Drive, She Said

Gas 'n' go to the Valley's most far-out restaurant

For most businesses, as the adage goes, location is everything. If a shop isn't easy to find, customers won't bother to track it down.

Unless the business is a restaurant, with really wonderful food. In that case, having a location that's off the beaten path can actually be a plus. Let's admit it -- the only thing better than happening upon a fabulous meal is the smugness that comes from knowing it's your little secret, right?

Discovering that perfect little eatery before everyone else does is a crowning achievement for those in culinary cliques. Go to any cocktail party where the gourmet-minded gather, and it's like that historic E.F Hutton commercial. Folks chat politely while craning to eavesdrop on neighboring groups, hoping to hear whispers of the next hot spot in town. When that lucky diner who just conquered a new cafe finally shares the secret, she has just earned her 15 minutes of fame.

Ridge Cafe customers feast on grilled paillart of chicken and a soba noodle salad.
Leah Fasten
Ridge Cafe customers feast on grilled paillart of chicken and a soba noodle salad.

Details

480-551-1018

Appetizers:
Crab cakes: $8
Chile relleno: $7.95

Entrees:
Grilled trout: $16
New York steak: $20
Rigatoni: $7.95

Desserts:
Lemon tart: $6

Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.; brunch, Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

11675 North 136th Street, Scottsdale

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So collect your friends and start the clock. Spread the word: Scottsdale's newest hidden treasure is Ridge Cafe.

Open since May, Ridge Cafe certainly isn't easy to stumble across, tucked in back of a strip mall leading into the Scottsdale Mountain subdivision behind Mayo Clinic. Unless you live in the neighborhood, you'd never think to turn off Shea onto 136th Street in search of good food. Plus, with just 78 seats, the cafe is small enough that we cruise past it twice the first time we try to find it. And forget it's stuck next to an ABCO -- this is the type of food you'd expect to see in the Valley's established gourmet corridors of Camelback or Scottsdale roads.

The chefs are no one you've heard of locally. They're husband-and-wife duo Al and Lisa Pettijohn, relocated from careers cooking at restaurants in the Beverly Hills area. While they don't carry the familiar celebrity names that prompt an upscale restaurant's success here, I think it's just a matter of time before we see them included among our kitchen stars. So take advantage of the slower summer dining season to check out Ridge Cafe -- once word gets out, securing a table won't be as simple as it is now.

Ridge Cafe pleases me as much for what it isn't as for what it is. The restaurant's decor is subtle elegance, pairing cherry wood and copper-speckled chairs with sophisticated white tablecloths, and framing a semi-open kitchen with natural stone tile. There's no trick statement piece (the kind we're seeing all over these days -- gigantic aquariums, crazy statues), with a view of Camelback Mountain providing the only art needed.

There's no "funky din." The room is refreshingly quiet, with an 18-seat bar separated nicely by a partial wall of cherry wood and metal. The effect is calm, and quite classy. The only unsettling feature: The restaurant faces west, making for notable glare before sunset even through the windows' shade screens.

There are no offbeat dishes. I appreciate the same restraint practiced in the Pettijohns' cooking as in their interior design. While their menu promotes itself as eclectic -- an increasingly abused cuisine in the hands of amateurs -- the Pettijohns keep things interesting without being weird. There are a lot of themes jostling for attention here, including classic American, Italian, Mediterranean and Asian, yet the dishes play nicely together. We're not confounded by, say, Mexican sushi (a fusion food currently assaulting diners in San Francisco), but by a variety of regional specialties simply sharing the same menu page.

Starters, for example, bounce from an Italian salad of tomato, mozzarella, arugula and balsamic roasted onions to a Mexican specialty of chile relleno. Entrees tour the globe with a very American New York steak, a Mediterranean-inspired chicken with Kalamata olives and feta, and a decidedly Asian seafood hot pot.

Ridge Cafe also keeps it clean -- with little exception, our meals arrive lightly sauced, expertly seasoned and not done in with the bizarre bells and whistles that too often signify eclectic run amok.

There's also no sticker shock. I really like the prices at Ridge Cafe. When was the last time you enjoyed a memorable dinner, including full complements of side dishes and highly generous portions, for less than 20 bucks an entree? The most extravagant choice here is rack of lamb, still truly palatable at just $22.

While starter prices are more in keeping with a north Scottsdale zip code, fetching up to $9.50 for an asparagus and shrimp combo, we get tasty value for our money. The five asparagus fanned across the plate are some of the most beautiful I've seen or tasted, served cool and crisp under two jumbo shrimp in a tidy red onion and dill vinaigrette. The shrimp are huge, cold and firm, with enough meat to give each in our party of four a healthy bite.

Chile relleno, too, is a veggie supermodel, summoning a pristine pasilla pepper in a lacy coverlet of batter. Such light coating allows the chile's complex, smoky flavor to shine through its rich stuffing of whole mushroom, chicken breast and jack cheese. Tomatillo sauce and salsa fresca is another excellent foil, the chilled taste just metallic enough to tackle the strong cheese. I love it.

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