Regional Doubt

Coyote Grill, 7077 East Bell, Scottsdale, 480-922-8424. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 11 p.m.

Back in 1994, an unpretentious Southwestern restaurant opened at 32nd Street and Greenway Road, one of the Valley's lower-profile culinary intersections. Coyote Grill bravely took over a shopping strip storefront that had swiftly sent its two previous tenants into restaurant oblivion.

Southwestern restaurants in this town have almost always been higher-end destination spots, set mostly in fancy resorts and malls: Cafe Terra Cotta, Arizona Kitchen, Pinon Grill, Top of the Rock and Vincent's. If you wanted a taste of the Southwest, you had to be prepared to pay for it. (And, unfortunately, that's still pretty much the case now.)

Coyote Grill, though, was different. It aimed to be a friendly neighborhood spot, and it hit the target. The food was wonderfully inventive and exceptionally tasty, and the casual, low-key staff and setting were very congenial. Even better, an evening at Coyote Grill didn't set off alarm bells at Visa headquarters. With entrees in the $9 to $12 range, you could put together a terrific three-course meal for 20 bucks or less. I loved eating here. And so did plenty of other folks in the neighborhood.

But the proprietor clearly had ambitions. Over the next few years, he made costly renovations. Menu prices started creeping up. The place developed more of an upscale air. As a result, Coyote Grill seemed less and less in synch with the neighborhood. Not surprisingly, about a year ago the proprietor closed it down and looked for another neighborhood.

Where did he go? Where every restaurateur with a recipe book, matching cutlery and a line of credit has been flocking these days: the exploding northeast Valley. They all know that the area's well-heeled new arrivals enjoy nothing more than disposing of their disposable income over a restaurant dinner.

The location decision may have been a no-brainer. But choosing a chef is a lot trickier. Coyote Grill pulled off a coup by luring Farn Boggie over from the Pinon Grill. During his two stints there during the 1990s, Boggie turned Pinon Grill into a Best of Phoenix winner, one of this town's premier Southwestern restaurants. So I set out to visit Coyote Grill armed with an appetite and an unusually heightened sense of anticipation.

The restaurant is set in one of those spanking-new shopping centers that seem to be springing full-blown out of the desert earth. The place itself looks great: sleek, stylish and snazzy. The two-tiered room features clever copper accents, from the bud-filled vase on the table to the strips set in colored glass on the walls. The booths come in soothing earth tones. The live music is just soothing, courtesy of a guitarist who knows every tune written by Cat Stevens, Paul Simon and James Taylor, and who has the uncanny knack of sounding just like whoever he's playing. There's not a painting, print or poster in sight, and I found myself staring at the bare walls more than I would have had something actually been hung on them. Maybe the designers are making a postmodern artistic statement.

During his Pinon Grill days, Boggie made his own artistic statement. He put out a basket with absolutely the best chile cheese muffins I have ever tasted. When we ate there, I'd instruct my wife to bring a big purse, so we could squirrel some away. Coyote Grill's cheese muffins, flecked with red chile and corn, are outstanding. But good as they are, I know for a fact the chef hasn't tapped his full muffin potential.

He hasn't plumbed the appetizer depths, either. Does anyone get excited anymore about a quesadilla, mussels, onion rings or bruschetta? Why hire a chef to oversee such hackneyed starters? And it's not only the conception that's underwhelming--the execution is sometimes just as weak. The seafood cocktail is a Mexican-style cocktail that needs some serious punching up. A dash more cilantro, onion, lime and cucumber in the bland tomato sauce would help, as would a Southwestern jalapeno kick. The rock shrimp in the cream-cheese-filled spring rolls must have been measured out with tweezers--I couldn't taste them. At two for seven dollars, you don't get much bang for your buck, either. The homemade onion rings, stacked in a cone around a sprig of rosemary, are fresh and crunchy, and teamed with homemade ketchup. But at $4.50, the portion is way too miserly.

If you're going to fill up on something besides the corn muffins before dinner, consider the soups. The old Coyote Grill used to make some great ones--I still recall with enormous pleasure the chile-spiked cream of cilantro studded with grilled mussels. (Why isn't it on the menu here?) Still, if the crock of vigorous onion soup, fashioned with beef stock and beer, is any indication, the place hasn't lost its knack.

The kitchen puts most of its effort into the main dishes. But despite the attention, the food doesn't have quite the Southwestern zest and flair it did at either the old Coyote Grill or Pinon Grill. No doubt management doesn't want to scare off its skittish neighbors, recent arrivals who may not be able to handle our region's culinary intensity. But while I understand the reasoning, I'm also a little disappointed by it. The Coyote Grill's team is really talented. Imagine going to the ballpark and watching Mark McGwire trying to hit doubles. That's how I felt eating here.

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