Nibbles 'n' Bits

 TV Dinner: There's no question that sizzle sells, but when is a menu recommendation just so much bravado? I applaud when a good restaurant earns media recognition, but I'm not sure that being told by a server to order a dish simply "because it has been on TV" is enough to get my taste buds' respect.

I like to ask servers what they sanction; after all, they've likely experienced the best of everything offered at their eatery. Yet our waitress at Scottsdale's Roaring Fork has just one suggestion for me: chef Robert McGrath's signature sugar- and chile-cured duck, it of the recent fluff-news broadcast debut.

Call me particular, but I'd rather hear about a dish's fabulous flavor (McGrath's duck is excellent), or, best, have my server ask me what taste I'm craving -- beef, fish, pasta, etc. -- to better lead me through my options.

The set of Iron Chef allows elaborate cookoffs between internationally acclaimed chefs.
The set of Iron Chef allows elaborate cookoffs between internationally acclaimed chefs.

While famous birds don't sway me, I do hear others at a nearby table exclaiming, "Oh, we've got to try that!" regarding the television poultry. So the glitz works. But what's next? I understand the "Heart Smart" designation for healthful dishes, yet I don't really care to see menu items stamped "As Seen on TV."

Forged Signature: On the other fork, it confuses me when servers recommend against a restaurant's hallmark dish. A recent visit to Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Scottsdale finds me pleading with my youthful waiter for a side of "Fleming's potatoes." But I won't like them, he insists, calling the leek, jalapeño, cream and cheddar cheese topping "much too rich." Many diners, after being so warned, might be embarrassed to persevere with their order. And if the server feels so strongly about the dish, perhaps he should be telling owner Paul Fleming instead of me.

Menu Mania: Then there are the restaurants offering ordering guidance on the menus themselves -- and I don't mean dishes simply starred as "recommended." It doesn't take much prodding to encourage me to sample Cowboy Ciao's exotic mushroom pan fry after reading an adjacent printed guest comment: "That mushroom dish is so good, I want to take my clothes off and roll in it." For the record, Cowboy Ciao's management only allows such behavior on take-out orders.

Glam Cam: For all the restaurant hype around, there is one media venue I'd love to see a Valley chef appear on: Iron Chef.

Iron Chef is a hilarious Japanese-produced television show aired on cable's Food Network. It's been available in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Hawaii for a few years, but it's only recently that the show has made it to Arizona's TV sets. It's a favorite of Valley chef Christopher Gross, who giggles when I mention it. A similar thing happens when I bring up the show to John Martinson, president and "chief imagination officer" for Scottsdale's China Mist Tea Company -- he lights up in a big grin and nods knowingly.

If you haven't seen it, you must, this very weekend, no excuses. Imagine Julia Child taking on gladiators in a WWF backdrop, all in Japanese, with bad English dubbing. The story line is pure camp, with its fabulous, Liberace-esque emcee, chairman Kaga Takeshi, portraying a wealthy and eccentric gourmet living in a castle and staging food battles between his honored Iron Chefs and premier cooks of the globe.

But there's truth among the surreal: The Iron Chefs are real-life masters of various culinary styles; their challengers are some of the finest food artists from around the world. Competition is fierce (I've seen a few losing chefs actually well up and cry). And while many ingredients are bizarre to American tastes (bird's nest, conger eel, sea cucumber, soft roe, sea bream, turtle) made into disturbing dishes (beef tongue ice cream, crab custard with crab organ sauce, frogfish liver bun with ovaries), the results are actual, high-cuisine delicacies with exquisite presentation.

"It's an hysterical show, and even educational," says Gross, noting that during a recent lunch in Los Angeles, he discovered he shared an Iron Chef passion with Bon Appétit executive editor Barbara Fairchild.

The Iron Chefs are three top Japanese chefs trained in Japanese, Chinese or French cooking. When introduced, they arrive in clouds of fog and tracking lights, ascending from the bowels of the stage. After a challenger selects his Iron Chef (to great gasps from the audience and the "Gong of Fate"), a platform containing the cookoff's theme ingredient rises slowly from the floor to swirling fog and organ music. There's a certain sick humor to ingredient selection: In honor of Japan's Girl's Day, a celebration of innocence, the secret ingredient is clams. "Battle Clams!" yells Kaga.

The "battle" is to prepare a multicourse meal over one hour utilizing the theme ingredient in each course. A sideline announcer provides play-by-play of the dishes as they evolve, then a panel of judges (actors, psychics and occasional culinarians) determines which chef is victorious, and which is vanquished.

Gross would love to go on the show, he says, adding that he "could kick the Iron Chef's ass." Easy fighting words, given that taping of the show is on hiatus as Americans work their way through the existing 300 episodes.

After Dinner Mint: Like wine? Check out My Wine Cellar in Ahwatukee, with more than 800 selections including specialty beers and champagne. There's a wine bar, weekly wine tastings with hors d'oeuvres and a popular "women and wines" sampling on the first Wednesday of each month.

After Dinner Hint: To the proprietors of the Dolly Steamboat at Canyon Lake -- The idea of playing music to accompany your dinner cruises is a good one. But what's with selecting the theme song from the movie Titanic? And why, oh why, repeat Celine Dion's sappy warbling several times during the cruise? By the end of the 90-minute tour, your guests are actually praying for the ship to sink.

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