists and turns.
Cases in point: Marco Polo Supper Club and T-Bone Steak House. Looking to ride the wave of our growing dining-out market, each has opened new branches in the past few months. The new operations offer virtually the same dishes that built up loyal followings at their first spots. But the results of the two expansions are hardly identical.
The new Marco Polo, set in a sprawling northeast Valley shopping center, outdoes the original in every respect. It's clearly one of this town's better restaurants.
Don't bother searching for the first Marco Polo, by the way. Set in a shopping strip storefront at Goldwater and East Camelback, it recently closed. Nordstrom's is taking over the site.
The new place has snappy big-city style, and big-city looks. Dark wood paneling, dark wood floors, gilded mirrors and tiled ceilings provide clubby elegance. Old-fashioned globe lamps with etched glass furnish dim, but not somber, lighting. Hundreds of family-album photos of the restaurant's nine partners and their families line the walls, furnishing homey reassurance. The up-tempo, vintage Sinatra on the music system ("Old Devil Moon," "Pennies From Heaven") also contributes to the let's-dress-up, it's-Saturday-night feel.
The only decor misstep: a television in the bar, entirely too visible from the dining area, that cheapens the otherwise sophisticated visual and audio effects.
Named after the 13th-century Italian merchant and adventurer, Marco Polo aims to bridge the gap between East and West by marrying Chinese flavors to Italian dishes. The results, particularly in the main dishes, can be extraordinary.
Appetizers don't do much more than hint at what's to follow. Kung Pao prawns feature four stir-fried crustaceans blended with peppers, pineapple, scallions and cashews, in a peppy hoisin sauce. The clump of crispy rice noodles alongside, however, is more decorative than tasty. Deep-fried potstickers are another munching option that can pleasurably kill some time before the entrees arrive.
But frankly, it's just as effective, and considerably cheaper, to stir up the appetite juices by nibbling on the outstanding bread (from the nearby Arizona Bread Company, I was told). Olive oil and Parmesan cheese help gild the bread lily.
The main dishes sport an ingenuity and flair that grab you by the lapels and don't let go. There are lots of places in town that serve entrees in the $15-to-$20 range--almost none of them are this good, or this interesting.
Of the two dozen or so choices, nine come tagged as "Original Marco Polo house specialties." These are where you want to focus your attention.
The lobster and shrimp pasta, an occasional special at the first Marco Polo, is now a featured menu item. It deserves to be. And it will give you a good idea of what Marco Polo is all about.
The chef saut‚s a generous amount of shellfish in olive oil and garlic, adds a heap of soft lo mein noodles, throws in cabbage and bok choy and stir-fries the mix in a wok. A mildly spicy tomato sauce moistens the ingredients and injects a zesty, just-right flavor note.
No way could the other entrees surpass this one, I thought. Wrong. After I sampled the Hong Kong chicken, penne alla Szechuan duck and filet mignon broccoli steak, I was paralyzed with indecision trying to figure out which dish was my favorite.
Hong Kong chicken brings a hefty platter of chicken breast rolled with mozzarella, calamari (not shrimp, as the menu advertises), sprouts and spinach. It's paired with linguini tossed with a tangy orange sauce packing a sharp citrusy smack. This has to be one of the most appealing poultry dishes in the Valley. And for lip-smacking diversion, check out the wonderful side of skin-on eggplant parmigiana that comes with it.
Penne alla Szechuan duck is equally beguiling. Tubes of pasta are stir-fried with mushrooms, cabbage and unconscionable amounts of crisp, meaty, boneless duck. Everything's coated with an on-target, slightly sweet Oriental sauce. If you've got $12.95 and a yen for something different in the way of pasta, this should be your first stop.
But if I were forced to hand out top honors, I'd have to go with the filet mignon broccoli steak. It's a riveting blend of glorious, thinly sliced beef and broccoli, smothered in an irresistible hoisin oyster sauce. The carnivorous pal who ordered it demolished every last bite, then attacked the breadbasket to sop up every last bit of sauce. "I can't help it," he said, as I volunteered my own aid.
Compared with the main dishes, desserts are somewhat tame, just as at the first Marco Polo. There are only three sweets: a light cheesecake, a routinely pleasant tiramisu and a chocolate tartufo surrounded by pears in raspberry sauce.