Low Steaks Game

Michael Monti's of Scottsdale, 7500 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 480-585-3000. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Who says this isn't a cow town?
Outside of India, no place in the world venerates cattle the way we do here in the Valley. However, we don't venerate them in quite the same way.

What are the signs of this worshipful devotion? If you live in Scottsdale, they're plentiful: lots of new, higher-end steak houses, eager to feed up-market beef lovers.

Five restaurants aimed at the animal-protein crowd have recently opened for business within a few weeks--and a few miles--of each other. Morton's of Chicago now operates a second Valley branch at the intersection of Scottsdale and Kierland roads. Paul Fleming, who used to own the two local Ruth's Chris outlets, has started up Fleming's Prime Steakhouse at the Scottsdale Hilton. The folks behind Marco Polo have set up Mastro's Steakhouse in the massive complex on the northeast corner of Pima and Pinnacle Peak roads. Brown Derby Roadhouse, at the Civic Center Mall, should be opening its doors any moment now.

The other steak-house contender is Michael Monti's of Scottsdale, set in a freestanding building a few hundred yards east of the throbbing intersection of Scottsdale and Pinnacle Peak roads.

Like their competitors, Michael Monti's proprietors are no novices. The family has operated restaurants for years, most notably Monti's La Casa Vieja in Tempe.

How do they get the new place to stand out from the rest of the pack? Monti's has opted to go the value route. That means meals come with soup or salad. It means potatoes and vegetables aren't pricey à la carte options, as they are in many fancy steak houses, but part of dinner. And it means steak dinners start at $11.95 and top out at $21.95.

Of course, the value derived from lower prices may also signal some trade-off in quality. In a zip code now swarming with steak houses, carnivores are going to come here and ask themselves the Big Question: Is Michael Monti's worth it?

It's a smart-looking place, though still casual enough for diners to feel comfortable wearing jeans or shorts. Just inside the door is a handsome granite-topped bar, backed by a striking copper-hooded fireplace. If you're lucky, the hostess will walk you past the wine cellar into the main dining room, which has more atmosphere than the two smaller dining areas off to the side. The room is lit by catchy, inverted-pyramid fixtures suspended from the ceiling. The leatherette booths are comfy, and the linenless tables are set with cloth napkins and hefty steak-house cutlery. Light jazz is piped in. A jaunty portrait of the late family patriarch, Leonard Monti Sr. (1912-1997), watches over the entire operation.

I wish Leonard could have taken a more active role. That's because after my visits here, I came away with the impression that Michael Monti's isn't trying very hard.

But the immediate impression is quite favorable. Credit the basket of "Roman bread," a signature item at La Casa Vieja that's made the move north. It's fresh, hot focaccia, aromatically accented with rosemary. In retrospect, I would have been wise to fill up on it.

When a restaurant meal includes a pre-entree soup or salad, you can expect the appetizers to be pretty lame. Management probably figures (rightly) that not too many folks will order them.

But a couple of these are worth your attention. That is, if you can get the kitchen to prepare them.

On one visit, our appetizer order simply never showed up. When we pointed out the lapse, our group got just the kind of reaction I hoped for: apologies from everyone involved, including the manager, and comped desserts. I have to salute Michael Monti's for trying to set things right. I also have to wonder how it could get things so wrong in the first place.

Once it appeared on a subsequent visit, the starter of lightly seared ahi tuna, crusted in pepper and set in a puddle of soy sauce, displayed some real charm. So did the mushroom appetizer, a chafing dish heaped with sauteed shiitake and button mushrooms, floating in a potent sherry wine sauce that the focaccia soaks up like a sponge.

The soups and house salad come at no additional cost, but that's about the only positive thing I can say about them. Whether it's the tomato with pasta shells, cream of broccoli or chicken rice, the broths don't rise above coffee-shop quality. And the salad, consisting of unremarkable greenery and a wedge of tasteless tomato, is similarly uninspired.

But ultimately, Michael Monti's success is going to rest on its meat. Unfortunately, with a couple of exceptions, the meat here will make you wonder what the steak-house boom is all about.

Nothing on the menu is more disappointing than the Special Cut Sirloin, 16 ounces of unfulfilled potential. It can fool you at first--it sounds and looks great, hissing and sizzling. The $18.95 tag also got me to ease my critical standards a bit--at that price, it's unreasonable to expect prime-grade quality. But I do expect something better than "tough." You can do better yourself, throwing a supermarket steak on the grill.

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