Reinventing the Meal

Roaring Fork, 7243 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 947-0795. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

I can really empathize with the beleaguered head of the United States Patent Office a hundred years ago. Unable to handle the pace of late-19th-century technological change, and the flood of patent applications it unleashed, the overwhelmed official announced it was time to close up the bureau. "Everything has now been invented," he explained.

These days, I can barely keep my head above the flood of new restaurants opening in the Valley. But sometimes, it seems to me that I've seen them all before. Looking over the menus, I'm tempted to proclaim, "Everything has now been cooked."

Two new Camelback Road restaurants, both inspired by modern American culinary currents, gave me a chance to test my theory. Roaring Fork features what's described as "Western American cuisine." The Armadillo Grill's proprietors call their dishes "eclectic American with a bit of an international flair."

After making my way through the fare, I can advise my bosses with a clear conscience against shutting down the New Times restaurant column: It's pretty clear that everything hasn't been cooked. But culinary creativity is one thing, dining pleasure is another. Just how much do these two places add to the Valley's dining-out scene?

Roaring Fork brings together two of this town's restaurant heavyweights. Paul Fleming is the savvy entrepreneur who once operated the Valley's two Ruth's Chris Steak Houses, and who still owns the popular Z'Tejas Grill and P.F. Chang's. Chef Robert McGrath won a James Beard award for his brilliant Southwestern fare at the Phoenician's Windows on the Green. This promised to be the most exciting partnership in these parts since Wallace hooked up with Ladmo.

For the moment, however, it's only that: a promise. Yes, Fleming can still put together a concept, and McGrath can still cook. But three months after opening its doors, Roaring Fork still isn't roaring on all cylinders.

It does business out of what used to be Brio, Fleming's short-lived attempt to serve a variety of imaginative, around-the-world dishes under one roof. (Why short-lived? Right concept, wrong town is my guess.) The decor has been tweaked to reflect the new Western culinary emphasis. Look for assorted cactuses, cowboy pictures on the wall, the "RF" logo etched into the glass room-divider, a tuft of live wheatgrass on the table and a clever "log cabin" breadbasket put together with wooden sticks. The pretty brick arches and heavy wooden shutters, carry-overs from Brio, still look good in the new incarnation.

Roaring Fork's kitchen hits the target just often enough to make me think there's a first-rate restaurant here somewhere. But then there are some truly inexplicable lapses--in conception and execution--that I wouldn't expect in a place run by veterans like Fleming and McGrath.

Appetizers are the strongest part of Roaring Fork's menu. The cornmeal crepe, stuffed with portabella mushrooms and moistened with a mild red pepper sauce, exudes lusty, robust flavors. Cracked-corn stuffing, teamed with turkey confit and dried figs, is simply smashing, a masterful combination. (For some reason, however, on a subsequent visit, this starter disappeared from the menu. Let's hope management has the good sense to bring it back.) Instead of being cooked in the usual white wine and garlic, pan-roasted mussels come fancifully bathed in a mild, wine-tinged curry sauce, gilded with leeks and a touch of mint.

Soups and salad also shine. Rich, creamy rock-shrimp chowder, topped with an apple fritter and flecked with corn and potatoes, is everything you could want on a cool January evening. The delightful mixed green salad with blue cheese, bundled in a thin slice of jicama and coated with a dreamy green chile/buttermilk dressing, also gets the meal moving. And it's impossible to overlook the charms of one of the Valley's best breadbaskets, with its trio of tarragon dinner rolls, chile pistachio bread and fabulous green chile corn bread studded with dried cherries.

But the foie gras appetizer, served in a cast-iron skillet, is a $15 splurge that's gone awry. Traditionally, foie gras is paired with fruit, like pears or figs, which cut and complement its rich, fatty taste. For the same reason, it's best washed down with Sauternes, a sweet, nectarlike wine. But this foie gras comes with red lentil chow chow, whose pungent, pickled flavor seems as off-base with foie gras as it would be with a hot-fudge sundae.

Two main dishes show off the chef's considerable abilities. The skillet-seared pompano, voluptuously embellished with smoked ham hock, crawfish and French green beans, is so good I wanted to go around to every table and tell everyone to order it. The luscious sugar-and-chile-cured duck, served with an inventive green chile macaroni, could start a whole new category, "Creative Comfort Food."

But the kitchen can't sustain the effort. Sometimes the main dish is done in by not-ready-for-prime-time ingredients. That's certainly the case with the rib-eye steak. At $25, it's priced with the big boys at Morton's, Harris' and Ruth's Chris. But this chewy meat isn't nearly in the same league. I wanted more from the pan-fried trout, too, a tasteless, lightly breaded fillet that had none of the just-out-of-the-stream flavor I expected.

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