Slash City

Plate spinning

I've always been amused by the way overachieving types tack together their job titles and hobbies with a bunch of slash marks. It's never good enough to be one thing — you need to be at least two or three. Models want to be actors, actors want to be musicians, musicians want to be DJs, and some folks want to be all of the above. Might as well throw in author and fashion designer for good measure.

Now, the phenomenon's trickling into the restaurant world, and it's more irritating than entertaining. What's in a name, you ask? Expectation, pure and simple. Tell diners you're more than just an ordinary restaurant, and they'll look forward to something unusual.

Such is the case with two new local eateries, Essence Bakery Cafe, in Tempe, and caféBistro Bar + Grill, in Scottsdale. I appreciate their owners' ambition, and, really, the food at these places isn't bad. But they're trying too hard, and that sets people up for a letdown.

What?s in a name?: caf?stro Bar   Grill tries to multitask.
Jacqueline Zimmerman
What?s in a name?: caf?stro Bar Grill tries to multitask.

Location Info

Map

Essence Bakery Cafe

825 W. University Drive
Tempe, AZ 85281

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Tempe

Details

Essence Bakery Cafe
Organic spinach/cranberry salad: $6.95
Quiche Lorraine: $7.50
Steak sandwich: $8.50
Beef tenderloin tips: $13.95
480-966-2745, »web link.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Sunday.

caféBistro Bar + Grill
Onion rings: $3.95
Small bistro dinner salad: $5.25
Bistro burger: $10.50
Japanese pumpkin ravioli: $9.95
480-949-7301, »web link.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Essence Bakery Cafe, 825 West University Drive, Tempe

caféBistro Bar + Grill, 5101 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale

A couple of months ago, a friend sent me an e-mail with her first impressions of the former:

"essence, the bakery that opened at university and hardy (near starbucks) is annoying in that it's not open in the morning(?!) but i did go in there finally and while i couldn't find bread for a dinner party(?!?!) they sold me some rolls that were really good. and the place looks really promising."

It was a tiny red flag, but I chalked it up to the place being new and decided to wait a while before checking it out. When I eventually visited Essence, I still somehow thought it would smell like a bakery and look like a bakery, with an abundance of fresh loaves and pastries and muffins. In reality, it didn't feel drastically different from Sabuddy, the Israeli restaurant that used to be there. One lone pastry case didn't make it a bakery, in my book. And that's fine — I have to give it props for remodeling the space with environmentally friendly materials — but why not just call it a cafe and leave it at that?

That said, the baked goods we tried were great. My friends and I gobbled up an awesome fudgy brownie with chocolate icing, some chewy chocolate macaroons filled with dark chocolate cream, a killer piece of lemon curd cake, and a huge white chocolate and macadamia nut cookie.

And we enjoyed the cafe-style fare on the lunch menu, which included sandwiches and salads, quiche, and some Greek dishes. On the lighter end of the spectrum, the organic spinach and cranberry salad was a filling portion, with apples, celery, jicama, toasted pecans, feta, and sherry vinaigrette. And the springy, light lemon and basil free-range chicken salad came on a soft, golden brioche roll. There were a couple of naughty items we liked too: a single-serving quiche Lorraine in a flaky crust, and a warm, open-faced sandwich with NY strip loin, Maytag blue cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and Cabernet butter. The side salad that came with most dishes was a pile of tender organic greens with Zinfandel vinaigrette.

At dinner, Essence was downright confusing. I noticed a big BYOB sign, but aside from dim lighting and three dinner entrees (stuffed chicken breast, beef tenderloin tips, and a Greek platter), there was nothing about the vibe that would make me want to crack open a bottle and hang out. The restaurant was nearly deserted on a night I visited, and it was awkward to order a $14 entree, be asked what amount I'd like to tip, and pay up-front. Essence should either commit to sit-down dinner service, or stick to sandwiches and casual counter service.

caféBistro Bar + Grill, located in the building on Scottsdale Road that used to house Leo Restaurant & Bar, is having an even bigger identity crisis. Only a handful of grilled meat entrees — listed as "the grill menu" — fits that part of the name. There is a fully stocked bar just inside the entrance, but it doesn't seem like much of a hangout, and there's no bar food. As for the cafe/bistro dichotomy, what gives? Besides the grilled stuff and a half-dozen dishes for kids, the menu breaks courses down under two subheadings. For example, you have cafe sandwiches and bistro sandwiches, a cafe soup of the day and a bistro soup of the day.

It's a novel approach — I'll give 'em that — but the concept is defined too loosely, if at all. Why, exactly, is an organic Caesar salad under "bistro"? Or why is the charbroiled bistro burger a dollar more than the cafe burger, which is double meat and double cheese? I was hoping to detect a pattern, like when I noticed several Asian-influenced dishes under "bistro," but then noticed the spicy don don street noodles, listed under "cafe." The only thing that's not confusing about the menu is the option of ordering things in different sizes. That was quite welcome.

If I could give caféBistro Bar + Grill just one designation, I'd go with cafe. The sunny dining room, with roomy booth seating and colorful, quirky pop art on the walls, has that kind of relaxed vibe. The food, too, is straightforward. Run-of-the-mill edamame and some bland, too-tough Sichuan dumplings were definite misses, while light, crispy onion rings, a tangy Thai-style beef noodle salad, and Japanese pumpkin-filled ravioli, with sage butter and a heap of bitter greens, were delights. Though not exceptional, the grilled fish sandwich, spaghetti and meatballs, and bistro burger were well-prepared and flavorful. And there's a lengthy breakfast menu, which fits my cafe definition to a T.

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2 comments
Bonita
Bonita

So you loved the in house baked pastries and breads and all the food at Essence? Because I had to read down a few paragraphs before I knew that you liked what you ate. Sure, a restaurant is more than just the food-it's the service and the ambience as well but food is the most important part and you liked that a lot judging from what you wrote. As for looking like Sabuddy...go again and look around. The owners could not change the shape of the restaurant but there isn't anything else left that looks like Sabuddy. Apparently you are not an environmentalist at all or you would have given them a bigger nod for their environmental efforts. It takes money and effort to open a restaurant that adheres to such principles and there aren't many who even try. As for dinner, we went before a show at Gammage with some friends. We appreciated the quick service, the tasty food and getting in and out quickly. We weren't looking for a "dining" experience since we didn't have much time. By the way, you don't need a white tablecloth to enjoy wine with your dinner. They aren't pretending to offer more than very very good food at reasonable prices. And the food is wonderful-the chef/owner buys as much locally grown produce as possible and the freshness shines through on all the vegetable dishes. The soups taste intensely of the vegetables, the salads are light and fresh, the moussaka is fragrant, creamy and delicious. The french macaroons are amazing. I just thought that your review should have focused a bit more on the great food and a bit less on the incidentals that will certainly iron out as the restaurateurs get their footing. If Essence were closer to my house, I would eat there several times a week. But that's just me.

Alexander
Alexander

Great read!

Cafe Bistro, uh, yeah.. went there last Tuesday night.. they've changed their menu and its right in line with Denny's though slightly upscale. The food all lacked flavor as well as basic season number 1, salt! Will not return even though I do like the owner Tom. You can like someone but not their cooking, right?

 
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