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When Gregory's Grill opened in early 1997, it generated great excitement because of its bold approach to a new dining experience known as global cuisine. While foodies unanimously raved over its eclectic menu (the Valley hadn't yet seen such things as black pepper-crusted mahi mahi over crawfish spoon bread with roasted corn and snap-pea succotash) the same question kept popping up: What's a nice grill like you doing in a place like this?
For all its highbrow culinary leanings, Gregory's occupied less-than-desirable digs. Forlorn in a dingy strip mall at Scottsdale and McDowell roads, the restaurant struggled to rise above its characterless neighbors: raucous bars, discount furniture stores, and just across the way, the soon-to-be Beirut-style remains of Los Arcos Mall. Inside wasn't much more inspired, the decor relying on a few paintings here and there, lit partially by a parking lot light outside its tall glass windows.
This spring, chef-owner Gregory Casale heard opportunity knocking. The legendary Franco's Trattoria was closing, as owner Franco Fazzuoli decided he'd had enough of the high-pressure restaurant business. The location was prime, right in the heart of gourmet demographics, and the facility was perfect, tricked out in the kitchen but intimate and cozy in the dining room.
Salmon ceviche: $7
Pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras: $16
Five-spice crispy quail: $8
Brillat Savarin: $6.50
Sesame seed-crusted salmon: $13
Mussels vindaloo: $10
Roasted duck breast: $15
In its new incarnation, Gregory's has lost none of the spark that made it so fresh and exciting almost five years ago. If anything, the cushier crib has encouraged Casale to fly higher, introducing a new menu that's as memorable for what's on it as for how it's presented. The emphasis remains on Asian, Indian and Middle-Eastern dishes, but borrowing from an increasingly popular trend toward tasting menus, Casale has crafted a two-page celebration of small, impact-studded dishes that are meant to savored in two- to five-course progressions. Prices are appropriately downscaled to their portion sizes; one gustatory three-course feast for two recently came in at just $100, including an excellent bottle-plus-a-glass of Pinot Grigio, coffee and dessert.
Which is not to say that dining at Gregory's is a bargain. It's easy to go nuts when ordering, and the staff certainly doesn't assist in restraint. While it's not a "fries with that?" mentality, servers are masters of the sales pitch. There's bottled water or (ugh is implied) "plain tap," with the liter of imported Pana liquid setting us back $5.50. It's recommended that diners order a minimum of three courses, and advised that most guests find satisfaction in five. Excess sounds appealing from the server's pitch, yet, after experiencing the meal, even my most ravenous dining companion admits he'd be awestruck by anyone who could comfortably down quintuplet plates.
While petite (fish, meat and chicken dishes average three to four ounces of protein), these dishes are so complex and electrically constructed that just a few bites bring more satisfaction than an entire platter of other chefs' finest foods.
In fact, I've got to admit that it's more than professional duty that keeps me crawling back to Gregory's, until I'm intimate with every item on the menu. Though many items are carryovers from the first restaurant, if the original Gregory's was great, this new one is even better.
Not that anybody's surprised. Casale was the chef behind the Scottsdale Princess' award-winning Marquesa Sunday brunch in the early '90s. That elaborate display still causes even the most jaded gourmets to sit up and take notice with its adventurous jaunts into European cuisine. Casale's a master of balance, deftly controlling levels of salt, sweet, mild and bitter for delightful contrast and sneak-up flavor explosions.
Gregory's new menu is divided into five courses, with each layer progressively heavier. Within their categories, individual items progress in flavor, too, from delicate citrus-toned dishes to assertive peppery character. Wine pairings are recommended -- Casale has compiled an intriguing list of rarely seen labels. Regardless of how we order, though, it's clear that this kitchen is guided by a hand that isn't afraid to take chances.
"Lighter flavors" to start out are a hedonist's fantasy, with familiar dishes done up in unexpected, fashion-forward dress. Salmon ceviche isn't so new, but when the glistening fresh fish dice is towered over creamy white-bean hummus, drizzled with parsley scallion oil and capped with salty salmon roe, it's pure heaven. And while simple, an elegant beef tartare gets an impressive Asian accent from a subtly spicy soy-sesame vinaigrette and a nest of cold sesame noodles. Fettuccini, too, is punched up with an intense garlic and truffle oil, the homemade noodles crested with a seasonal chop of roasted red bell peppers and broccoli rabe, a leafy green with a pungent bite.
Foie gras is another welcome classic, served in a silver-dollar-sized circle, and it harks back to the 1950s here, plated with tiny cubes of aspic. But this is not the elastic gelatin we remember -- today's dainty jewels have just enough substance to take form on the plate, then dissolve instantly in the mouth for a sudden release of Chenin Blanc charm. Dotted with elfin mounds of sel gris (salt) and pepper, drops of thickish, reduced port wine, and salty greens, the dish is so decadent it's dangerous.
On certain dishes, Casale surely is showing off, marrying unlikely partners for a shockingly effective union. Caramelized zucchini and fresh thyme, for example, are blended into a mild, creamy soup, then elevated with dabs of buttery rabbit confit, a thimbleful of slightly tart, oven-dried tomatoes and a crown of bright, sharp, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pure bliss in a bowl.