Sizzle Shtick

Carvers, 10825 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 998-8777. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Morton's of Chicago and Ruth's Chris Steak House, the Valley's two premier steak restaurants. They each boast prime-grade beef, the best money can buy. Steaks run from about $22 to $30, strictly a la carte. Throw in appetizers, side dishes and desserts, and dinner for two can easily range into triple digits.

That's a range most folks aren't at home on.
Still, most red-blooded Americans crave beef, despite its cost and nutritional shortcomings. These days, it's often how we "reward" ourselves on Saturday night for virtuous eating the rest of the week. On those occasions, we want something a little more upscale and elegant than a Sizzler steak-and-salad-bar platter. But a meal at Morton's or Ruth's Chris is simply too much of a budget stretch.

Savvy restaurant operators have identified this new, midmarket splurge niche, and are ready to exploit it. You'll be seeing more and more steak houses positioned between mass-market, sawdust-on-the-floor, crank-up-the-country-music joints and high-end places that cater to the folded-linen-napkin, money-is-no-object, check-out-the-trophy-wife crowd.

What will this midmarket restaurant look like? It'll be too posh to bring the kids, but the setting won't intimidate adults.

What will the menu look like? Don't expect Buffalo wings or hamburgers--they're too downscale. And don't expect aged prime beef or souffles--they're too upscale.

Look for a place like Carvers, a new chain steak house run by the same group that operates Hungry Hunter. For a bit under 20 bucks, Carvers offers complete steak dinners, featuring choice-grade beef (one grade below prime), served in an almost-swanky setting. In nearly every respect, this place is a winner.

Carvers looks good, a freestanding building set at one end of an enormous Scottsdale shopping center. (There's a branch in the northwest Valley, too.) The room is woodsy, lined with plush booths and lots of potted greenery. Music from the 1940s spills softly out of the music system.

The food is good, too; even startlingly good. Someone back at company headquarters knows how to put together a tempting steak-house menu. And someone here knows how to cook.

The appetizer list furnishes evidence of both corporate and kitchen know-how. Among the five starters, there's not a single deep-fried munchie. Imagine a steak house without potato skins, wings, onion rings or battered mushrooms. In this age of copycat concepts and menus, that takes courage.

Instead, we were wowed by excellent grilled, smoked-chicken sausage, teamed with cabbage and moistened with a grown-up horseradish-mustard sauce zipped up with aniseed. Equally compelling is the inventive portabella mushroom layered with cheese and coated with spinach and shrimp in a cream sauce. The only misstep? A breadbasket of no distinction. (Attention, manager: The Arizona Bread Company is less than a quarter-mile away.)

You're in no danger of starving to death if you pass on the appetizers. Meals come with soup or salad, and they're another happy indication that Carvers isn't just going through the motions.

The crock of thick lentil soup will make you forget it's not exactly soup season. But I'd opt for the first-rate spinach salad, studded with dried cranberries, apples and nuts in a honey-mustard dressing. The house caesar salad also displays a bit of flair.

The real star of Carvers' operation is the beef. I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that, for the price, it's about as good as you can get in the Valley.

The menu calls the prime rib a signature dish. I won't argue. The chef's cut is 12 ounces of beefy beauty, burnished by an herb crust and gilded with a port wine sauce that ratchets up the pleasure an extra notch. In a town full of fatty, gristly, tough, overpriced prime rib, this model stands out.

My beef-averse spouse accompanied me to Carvers out of a sense of wifely devotion, not culinary enthusiasm. When I commanded her to order the grilled rib eye, she did her duty, as always, without flinching.

When the steak arrived, however, duty turned to joy. She attacked this beef with totally uncharacteristic, even unnatural, gusto. After I pried a few bites away from her, I could see why. The meat is rubbed with fragrant chile oil, which gives it a bit of a kick. Then it's paired with a luscious sweet-pepper-and-onion relish. It's obvious Carvers can do more than just grill up a slab of meat.

On the other hand, if it's grilled slabs of meat you want, Carvers can do that with equal skill. The New York strip is a topnotch piece of animal protein, beefy and juicy. No, it's not in the same sublime class as Morton's. But it's not $29.95, either. Mildly flavored filet mignon is also appealing, tender enough to gum.

Side dishes could use some perking up. Why not offer cottage fries or spinach au gratin, like they do at Ruth's Chris? Instead, diners are limited to a snoozy baked potato, a too-salty almond rice pilaf or a very tasty roast vegetable medley fashioned from squash, red pepper and broccoli.

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