Grill Talk

Montana Grill & Bread Company, 3717 East Indian School Road, Phoenix, 553-8553. Hours: breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Can we talk? It's time we had a discussion about grills.
It seems that just about every new restaurant in town calls itself a "grill." (The others fancy themselves "bistros.")

Why is "grill" such a popular moniker? It's because Valley restaurants have finally caught on to what the rest of the country discovered earlier this decade: Grilling is the hottest cooking trend of the 1990s. These days, diners want their meat, fish and poultry to have direct contact with an open fire. The sizzle, the char marks, the crusty edges and smoky scent arouse primitive desires and assuage primal longings. We feel like our ancestors must have felt, after they devoured a woolly mammoth or saber-toothed tiger that had just come off the flames.

But grilling is more than a culinary technique that works on satisfying mankind's instinctual tastes. It also works on the subconscious, pressing psychological buttons that don't get pressed often enough in the modern world. In 1998, grilling comes across as basic, simple and honest, three highly commendable attributes.

Life, on the other hand, often seems complicated, complex and confusing. Certainly, on one level, a "grill" promises pleasant fare. But on a deeper level, it may also suggest a safe port, a reliable culinary haven in a mixed-up, heartless world. No wonder so many restaurants are making it part of their names.

But calling a place a "grill" doesn't make it so. If it were that simple, I'd call myself "Jake Plummer" and demand to play quarterback for the Cardinals.

I went to two new self-styled "grills" to see if their names lived up to their billing. Montana Grill, I'm thrilled to report, turned out to be the grill of my dreams. Gerda's Grill didn't.

Although the shopping strip location isn't very elegant, there's a kind of rustic swankiness to Montana Grill's interior. Tables are set with linen, and cloth napkins rest in napkin rings. A mural lines one wall, depicting the scenic Big Sky landscape. Curtains suspended with twine from a wooden branch crossbar add a down-home Western touch. So does the deer head mounted in the rafters.

The rustic swankiness extends to the fare--it's plentiful, reasonably priced and utterly delicious. Though it only started up about four months ago, Montana Grill already seems to have everything going for it.

Take the wonderful bread. Montana Grill doubles as a bakery, so meals start off with a variety of samples, fresh off the shelves. Depending on what's available, the bread basket might contain slices of dark onion rye, spinach feta sourdough, garlic Parmesan baguette, olive rosemary loaf, challah or a cinnamon sugar bread that's practically a cake. Oscar Wilde once said that the only thing he couldn't resist was temptation. He might well have been thinking about this bread basket.

(Oddly enough, the previous tenant at this address was the dreadful Big Sky Bakery. But apart from the coincidental Montana imagery, there's no connection between the two enterprises.)

The kitchen doesn't make restraint any easier by sending out a freebie plate of sauteed mushrooms. If you're not careful, you might have to call it a night before your meal arrives.

The bread and mushrooms make appetizers somewhat superfluous. Still, your group won't regret ordering the calamari. Like everything else here, it never saw the inside of a freezer bag. These tender, lightly breaded strips come from fresh-cut calamari steak, and they're served with a delightful tomato-basil dip.

The signature grill items here are what the menu calls "Montana-style" iron-skillet dishes. They demonstrate that the chef is very much at home on the range. And you won't hear any discouraging words from me.

If you're sick to death of salmon in teriyaki sauce, salmon glazed with honey mustard, salmon in kiwi sauce, salmon with pineapple salsa or any other of the zillion trendy preparations that salmon is currently subjected to, the salmon skillet is for you. It's a perfectly grilled slab, a bit crispy outside, moist inside, teamed with new potatoes and a dill-accented medley of carrots, onions and celery. There's definitely something to be said about the virtues of unadorned simplicity.

The hearty mixed grill, enough for two appetites, is also a knockout. Boneless pork tenderloin, venison sausage, seasoned chicken breast and salmon fillet--all charred, sizzling and juicy--vigorously compete for your attention. Two other skillet plates, chicken and top sirloin, are also available.

These platters come with a salad that shows the kitchen isn't just going through the motions. The greenery is boosted by a homemade chokeberry dressing that's good enough to be sold retail.

Grilling isn't the only thing the young chef can do. The homespun comfort foods are just as compelling as anything that comes off the flames. The marvelous, sage-scented pot pie comes in an enormous bowl, and features turkey, veggies and an unusual, lahvosh-type canopy. The thick hunk of meat loaf, moistened with a lusty brown gravy and paired with mashed spuds and veggies, is better than Mom's. And as the weather gets cooler, consider the root stew for two, a huge tureen heavily stocked with beef, potatoes, carrots, celery, onion, parsnip and mushrooms. At $14.95, it's a bargain, as well.

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
$5.95
Salmon skillet
14.95

Gerda's Grill:
Shrimp Italiano
$7.95
Blueberry strudel
3.

75

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