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Montana Grill's sandwiches are as well-crafted as everything else. That's especially true of the skillet-roasted pork model, thin-sliced meat, roasted red peppers, sauteed onions and smoked mozzarella heaped between two pieces of grilled sourdough bread.
Even the pizza here is first-rate. The pesto shrimp version smacks you upside the head with its basil punch, and the kitchen uses decent-sized shrimp that you can bite into, not the tasteless, teensy-weensy critters you usually find on top of shrimp pizzas.
Cagey patrons can get themselves free dessert by sidling up to the counter and filling up on the yummy pecan cinnamon rolls set out on the take-a-sample counter. On the other hand, no one will mind paying for the wicked chocolate decadent cake, a rich, over-the-top confection juiced up with caramelized bananas, candied walnuts and a shot of Grand Marnier. If that's too much, go for an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. But steer clear of the biscotti, the only less-than-stellar item here. The texture's not right.
The chef/proprietor told me he'd be satisfied if this place became a popular neighborhood spot. I'd say he's set his sights too low. Montana Grill is worth a drive from just about anywhere.
Gerda's Grill, 6710 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, 595-2124. Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
I've been scratching my head trying to figure out why Gerda calls her place a grill. My best guess: She's fond of alliteration.
It can't be because there's much grilling going on here. In fact, there's not much in the way of any intriguing culinary activity going on here. Far from being a grill, Gerda's is really a neighborhood tavern/restaurant/sports bar.
The neighborhood is Cave Creek, where Gerda opened for business about a year ago. Televisions and vintage baseball photos are the principal decor motifs. (I love the framed magazine advertisement spotlighting Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe Di Maggio with Chesterfield cigarettes dangling from their lips.) In the band area, there's a bearskin mounted on the wall and a huge fake flower arrangement. From the outdoor deck, you get a nice view of what's left of the desert.
Gerda hails from Germany. That's probably why the ho-hum menu flashes a few unexpected Teutonic touches. Those touches give Gerda's kitchen what little distinction it can muster.
The appetizers could have used some Deutschland energy. Spinach con queso is a watery dip without much spunk. Moreover, the chip-dip ratio was out of whack--we got either too little dip, or too many chips. Meanwhile, another munchie, shrimp Italiano, four grilled crustaceans wrapped with prosciutto, wasn't at all memorable.
For the most part, the main dishes are pretty lame. Chewy strips of beef tossed over fettuccine in a nondescript pepper sauce certainly won't get anyone panting with anticipation. Grilled salmon, teamed with mashed potatoes and squash, could put even an insomniac to sleep. And focaccia pizza features what tastes like store-bought flat bread topped with mushrooms, cheese and the world's saltiest sausage. You'd better make sure you have a large brewski on hand to slake your thirst if you order this.
A couple of dishes with Germanic roots rise to the level of serviceable. One is chicken paprika. Not too many Valley chefs work with paprika, a subtly pungent spice that's essential to Central European cooking. Gerda makes a sauce of it and spoons it over bits of chicken, and completes the platter with routine rice and a tooth-resistant squash-carrot medley.
Pork tenderloin is also competently fashioned. It's a none-too-plentiful serving of sliced pork crusted with herbs, moistened with a rich gravy and boosted by an apple chutney.
One menu item does manage to grab your attention. That's the Maui quesadilla, a big tortilla crammed full with, of all things, papaya and Brie, supplemented with cilantro, onion and roasted red peppers. Why nothing else here is this creative or tasty is a mystery only Gerda can answer.
The waitress raved about Gerda's homemade German cheesecake. Perhaps some day I'll get a chance to taste it. On both my visits it wasn't available. Unfortunately, the blueberry strudel was. More like a pie than a strudel, it tasted old and rubbery, as if it had been sitting around for awhile.
Naturally, Gerda can call her place a grill if she wishes. But the fare here proves that wishing alone isn't enough to make it so.
Montana Grill & Bread Company:
Roasted pork sandwich