It's a drizzly winter evening, the kind that often brings on melancholy.
But not for us. Tonight, we're lounging like emperors at Café Blue, reigning over booths of sleek platinum cloth as we exchange witty repartee on politics, fashion and friends we don't like so well. The rain spits and sputters outside, but the dining room glitters, seemingly stretching on forever, repeating patterns and people reflected in strips of silvery mirrors. Life's smooth this night, because we look absolutely marvelous, all our flaws smudged to youthful blurs in the cool glow of blue neon lights zipping like racecars around the eatery's walls.
This is Scottsdale's newest entry into the trendy Old Town restaurant scene, and man, does it make us feel with it. How can we resist, seduced by light jazz music swirling, dipping and diving among the charcoal-garbed dinner guests around us (so much more in vogue these days than black). As the music flows, so do colors -- a glass wall hung with a fish separates us from the bar, and it's inlaid with a neon light. Blue blends to green, which yawns into yellow, which slips to pink. When we sit beneath the partition, the light saturates the clear, clean Vodka in our martinis.
Nibbling on Maine lobster, slurping oysters on the half shell, savoring crispy roasted duck with fruit and pulling at tangles of linguini and clams, we study our beautiful selves in mirrors -- the glass is placed at head level, and again in larger rectangles hung like paintings on each wall. I love every bit of it. The concept is funky, ultra-thematic, almost cliché in its reach for coolness -- yet it all comes together gorgeously.
The success is no shocker, given that Café Blue is brought to us by Jim and Irma Valli, founders of Marco Polo, a popular supper house that was a head-scratcher when it opened in 1989. Fusion was still taking its baby steps then, but Marco Polo came sashaying in on stiletto heels, merging the flavors of Italy and China to deliciously dramatic results.
With a menu hopscotching among Continental, Asian, Italian and lots of seafood, Café Blue promises another racy ride. It's a Manhattan-meets-Milan experience, and even in its infancy it delivers admirably.
Café Blue has been open a little more than a month when I visit, its debut pushed from December to January because of construction delays. Some might say this is too soon for a review, on the rule that eateries should have a few months to work out any bugs in the kitchen or with the service staff.
That's a sympathetic thought, but hardly realistic. Until restaurants offer "warm up" menu pricing, I'm not about to forgive "warm up" mistakes. Who among us is humanitarian -- or stupid -- enough to happily pay $27 for a grilled veal chop, then chuckle when it arrives ruined because the kitchen staff doesn't yet know its way around their new stove?
Besides, the Vallis are professionals. Aside from some minor tweaking needed -- the City of Scottsdale made the restaurant take down its signage temporarily, so diners have to keep their eyes peeled for a tiny, laser-printed piece of paper stuck on a valet's marker -- Café Blue is operating purely in the pink.
Accents here look like they've been designed by Michael Graves, one dining companion muses, and she's hit it right on. Graves is the famous architect who now designs techno-look toasters, lamps and such for Target. We see the style here in opaque pink, yellow, blue and green plates, soft blue glasses and teardrop-frosted glass lamps. The geometric style crops up even with the bread presentation, served on a sleek silver tray that's perched atop a squat, platinum pedestal.
The tray comes bearing good crunchy garlic toast one evening, buttery and served with a plate of Kalamata olives and marinated carrot chunks. On other nights, we find hot, crusty sourdough and epi (French bread), dunked with creamery butter.
Café Blue's pride and joy is fresh seafood, displayed on a large bed of ice behind the appetizer "SeaBar" in the entry lounge. A whole snapper winks as we pass by, surrounded by a varying selection of oysters, shrimp, mussels, crab and lobster. The best is a selection of them all, our server says, encouraging us to order the sampler. This would be a great way to go if we weren't ordering dinner, too. Instead, save this hefty treat to be savored solo, perhaps with a cocktail during SeaBar's soon-to-be all-day dining option, or as a terrific happy hour treat.
This is not seafood to be gulped, anyway. The menu pricing is tricky, luring us in with little "each" notations by its daily selection of oysters on the half shell, oysters Rockefeller, shrimp cocktail and crab claw cocktail. When your server asks how many shrimp you'd like in your cocktail, keep in mind that they're $4 "each," and add up fast. As nice as the crustaceans are, that's more than I care to pay per piece.
Shrimp de jonghe's a pricey snack, too, bringing three baked critters for $13, but a sumptuous sauce of butter, garlic, sherry and bread crumbs spritzed with lemon and red pepper flakes makes the indulgence worthwhile. It would be helpful, though, if Café Blue's menu included descriptions -- de jonghe's a classic preparation that today's younger diners likely won't recognize.
