Out-of-Place Mats

My experience at Sebastian's pointed out the aptness of some lines from Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." In one verse, the poet reminds us that

Full many a flower is born
to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness
on the desert air.

No doubt Sebastian's is blooming. Let's hope its aromas don't vanish undetected into the Sonoran Desert night.

The Charcoal House Bar and Grill, 7373 Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale, 946-8565. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday, and Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Monday.

Sebastian's culinary ambition seems risky for its neighborhood. But the Charcoal House's lack of ambition may turn out to be even riskier.

Here's a restaurant in one of the Valley's loveliest, pedestrian-friendly locations, the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall. Hungry strollers wandering around the grounds already have no shortage of spots to get a meal: the trendy AZ 88, the inventive Back Stage, the chic Pepin Spanish restaurant, to name just three.

What kind of dining alternative does the Charcoal House offer in this fashionable setting? A yawn-inducing menu featuring haven't-we-seen-this-before munchies like Buffalo wings, cheese toast and onion rings; entrees highlighted by snoozy slabs of beef, battered chicken and pasta; and desserts that could put an insomniac to sleep.

It's not that the nondescript fare isn't competently prepared. Most of it is. But what's it doing in this upscale part of town? And why should anybody consider making a special trip for it?

The Charcoal House isn't the first restaurant in this spot to have difficulty developing a niche. Two other restaurants in this location have folded in the last two years.

The new proprietors have opted for an odd, eclectic look. Part of the place has a high-tech feel, particularly the lights hidden in copper disks suspended from the exposed ceiling. Vintage photos on the wall impart a gallery feel. A Sinclair Gas logo on a gumball machine lends a touch of nostalgia. Meanwhile, wire sculpture like the resting figure in a sombrero camped under a saguaro, and a mural depicting a thundering herd of cattle, are designed to signal that you're in the West's westernmost town.

Unfortunately, there's more variety in the decor than in the fare.
Don't expect to assuage a growling stomach by skipping appetizers and filling up on bread and butter. The Charcoal House removes that option by neglecting to set out a breadbasket.

You may as well begin with the penurious plate of pricey onion rings. The quality, however, just about makes up for the quantity and $3.95 tag. These crisp beauties are irresistible, especially once you dip them into the zippy cream sauce.

Soups are another starter option. The homemade chicken and vegetable broth, thickened with pasta and a bit of mushroom and celery, won't remind you of mom's all-day efforts, but it won't remind you of the swill in the employee cafeteria, either. The French onion soup, though, uses bland mozzarella cheese and relies too heavily on salt for flavor.

There's nothing cutting edge about the main dishes. They're about as thrilling as kissing your sister. At $16.95, the grilled New York strip is the most expensive item here, but it's no more than an ordinary slab of meat. The 11-ounce rib eye is a better choice for animal protein, beefy and tender. But I got more pleasure from the juicy, ten-ounce chopped steak, topped with sauted mushrooms, than I did from either of the steaks.

Southern pan chicken features a whole boneless breast coated with a crunchy, coconut-tinged batter. But it could have used a moistening agent, maybe a salsa or gravy. This bird is dry. Shrimp pasta is not up to snuff: four medium-size crustaceans lacking that right-out-of-the-sea taste, resting on a stingy mound of pasta doused with a watery cream sauce. Grilled chicken pasta is a clear improvement, aided by peppers, mushrooms and an uncomplicated marinara sauce.

Only in one of the side dishes does the kitchen show some cleverness. There's a terrific skillet-fried pancake blending grated potato and sweet potato with onions, peppers and cheese. Why couldn't anything else be this interesting?

Dessert sure isn't. The one house-made offering, an apple dumpling with ice cream, fills a big crock with too much dough and too little fruit. A wretched, supplier-provided cheesecake is dry and completely flavorless.

In another spot--say, Deer Valley Road near the I-17 freeway--the Charcoal House could develop into a neighborhood favorite. But right now it's not ready for the Scottsdale big leagues.

Yellow tomto crayfish bisque
Veal roulade
Shrimp and scallops

The Charcoal House Bar and Grill:
Onion soup
Grilled chicken pasta
Rib eye steak
Apple dumpling

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