Pros and Connoisseurs

Brio, 7243 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 947-0795. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Sometimes, there's no substitute for experience.
A couple of veteran Valley restaurateurs have recently opened new Scottsdale dining spots. Tycoon Paul Fleming is already a local force. He's behind the two Ruth's Chris Steak Houses (which he's in the process of selling to Ruth Fertel), the wonderful south-by-Southwestern fare at Z'Tejas Grill, and the somewhat less-than-wonderful Americanized ethnic fare at P.F. Chang's and Nola's. Now he's brought Brio to town, about a year after he first launched the concept in Austin, Texas.

Georges Venezia was the longtime proprietor of Mes Amis. During his run there, he tried adding to his French empire with the 32nd Street Bistro, but that venture didn't work out. Now, with Mes Amis in other hands, he's back on the French dining scene with Chez Georges.

Having gotten their restaurants up and running, both gentlemen ought to take a relaxing summer vacation, resting on their laurels. That's because, in a few months, when the natives emerge from their summer aestivation and the tourist hordes return, these guys are going to need all the energy they can muster. Once discerning diners discover Brio and Chez Georges, I predict this pair won't be having too many quiet moments.

A press release describes Brio's cuisine as a "fusion of hearty Texas, European and Asian flavors." My first instinct? Frankly, I thought it sounded like the kind of fare you should be running from, not toward. I imagined loony, mishmash menu offerings like ancho chile-ginger chicken, in a pesto wasabi barbecue sauce--a scary prospect, even for a professionally trained belly like my own.

But Brio pulls off the concept, because (thank goodness) the kitchen isn't demented enough to try to fuse Southwestern, European and Asian flavors in each individual dish. While Brio's ingredients range all over the world, individual dishes generally maintain a certain geographic integrity.

Brio's look is as eclectic as the menu. Depending on where you're seated, you might view Roman bas-reliefs or reproductions of the Mona Lisa and the Bayeux tapestry. Meanwhile, brick walls and arches, cast-iron chandeliers and electric tapers with curled parchment shades furnish odd medieval cues. If you walked in here cold, you'd probably think Brio specialized in serving ye olde roast beef.

Think again. There's nothing medieval about the appetizer of shredded duck and scallion pancakes. It's Brio's version of moo shu pork: four scallion-flecked crepes, a mound of luscious duck, greenery and cucumbers, and a fragrant hoisin-barbecue sauce. Assembly is required, but that's half the fun. Although this starter is perfect to share, you may be tempted not to. Another Asian-themed appetizer, Thai fish cakes, also produced exclamations of delight. You get two plump disks, zipped up by a zesty, chile-spiked ginger sauce.

The Southwestern-inspired appetizers pack the same kind of flavor punch. The smoked-beef tenderloin is particularly noteworthy, strips of pungent, thin-sliced meat, served cold, coated with a mild horseradish sauce and teamed with scrumptious green-chile grits. If your taste buds have been napping, this plate provides a real wake-up call. So will the ancho chile relleno, a spicy specimen stuffed with carnitas and cheese, softened by a mild tomatillo sauce.

By the time they've polished off appetizers and Brio's irresistibly fresh, crusty bread, some diners might consider calling it a night. That would be a mistake--the entrees here are worth loosening your belt for.

In fact, I'd remove my belt entirely for the pork tenderloin. If the chef who created beef Wellington had lived in the American Southwest instead of Europe, he would have come up with something like this: Tender pork layered with cheese, encased in a puff pastry that's lined with a chile-mushroom paste, moistened with a red chile sauce. The side of sugar snap peas also makes a very favorable impression.

Venison is another source of animal protein that benefits from regional cooking flair. The kitchen sears two strong-scented medallions and coats them in a guajillo chile batter, then pours on a green-chile gravy that has some bite. The accompaniments also deserve star billing. Both the skillet-fried croquette, fashioned from white beans and corn, and the French green beans are further evidence that Brio is directed by a higher intelligence.

Cilantro shrimp is equally compelling. You get four big, primo-quality crustaceans, served over a heap of pan-fried noodles and crunchy Chinese long beans, all smoothed in a fragrant black-bean sauce. The ingredients in this platter work together in perfect harmony.

That's not quite the case with the off-key salmon entree. I'd call it an interesting failure. The principal culprit? A too-sweet orange-ginger sauce better suited to ice cream than fish. The tasty side of aromatic, Thai-style coconut rice gets overwhelmed here.

The dessert list has been put together with the same attention to quality as the rest of the menu. The coconut buttermilk pie is a rich way to finish up. So is the chocolate pate, two small slabs gilded with candied orange peel and an espresso-custard sauce.

With its all-over-the-map fare, Brio is not an easy restaurant to pigeon-hole. But why worry about a hardening of the categories? However you characterize it, food this good speaks for itself.

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