Club Scout

With one exception, desserts are fashioned elsewhere, and don't give you much reason to linger. That's certainly the case with the lackluster creme brulee, the lone in-house sweet. However, its $8 tag is anything but lackluster--it's outrageous. The Tuscanella, an eclairlike confection, furnishes only the most basic sweet-tooth satisfaction. If you want to stay for another set, you're best off doing it over the first-rate espresso.

I hear the Famous Door's proprietors are thinking of setting up a string of clubs nationwide. It looks like they've got the bar and music scene figured out. With some kitchen tuning, they could put the "supper" back in supper club.

Denali's Manhattan Club, 2110 East Highland, Phoenix, 667-9246. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.

When it started up a few months ago, Denali's was promising a unique supper-club experience: a bar room, with all-day appetizers and deli-style sandwiches; a cheese room, with fruit, cheese and wine; a fine-dining room, with gourmet specialties; a coffee bar, with fresh-brewed roasts, cordials and candies; a cyber cafe, with a computer instructor and Internet connections; and big-time entertainment, with dinner theater and high-profile acts.

Right. And a few months ago, Fife Symington assured us he'd be acquitted, and the Cardinals vowed to make the playoffs.

Operating out of what used to be the Roxy club, Denali's bubbles with all the sprightly effervescence of a mortuary. On two weekend visits, we were just about the only paying customers here. It was embarrassing.

The club's troupe of entertainers does its best. But how much can they do when all they've got to work with is the prerecorded background music to "My Girl," a microphone and strobe lights flashing around an empty dance floor?

Actually, except for the lack of bodies, the place is rather neatly designed. The likenesses of well-known music stars--Ray Charles, Jim Morrison, Paul McCartney--are painted on the pillars. A stylized silhouette of the Manhattan skyline runs across the wall. On the lower level, the stage and dance floor are ringed on three sides by white-linen-lined tables. You can also watch the show from the upstairs bar area.

But, there's no bar room. No cheese room. No cyber cafe. No coffee room. And there's certainly not much in the way of fine dining.

The appetizer list seems to have wandered in from a sports bar. How much supper-club sophistication is there in deep-fried zucchini, deep-fried mushrooms, Buffalo wings, green chile poppers and pita pizza? Our deep-fried artichoke hearts tasted like they'd just been poured from a warehouse freezer bag. The grilled shrimp cocktail brought six undersize creatures served with cocktail sauce in a metal container. The chicken-and-cheese quesadilla seemed to be the only nibble the kitchen spent any time on at all.

Don't expect to tamp down hunger pangs by plunging into the breadbasket. No doubt this French loaf had once been fresh, but that moment had long since passed by the time it was set down before us.

Evaluating the quality of the entrees seems almost beside the point. After all, who cares how good or bad the food is, when it's dished out in such a forlorn spot?

Still, my professional obligations require me to render judgment. The prosciutto-wrapped filet mignon is the single best item to come out of Denali's kitchen. The meat, beefy and tender, is studded with roasted garlic and paired with outstanding mashed potatoes. Grilled salmon is routinely serviceable, enhanced by a scoop of sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms. Veal medallions also indicate a bit of culinary skill, aided by a garlic wine sauce and a seasoning boost from basil and capers.

In contrast, shrimp scampi, prepared with the same small crustaceans that appeared in the shrimp cocktail, is a punchless snooze. A dull rice pilaf and veggie medley provide no back-up support. And the grilled chicken and pasta platter is done in by an off-putting mango-jicama salsa that simply doesn't mesh with the other flavors.

By the time we had finished with the main dishes, I was so anxious to leave--we more or less had the place to ourselves--that I was hoping Denali's didn't serve dessert. No such luck. Fortunately, the only sweet it did have, a third-rate tiramisu, didn't detain us long.

At this point, it's impossible to imagine Fred and Ginger ever floating into Denali's for cocktails, food and dancing. It's impossible to imagine me ever wandering in again, either.

Famous Door:
Portabella mushroom
$8.00
Beef stroganoff fajitas
12.00
Tuscanella
6.00

Denali's Manhattan Club:
Quesadilla
$6.95
Grilled salmon
13.95
Filet mignon
15.95
Tiramisu
5.00

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