Razz'll Dazzle

Razz's Restaurant and Bar, 10321 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 905-1308. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

About six years ago, Erasmo "Razz" Kamnitzer came on board as chef at Different Pointe of View, the swanky dining room at the Pointe at Tapatio Cliffs. Soon after, the Hilton chain took over the hotel property.

The team turned a hit-and-miss restaurant into one of the Valley's fine-dining destination spots, a place where setting, service and food have produced some memorable meals and a number of Best of Phoenix accolades during the '90s.

But nothing lasts forever, particularly in the restaurant industry. Most chefs stay on the job about as long as an Elizabeth Taylor husband. So it was hardly surprising that a few months ago, Razz took the entrepreneurial plunge and opened his own place. His replacement, meanwhile, has just put the finishing touches on a new menu. And the overhaul hasn't stopped there. Different Pointe of View's interior has been redesigned as thoroughly as the menu, courtesy of a floor-to-ceiling Southwestern makeover.

I guess change is inevitable. But in these two instances, is change also progress? With Razz's, I'd shout an enthusiastic "yes"; with Different Pointe of View, I'd say a measured "not yet."

As Razz moved around the restaurant schmoozing with customers, I overheard him tell a group that this was his sixth try at operating his own restaurant. He can stop counting. Barring an outbreak of the Ebola virus, this place is going to pack them in. It's already on my short list of favorite Valley restaurants.

The location certainly doesn't account for my enthusiasm. Razz's occupies a storefront in an ugly, sprawling shopping strip at the southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard. But once I approached the doorway, my mood brightened: There's a little herb garden out front--chervil, basil, parsley, mint.

Inside, the place sports the same air of sophisticated casualness you find at some of the Valley's best restaurants, like Rancho Pinot Grill, RoxSand and Eddie's Grill. There's a mix of eye-catching art, including a sculpture of a metal fish bolted to a plate that's manacled to the pedestal, and a painting of aperplexed Freud torn between choosing fruit orpastries for dessert. Music is piped in so subliminally low, I couldn't tell if it was classical, jazz or rap. But you can identify one unmistakable sound: the buzz of happy people having a good time.

Like the setting, the food also has flair. Razz's eclectic cuisine ranges around the world for its bold flavors. But the dishes never go over the edge. They're inventively fashioned without crossing the line into cutesy or absurd.

For evidence, check out the appetizers. Baked cheese in phyllo dough is dazzling, a luscious blend of Gorgonzola, Camembert and mozzarella festooned with pears and cranberries. I remember enjoying the duck cakes at a Different Pointe of View brunch, and Razz showed good judgment putting them on his starter list here. You get three hearty croquettes plump with roast duck. They tend to be dry, so the chef wisely moistens them with a fruity sauce that doesn't bear any resemblance to the "hot, sweet & sour nopalito sauce" advertised on the menu. (As I recall, at Different Pointe of View, the duck cakes came with a cherry compote.)

A shrimp-and-escargot combo is another appealing first course that can wake up dormant taste buds. Three crustaceans and three out-of-the-shell mollusks arrive in an aromatic garlic-herb sauce, accompanied by a mound of tomato polenta.

The small entree list offers only about a dozen choices. Some platters are there, it seems to me, because no restaurateur can risk alienating this town's huge Midwestern-refugee population--folks whose tastes haven't changed since they packed up the Winnebago and bid adieu to their Nebraska silos. What else could a slab of steak, grilled lamb chops or chicken breast be doing on this menu?

Compare these snoozers with the chef's more creative efforts: black bean paella; South American-style bouillabaisse; bah mie goreng. It's clear that these dishes are closer to his heart.

Mine, too. Black bean paella is a tasty twist on a Spanish theme. You get saffron-accented rice, studded with black beans, topped with two kinds of mussels, clams, cockles, shrimp, chicken and a bit of sausage. One complaint: more rice, please.

The South American bouillabaisse is actually a fish stew, and a first-rate one. The zesty broth comes heavily stocked with shellfish and mahimahi, with root vegetables to keep them company.

Bah mie goreng sounds exotic, but most diners will find it easy to handle. This dish owes as much to the chef's imagination as it does to Indonesia: an ample bowl of noodles teamed with shrimp, pork, chicken and vegetables, zipped up with dried cranberries and almonds. A fried plantain wafer and shrimp cracker sit atop the pile--more decorative than edible.

A daily special suggests that the chef can improvise, too. He deftly encrusted mahimahi in polenta, herbs and mustard seeds, then drizzled on a smooth, red bell pepper sauce. Thick mashed potatoes and a bundle of winter veggies tied in a band rounded off a platter that was as pretty to contemplate as it was to eat.