Describing a shrimp spring roll would also alert us that we're actually in for summer rolls, cold and wrapped in soft, translucent wonton wrapper instead of hot and deep-fried. The two rolls are pleasant regardless of title, though, stuffed with scallion, carrot, celery, vermicelli, cucumber and peppery threads of radish sprout. Cut and dip them in a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce dotted with black sesame seeds.
Ahi "sushimi" is really tataki, too, the raw fish flash seared, splayed and partnered with more sweet sauce plus baby greens in a light oil dressing.
There's no confusion with toasted ravioli, except how I'm going to snake my dining companions' portions without getting slapped. These starters are favorites at Marco Polo, and they're equally welcome here, bringing four golden-crusted, ricotta-stuffed bundles with a side of chunky marinara. And just because cannelloni isn't often presented as an appetizer doesn't mean it shouldn't be -- this is another difficult-to-share dish of a single pretty crepe stuffed with a moist mince of chicken, veal, steak fillet and herbs in a gutsy rossa bianco sauce (rich tomato and cream).
Better menu descriptions might have swayed our party from ordering the only two boring items we trip over. When the wording says -- in cosmopolitan crispness -- "Chilean sea bass -- grilled," it's not being coy. The soft fish has nothing but the barest edge of marinade, sits in a slick of beurre blanc, and -- that's it. "Halibut -- steamed" rests in the same sheer butter, accented only with a spattering of roasted red pepper chunks. Good fish, competently cooked, but no spark.
And how many of us will immediately understand what tuna mignon à la sotto fiammo is without a little guidance? My waiter explains it's ahi rolled in a black pepper crust, served rare, but he doesn't explain that it's been charred, on what tastes suspiciously like wood plank. While I still like the result, such cooking treatment changes the whole nature of the beast.
Hint: study beforehand and impress your friends with the casual announcement that chicken spedini, of course, is breast skewered, rolled in Italian bread crumbs and broasted (pressure fried) with risotto Milanese.
A New York steak is firmer ground, an ample piece of beef that's been sliced and topped with roasted red and green peppers, red onion and a healthy blanket of zesty Gorgonzola. Wonderful, juicy stuff.
Café Blue's kitchen errs on the side of rare -- tuna mignon is stark raw in the middle, and a Chicago rib chop ordered medium-rare is just about blue in its center. Okay with me, I like my stuff that way, but fair warning. It works to our advantage on a New Zealand rack of lamb served requested medium; the mound of chops is still moist. Lamb isn't the best dish here, though, just vaguely interesting until it's spruced up with excellent mint vinaigrette or bordelaise sauce (Bordeaux wine, meat stock and herbs).
It's a good thing I like my aforementioned Chicago chop -- at 24 ounces, it's got me eating for days. The monster, bone-in rib has been charred and comes with plenty of au jus for dipping.
In an interesting twist, side dishes are shared affairs -- our server delivers a platter of Italian roasted potato chunks, steamed cabbage, Swiss chard, broccoli and cauliflower, with refills as needed. I don't care that variety is limited -- the veggies are expertly crisp and swim in a stunning puddle of butter topped with Parmesan and spiked with red pepper. Dip the sea bass in this, and I'm happy.
Challenges with descriptions occur again at dessert, when our server describes "Irma's" cheesecake as being New York-style. Not. This is hardly cheesecake at all, but a flurry of whipped cream on an Oreo crust that, with some digging, unearths a slim ribbon of firm cake within. Gold Brick ice cream isn't really, either, the vanilla bean ice cream missing the traditional pecans in its hardened fudge topping. Fine, but not what was expected.
Lunch makes for an easier adventure, all the more impressive because the restaurant's only been open for midday dining for a week when we stop in. More items come with descriptions, including a delightful crispy Peking duck salad with Oriental vegetables in a hoisin-orange dressing. Penne is also highly pleasing -- buried under an avalanche of sweet, crumbly sausage that's plate-scraping satisfying, and more of that excellent rossa bianco sauce. A dainty plate of veal Milanese is a show-stopper, too, coated in a brilliant, herby crust and bewitchingly moist inside. A side of Italian greens tossed with balsamic is the perfect partner.
Missteps aside, it's hard to put a damper on our time at Café Blue. If the biggest problems are lack of signage and some menu rewrites, I'd say that there's a lot to be happy about here.
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