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Alice in Cafeland

Cafe Ted's stunning decor makes the food taste even better.
Erik Guzowski

It's hot. And sticky. It's the time of year where the only appealing recreation is to curl up in a ball in a dark corner and mutter about how Mother Nature is tormenting us with her radiance set at full blast.

This is the time of year that makes dining out difficult.

People don't have ravenous appetites, and even if they do, it's a tough call on whether it's worth it to drag their sweaty selves to a restaurant. It's sometimes too much to consider, donning oven mitts just to touch the steering wheel of a car. So many restaurants across the Valley close for lunch and on some nights for dinner. It's best to call ahead.

Cafe Ted is operating under such summer hours. Sometimes it's open all day through dinner. On other days, it sighs sleepily and puts its kitchen to bed after an early lunch. Staff says it opens at 7 a.m.; but a phone message tells me 8 a.m. Dinner ends at 7 p.m. in winter months, although sometimes it stretches to 9 p.m. For now, dinner service is Thursday and Friday nights only. Regardless, the evening menu changes each week.

For structured souls, such a schedule is frustrating. But for vagabonds like me, the hunt is part of the fun. Will Ted's be open? Don't know. Will my favorite dish be on the dinner menu? Don't know. But will the meal be great? This I know: It will be.

I'll put up with the caprices because Scottsdale's new Cafe Ted is one of those tiny treasures that realizes personality can be as important as good food. You can't eat ambiance. Or can you? Certainly I know the stunning decor of Cafe Ted makes already admirable food taste even better. Handcrafted dishes coupled with the decor culminate in an experience that makes navigating even the most shimmering, solar summer assault seem like a privilege.

The menu at this bistro is a creative offering of upscale American favorites, boutique wines and an endless number of flavored espressos. Recipes are light, making them perfect for hot-weather nibbling. The furnishings are the work of Sticks, an Iowa-based design shop owned by Sarah Grant-Hutchinson, an artist who found fame when asked to design a wooden nativity for Better Homes & Gardens.

Mostly restaurant, part coffee bar, a smidgen of wine bistro, a dash of art gallery and a lot of furniture store, Cafe Ted has hit upon a concept that's so pleasant it's a little surprising that it hasn't been franchised even in the seven months it's been open. Thank goodness. These ideas only work when they're parented by a loving, living private owner.

After all, while a restaurant's wont supposedly is to produce the best food possible, reality says that most diners can be seduced by a tramp eatery's fluttering lashes and curvaceous bump. Chain owners know it: delectable eye candy is known to make even the most mediocre meals acceptable.

But Cafe Ted doesn't rely on its good looks to charm its customers. Under the ownership of Nina Dorman and namesake Ted Rice, the bistro focuses on homemade, organic cuisine.

Rice has selected an off-the-path location to showcase his dream -- a cozy trio of shops hidden in the courtyard that's overshadowed by the culinary monument Michael's at the Citadel. There's a courtyard behind Michael's, lush with plants and ponds, framing moody tinted windows hiding a yoga center and a real estate company. Yet there is no sign that I've found the restaurant until my nose is pressed against Ted's front glass windows. I've hunted it down by following the slinky aromas of freshly baked muffins, Italian coffees and homemade cinnamon coffee cake.

It's an interesting layout. The setup includes a front-room bar and casual bistro seating; the second space a more formal dining area and curio shop; and the third room features a furniture boutique. It's hard to resist the cheerful, Mad Hatter surroundings. Alice must have tripped into a rabbit hole like this, all crazy wood-burned chairs and tables, psycho-splashed with bright paints and inspirational sayings like "love animals." Whimsical tables do double duty as madcap cribbage or chess boards, while seating is on chairs dressed as abstract characters or as bed frames. Checkerboard silk drapes frame the windows and the energetic art on the walls is from the collection of Scottsdale's Suzanne Brown Galleries. For those guilty about indulging in this much luxury, there is a full-size, hand-carved confessional in the corner. The pieces come with price tags and diners who see something they like among the tromp l'oeil painted walls (and who have healthy wallets) can take it home.

But most of all, I like Cafe Ted's approach to food. Despite the contemporary theme, there's no preachy, aren't-we-clever message built in. Ted even allows substitutions to his cooking, as in a breakfast entree of eggs your way, "whatever floats your boat, garnished lavishly with mushrooms or tomatoes."

