Fare to Remember

Gregory's Grill, Papago Plaza, 7049 East McDowell, Scottsdale, 946-8700. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

It's spring, and I'm in love.
And why not? The object of my affection is charming, sophisticated and eager to please. After a thrilling night together, my senses are on edge. I return home sated with pleasure. All I can think about is slipping away again for another rendezvous. The price is right, too. Naturally, I don't use my real name, but the relationship is strong enough to survive the deception. Who would have thought, after hundreds of meaningless one-night stands, that I could be so completely smitten?

I confessed everything to my wife. But after I brought her along with me to share the evening's delights, she's just as love-struck as I am.

No, this is not the start of a midlife assault on the Ten Commandments. It is the start, I hope, of a long-standing affair with Gregory's Grill.

This is the best new restaurant to hit town in quite some time. Maybe it's the lucky location. Gregory's Grill, not to be confused with the old Gregory's or Gregory's Penthouse restaurants, occupies the tiny storefront in Papago Plaza that housed Cafe Patou, whose success prompted it to move to larger, fancier digs a few months ago.

Like the old Cafe Patou, Gregory's Grill can hold maybe two dozen skinny customers. The place is decorated in a style that might be described as "Early Thrift." Paintings from a deceased local artist provide most of the color. The husband-and-wife proprietors can't yet afford fresh flowers, but the African violets in a pot at our linen-lined table had the good sense to bloom during our visits. Some vaguely jazzy music furnishes auditory background. The best design touch is completely fortuitous: Light from a parking-lot pole strikingly projects the front window's "Gregory's Grill" sign onto bare space on the wall. It looks like something out of a Forties film noir.

But that's not nearly as striking as what comes out of the kitchen. The young chef calls his creations "New World cuisine," whatever that means. Fortunately, he's a lot more adept at preparing his stylish fare than he is at categorizing it.

He got his training at the Culinary Institute of America, and put in time at the Marquesa and AJ's before catching the "I want my own place" fever. Folk wisdom says you should starve a fever. Not this bug. It's one fever that doesn't need a cure.

You'll sit down to a basket of home-baked bread, including focaccia laced with Stilton and garlic. But resist the impulse to down it immediately--you'll be using the bread to mop up the remains of virtually every dish.

Each of the four appetizers is memorable. Duck prosciutto is superb, paper-thin slices of cured, air-dried duck breast teamed with orange segments and bits of toasted walnut, over arugula that tasted like it was just pulled out of the ground. The tower of roasted vegetables and cheese also gets the meal quickly soaring. Tomato, squash, bok choy and eggplant are layered with goat cheese and garnished with parsnip chips. The edifice is ringed with basil oil and a lovely roasted tomato vinaigrette. It doesn't take more than one bite to realize you're in good hands.

Shrimp starters tend to be snoozy, but not at Gregory's. It's fashioned with three beautifully grilled crustaceans, which sit in a ravishing, bouillabaisse-inspired broth highlighted with fennel and saffron. Herbed bread pudding is also part of the presentation, to help soak up the fragrant liquid. Finally, there's an inventive take on ceviche, crafted with marinated salmon on a bed of pureed white beans, surrounded by a colorful parsley-scallion oil.

The main-dish fare is just as compelling. The glorious grilled beef tenderloin could give a vegetarian second thoughts. That's because the beef spends 72 hours bathing in a soy, ginger and beer marinade. The result is beef that's almost impossibly tender and flavorful. It's teamed with a hash of potatoes and shiitake mushrooms, along with some simple stir-fried veggies. You won't need any encouragement to wipe this plate clean.

Grilled pork chop is enhanced by a lusty ancho-tomatillo sauce that almost knocked me out. Spoon some over the side dishes, quinoa (a South American grain favored by the Inca) and a mix of sweet corn and squash.

I'm more or less sick to death of salmon. Is there a municipal ordinance that requires salmon to appear on every menu in town? Gregory's Grill manages to turn this familiar entree into something approaching art, lining two moist, filleted slabs with an apple crust, then pairing them with parsnip mashed potatoes, shredded carrots and squash in a sublime apple-scented sauce. The heady combination of flavors is irresistible.

Even chicken gets the treatment. A breast is stuffed with spinach, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts, and served with creamy polenta spiked with Parmesan cheese.

The fare isn't the only lure. It's easy to get hooked by the wallet-friendly BYOB policy. (There's a $2 stemware charge.) That budget-busting, $40 bottle of Pinot Noir that you'd order elsewhere off a wine list can probably be picked up at retail for half that price. Or, if you're financially challenged, pick up one of the many good wines that fall into the $6 to $10 retail range, as we did.

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