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Bar dining isn't anything new. Since the dawn of professional sports and big-screen TVs, patrons have been swarming bars, seeking a tall cold one. They're content to cheer a game through with the likes of straight-from-the-freezer-bag bites like cheese sticks, potato skins, deep-fried zucchini and mushrooms, or chicken wings. Hungrier appetites fill up on greasy burgers -- or perhaps for a step up, a leathery steak sandwich.
Food quality isn't the priority at these places -- it's the entertainment, the camaraderie of a social atmosphere, and, of course, alcohol.
Bars with excellent food, however, are a recent addition to the Valley's bar scene; bars where even the lowly French fry is treated with respect, while the proprietors retain a healthy concern for low prices and casual settings.
7137 E. Stetson Drive
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Central Scottsdale
Duck and truffle pâté: $12
Smoked salmon tartare: $11
Mediterranean flatbread: $10
Bread pudding: $6
Monroe's, 3 West Monroe, Phoenix, 602-258-1046. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Fried mozzarella: $4.50
Club sandwich: $5.95
Chees steak: $5.95
Shrimp Linguine: $6.95
Some of these are wine bars, cropping up increasingly across the Valley. Higher priced, and more elegant than the average speakeasy, wine bars have made snacking sophisticated. Earlier this year, Valley sippers were introduced to Postino, in a former post office in Arcadia, Vintage Grape at the Esplanade, and Altos Bistro & Wine Bar in Ahwatukee, a sister to the Altos location at 44th Street and Camelback.
In February, wine lovers were given Kazimierz, an extension of Scottsdale's eternally hot restaurant, Cowboy Ciao. Kazimierz shows how terrific the sip-and-nibble concept can be, with a fashionably funky interior, eclectic music, creative wines, and superb "small plates."
Kazimierz knows it's cool, but the owners may be playing it a bit too cool. There's nothing more than a small sign directing customers to the rear of the building. No name is posted, just an invitation to trek down an alley to an unmarked, weathered, wooden door and to find "the truth inside."
I come early (7 p.m.), to avoid the inevitable Saturday-night crowds, and am rewarded for my efforts. The place is virtually empty. By 8 p.m., it's packed. Arriving early gets me primo seating, at one of the clutches of cozy, cushy, overstuffed armchairs and sofas that lend beauty to this bar. Other seating isn't bad -- a few rows of cafe and bar tables, and a long bar with stools. But snag a sofa, and you'll never want to leave.
Which is a good thing, since Kazimierz invites guests to linger. There's no rushed, gum-cracking service -- one evening's order of two-and-a-half glasses of wine plus five appetizers takes nearly three hours to complete.
Who's complaining? I'm more than happy to sprawl back amid candles and shrouded lights, enjoying a magical display as the sun sets behind an elaborate paper-and-gel "stained glass" window that comprises the bar's northern wall. The light splashes with thin tendrils across a gorgeous wall-sized mural of the earth, the design an Old World mosaic with our planet's oceans represented by pennies. Once the sun sets, it's pure, cool calm cave, with walls of faux stone, wooden wine barrels, concrete floors and low-slung, ornately carved coffee tables.
Amazingly, the place isn't loud, even at capacity. And joy of joy, there's no smoking, except at the bar proper. Music is another gem, featuring a rambunctious (but played at restrained volume) mix of jazz and techno, spiced up with, no kidding, big band, Broadway, Irish jig and mariachi themes. It's a thoroughly entertaining mix, and not at all as management describes it on the wine list: "You call that noise music? I thought for sure there was a giant nest of rabid squirrels stuck in the fireplace!"
Cowboy Ciao was one of the first places to introduce wine flights to the Valley, and owner Peter Kasperski has brought them to Kazimierz. Pick up the red loose-leaf notebook on your table, and browse through about two-dozen themed flight selections, each flight a trio of three-ounce pours of different wines. While selections are ever-evolving, it's hard to go wrong with Pinot Grigios of Italy, a friendly and affordable ($13) partnering of Montresor, Torre Rosazza and Pierpaolo.
For the more adventurous and affluent, there's a $36 offering of "really really really really really really rare Shiraz" from Australia -- tastes of '99 Burge Family from Draycott Vineyard, a '98 Genders, and a '99 Henry's Drive reserve.
Still not enough? Another notebook includes more than 800 bottles, priced from affordable to astronomical, and secured from every corner of the world.
Kazimierz's food menu is much smaller -- fewer than two-dozen selections -- but equally carefully crafted. Pay attention to price when ordering, though -- a couple of snacks can take the value out of that Pinot trio.
An antipasto platter, for example, is a pretty plate of prosciutto, serrano ham, sopressata, assorted cheeses and whatever is the chef's whim, but it's $16. And San Danielle prosciutto, while of pleasing quality, brings just two meat rolls stuffed with lettuce, three nubbins of creamy chèvre (goat cheese) and three chewy figs. It's a delightful mix of flavors -- salty ham, milky cheese and sweet fruit with the beautifully barest drizzle of balsamic -- but don't plan on filling up.
The best bargain comes in the Palliser salad, a heaping mound of marinated calamari and octopus -- squiggly tentacles and all -- tossed with a touch of mixed greens, crisp green beans, pickled eggplant (is that brown sugar it's bathed in?) and chopped red onions. This, with a loaf of Kazimierz's fine crusty French bread, is a sumptuous meal.