Grills' Town

Pinon Grill, Inn at Regal McCormick Ranch, 7401 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-5050. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

It's no surprise to discover that there are many good Cuban restaurants in Miami, many good Cajun restaurants in New Orleans and many good delis in New York. These restaurants draw from a large pool of hard-to-please locals, folks who know the difference between quality and mediocrity. And knowledgeable diners force restaurants to ratchet up their culinary levels.

When it comes to our native Southwestern fare, the Valley experience is very similar. We're hardly overrun with Southwestern restaurants, which tend to be pricey. But the ones we do have--Cafe Terra Cotta, Arizona Kitchen, Z'Tejas Grill, Windows on the Green, Vincent Guerithault on Camelback and Sam's Cafe come to mind--flourish because they dish out consistently first-rate regional cuisine.

Once upon a time, Pinon Grill did, too. Years ago, the kitchen copped a Best of Phoenix for the best Southwestern food in town. But over the next few years, management let standards slowly slide, letting the restaurant continue to live off its reputation. Inevitably, though, that slow slide turned into a free-fall descent. Earlier this year, I had a meal here so shamefully bad that I wondered how the perpetrators could look at themselves in the mirror.

I guess restaurants, like people, sometimes have to reach rock bottom before they can turn things around. Because over the past seven months, Pinon Grill has made an astonishing recovery.

I don't know if it was a 12-Step program. But I suspect that the crucial step was bringing back Farn Boggie, the chef who had manned the kitchen during the restaurant's award-winning days, and who left soon afterward. Like Hercules cleaning out the Augean stable, he has swiftly and heroically wiped away all traces of neglect. Let's hope he has a long-term contract.

After my woeful visit last April, if someone had told me that by November I'd be putting this place back in the top rank of Valley Southwestern restaurants, I'd have scheduled a sanity hearing. Well, you can put away the butterfly nets: I'm in my right mind. And I declare that Pinon Grill now serves marvelous Southwestern dishes that should please even the fussiest, most demanding local experts.

One thing hasn't changed over the years: the wonderful setting. Pinon Grill looks like a woodsy Southwestern lodge, swirling with regional colors. From the patio, you can gaze on swaying palms, a big lake and an army of marching ducks.

But you're going to be hard-pressed to take your eyes off your dinner. That's because just about everything here is both beautifully presented and rivetingly scrumptious.

If you're not careful, you may not even make it past the bowl of green chile corn bread. It's been fully restored to its former glory: moist, thick, crusty, with a real chile bite. Wash it down with Pinon Grill's sweet, potent prickly pear margarita, and you'll quickly learn both how the Southwest was won, and why it loosened its belt.

Appetizers furnish several clues to the kitchen's talents. The crunchy quesadilla stuffed with chicken and Oaxaca cheese gets perked up by a tangy mango-jicama salsa. Four grilled Guaymas shrimp, big and meaty, come crusted with spices and paired with a tart tomatillo salsa.

But it may be wiser (and more cost-effective) to take the edge off dinner with either the soup or salad that accompanies the entrees. Both the creamy, chile-spiked salmon chowder and the house salad zipped up by a blueberry vinaigrette are obviously more than the afterthoughts of a lazy kitchen.

The main dishes, however, are the true stars of Pinon Grill's show. They're simply bursting with flavors that don't quit from first bite to last.

Grilled ahi tuna should silence any skeptics. Yes, every restaurant in town serves grilled ahi tuna. But every restaurant in town doesn't fire it up with a dreamy red jalapeno basil sauce and cool it down with a refreshing melon salsa. And how many kitchens are creative enough to team their tuna with gnocchi?

Chicken is deftly handled. A ravishing pasilla chile-sesame sauce transforms chicken breast into edible poetry. Orzo and chayote squash, meanwhile, make worthy backdrops.

Pinon Grill also breathes life into salmon, an otherwise potential menu snoozer. It's bathed in a rich jalapeno-pesto cream studded with pine nuts, and paired with two huge, juicy sea scallops atop wilted spinach. The side of sun-dried tomato risotto suggests that the kitchen still has creative energy to spare.

That's apparent from the outstanding beef tenderloin, a carnivore's delight. This tender hunk of meat is adorned with a mild achiote sauce that generates real Southwestern flair. Shiitake mushrooms and an irresistible vegetable crisp fashioned from squash, peppers and chile complete the platter.

Desserts lean heavily toward chocolate, and you won't hear any complaints from me. Both the rich chocolate taco and intense chocolate pate gilded with pistachios and berries keep the meal pitched on a high note.

With its $7 to $10 appetizers, $20 entrees and $7 desserts, dinner can add up fast. But this kitchen is firing bullets, not blanks. At Pinon Grill, you can count on plenty of bang for your bucks.

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