 

Breakfast is big. The office crowds flood in for starters as simple as two poached eggs perched atop fresh-baked cornbread biscuits so rich, cheesy and kernel-clustered that they deserve their own billing. A "fiesta" hollandaise sauce is thin but rich, studded with tomatoes, and I make my own Benedict by adding slabs of Belgian bacon, four nicely salty pieces served with seasoned cherry tomatoes.

What better way to start a day than at the bar? Cafe Ted invites with comfortable seating overlooking the open kitchen backed by a full coffee, espresso and fresh fruit-juice display. Here's where you'll find me and my crew after dawn, spooning silky-sweet papaya splashed with bracing lime, tucking into a slab of cinnamon coffee cake, and, if it's been a rough few hours awake, sipping a fresh-squeezed mimosa or hibiscus.

A quiche is quite nice, too, an eggy cloud that melts on the tongue, tickling with custardy insides and a kicky cummerbund of jalapeño, bacon and Cheddar. French toast is less fetching, with a base that promises cinnamon brioche and a dusting of powdered sugar, but arrives simply as a ho-hum four slices of thick bread. A better reason for braving the dizzying daylight is the pancakes, three large orbs infused with lots of earthy nutmeg. I get mine topped with fresh, tart raspberries, alternating bites with hot coffee.

If I had any money, I'd spend it on the clever sofa table set in the dining room off Ted's bar. Two gaily colored benches are done up with iron headboards and baseboards, and paired with a picnic-style table.

At lunch, niçoise salad cools me down. It's a classic, tumbled with tuna, green beans, red potato and hard-boiled egg. And as I wilt gracelessly in the heat, spinach does it with better style, soft and pliable in a salad dressed with warm Belgian bacon vinaigrette and tossed with mushrooms and hard-boiled egg. Poached -- the feeling has melted away after thirsty gulps of fresh-brewed iced tea -- but it defines the salmon in my salad, brightly pink, full-flavored and layered with tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh baby greens in a caper aoli. The angel-hair pasta glistens with tomato, garlic, basil and Parmesan. A selection from the sandwich board requires choices: rare roast beef, turkey breast or tuna, a selection of breads, and toppings of tomato, lettuce, cucumber, Cheddar, Brie or Belgian slab bacon.

At dinner, the menu is short, just three salads and five entrees. How fun, though, as my party of four has the luxury of tossing our wrists and casually sighing, "Oh, just bring us one of each." Dinner, too, is Ted's weakness, with dishes becoming sporadic and a few that are downright disappointing.

Meals start with chunks of hot cornbread, served in frosted glass ashtrays embedded with etched bumblebees. A side of sugar-infused butter carved in the shape of a heart is cute, but too solid to spread.

One evening's starter is hearts of palm. The stacked vegetable is remarkably fresh and elegant, just kissed with a delicate marinade. A crisp nest of zucchini salsa offers a kick tempered with dicings of red pepper and onion.

Pastrami smoked salmon is an odd entree, but ideal as an appetizer split among our hungry team. This is an enormous plate, splayed with generous curls of perfectly seasoned fresh fish, healthy dollops of thick crème fraîche dotted with capers and a mountain of field greens dressed in a salty vinaigrette that shoots fireworks. The only failing: the blini (little pancakes) are distractingly woody-toned, almost musty flavored.

A nightly special of roasted chicken is satisfying if not spectacular, the two breast medallions slicked in a creamy mushroom gravy and decorated with a starburst of crisp asparagus spears. But the beauty is in the mashed potatoes, chunked with pepperjack cheese and onion.

I'm fine with crab cakes, too, although the $13.95 price tag is dear for what would better be served as an appetizer. This is a dainty plate, concocted with a pair of hockey-puck-size cakes, fleshed with blue lump crabmeat and red and yellow peppers. Better than average, but not great.

Beef bourguignonne is as old-fashioned as entrees come, and this cafe keeps it straightforward. Tender bits of braised meat moistened with Burgundy are paired with fresh, buttered peas and roasted red potato wedges.

The stroganoff, unfortunately, doesn't succeed. The noodles are thick and cooked al dente, but the filet mignon tips are tough. And the mushroom cream sauce (the same as served atop the roast chicken?) is dull.

Faced with giant cookies and cheesecake brownies, we settle instead on the homemade apple pie for dessert. It's a good choice. Our server brings a hefty helping, and it's hot, topped with lots of brown sugar.

 

It's 115 degrees. I'm sticky. I'm crabby. But somehow, when I'm sipping, supping and shopping at Cafe Ted, none of this matters so much anymore.

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Cafe Ted

8700 E. Pinnacle Peak Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85255-3540

480-502-8700


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