Desserts keep up the momentum generated by the appetizers and entrees. Chocolate pate is irresistible--a fudgy slab of white and dark chocolate. Even better is flan, whose recipe, our waitress confided, came from the chef's mother. If so, he should put her on the payroll. It's a marvel: creamy custard glazed with pineapple on top and crusted with coconut on the bottom, surrounded by fresh berries and a tablespoon of chocolate sauce.

Not everything is perfect. On busy weekend evenings, reservation times get backed up. The breadbasket isn't as compelling as it should be. And white wine gets served in a ridiculously oversize glass that's better suited to housing goldfish.

But it's easy to overlook these blemishes. Razz's is a big-time place whose biggest problem, as far as I can tell, will be coping with success.

Different Pointe of View, Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs, 11111 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 863-0912. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6to 10 p.m.

Different Pointe of View wasn't broke, but management decided to fix it anyway.

First, the decor. This elegant place used to have a polished, art-deco look, with lots of chrome and marble. But corporate headquarters evidently thought the setting a bit old-fashioned and out-of-place in the 1996 desert Southwest. Maybe it was. But at least Different Pointe of View sported a distinctive style.

Now it's got a Southwestern theme--desert colors, mammoth pots with cactus and abstract regional art. And it looks like every other Southwestern restaurant in town. Thank goodness the decision makers couldn't fiddle with the fabulous view of twinkling city lights stretched out beyond the big picture windows.

Second, the service. Different Pointe of View used to set the standard--smooth, professional, knowledgeable. And on one visit, that's how it still was. But the service was unbelievably ragged on another visit: a 15minute wait for a menu; a 20minute wait for bread; wineglasses not removed; a server who had to ask us "who got what," then setting the dishes down with a hash-slinger's "Okay"; and no one checking back with us at any point during dinner to see how we were faring.

The worst moment of all? Walking past the captain and ma”tre d' on our way out, and not getting a "Thank you" or "Good night" from either of them. I guess dropping a hundred bucks on dinner doesn't buy politeness the way it used to do.

Finally, the fare.
The menu is still divided into two sections. The "Classical Cuisine" part is basically unchanged--look for appetizers like oysters Rockefeller and escargots Bourguignonne, and entrees like filet mignon, rack of lamb and shrimp Proveneal.

But the section called "Razz's Cuisine" is gone, replaced by "Regional American" dishes. Perhaps the new chef is still feeling his way, but at the moment the fare has more misses than hits.

Sometimes the appetizers work, as with the quail stuffed with cornbread and chorizo, in a scrumptious red chile mole, gilded with avocado salsa. Three small wild boar chops, glazed with tamarind and accompanied by a mound of green chile rice, also pressed the right buttons.

But rock shrimp fondue, served in a crock with goat cheese and artichoke, needs work--one measly rock shrimp isn't enough to name a dish after. And four puny crusts of grilled bread couldn't begin to handle the goat cheese and artichoke load. How exactly are we supposed to eat this?

The main dishes don't operate on all cylinders--something invariably holds them back.

Take the peppered ahi tuna, magnificent slabs of perfectly cooked fish, done in by asauce fashioned from charred tomatoes and balsamic vinegar that's astringent enough to make your toes pucker. Too bad, because the side of yellow bell pepper pasta could have been a star in its own right. Panroasted duck, freshened with apples, is pleasant enough, but the risotto accompaniment tasted as if it had been seasoned only with air.

An unexceptional sea bass with tomatillo sauce inspired mostly yawns. It certainly can't compete with my memory of another fish dish I had here under the former regime, a magnificent hunk of albacore tuna crusted with macadamia nuts and wheat germ, in a mango-pineapple-pepper salsa, that still sets my heart racing when I think ofit.

The one unequivocal entree success? That would be the wild game of the day special, farm-raised elk. It comes thin-sliced and pan-sauteed, coated with an intensely fruity raspberry glaze, cleverly teamed with cranberry-flecked rice.

Desserts also fall short of their former glory.
The B-52 cheesecake is all texture, no taste. The tequila-lime torte, lined with coconut, berries and papaya, is too dense and heavy. It took an off-the-menu baked Alaska that our server cheerfully prepared at my request to fully engage the group's sweet tooth.

When you shell out triple-digit dollars for a special-occasion meal, you have a right to expect perfection. Right now, a few months into the post-Razz era, Different Pointe of View doesn't yet meet those expectations.

Razz's Restaurant and Bar:
Baked cheese
in phyllo dough
$6.95
Black bean
paella
16.95
Mahimahi special
17.95
Pineapple-coconutflan
5.00

Different Pointe ofView:
Stuffed quail
$9.50
Peppered
ahi tuna
27.50
Farm-raised elk
34.00
Tequila-lime torte
6.50

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