I'm glad I brought my press materials on Ice Restaurant and Bar to dinner tonight. Otherwise, I might wonder why in the world I had decided this would be a nice place for a sophisticated meal.
What made me think that Ice -- a loud, obnoxious nightclub serving food one step above sludge -- was a good choice for a culinary experience?
I've been lured in by a creative -- and entirely inaccurate -- marketing pitch. There it is on the press release: "Innovative American Cuisine with French, Italian and Asian overtones."
Ice has been more than four years in the making, the release crows, before finally opening in April as the "ultimate in dining and entertaining" for Scottsdale's "hip dining scene." And later, when I check Ice's Web site, I'm welcomed to "Scottsdale's newest fine dining" experience.
Now, I'm not swayed by a marketing agent's pithy description of the property -- sizzle sells. But the sample menu I was sent included interesting appetizers of rosemary-skewered lamb, Korean boneless beef short ribs, steamed black mussels and escargots. Entrees promised delights like char sui duck breast, coq au vin and grilled lamb chops.
Yet the paper menu I'm studying now has exactly none of those items. In fact, there are three entrees, total: chicken, salmon and steak. The remaining choices include fancied-up salads, pizzas, pastas and sandwiches.
Maybe Ice really is just a bar. Maybe the marketing folks simply got a little excited and promoted the food more than they should have.
But there are tables filling the first two floors of this three-story building, nicely set with white linen napkins and candles. And the meals here aren't priced like bar food; appetizers hover around $10 and entrees range from $15 to $23. No, Ice is intended to be a restaurant first, and a bar second. It's just that somewhere along the way, the concept has veered way, way off course.
I'm on guard as soon as I enter the white building, trimmed in blue fluorescent lights. Several of the staff, including our waitress, are hanging out on the front sidewalk, leaving me standing next to the hostess stand in front of an odd sculpture of melting ice blocks on a silver pan. It's obvious they're surprised that I'm here for dinner, even at 7 on a Saturday night. The same thing happens each time I visit, and then I understand why -- there aren't many people ordering food, and in fact, several groups of older, nicely dressed folks come through the door, look around and leave.
Ice sure looks hip, with a modern industrial interior designed by James Beard award-winner Janis Leonard. The first floor boasts a centerpiece bar topped by a dramatic wine display, surrounded by uncomfortable stools. Diners and drinkers alike kick back on slick chrome-and-blue-leather furniture that wouldn't be out of place in the Jetsons' living room. It may look cool, but it's hardly comfortable: Booths have odd, convex chrome backs that make settling in awkward, and plush velvet cube seats sit so high that only Twiggy could comfortably squeeze her legs under the table top.
The second floor -- reached by metal staircases linked via catwalks and open to the space below -- houses larger tables and a patio bar. The third floor is actually the roof, containing another bar beneath a geometric trellis of blue neon.
Yet I don't think looks are what scares off our potential fellow diners. More likely it's the brain-crushing music that sends them scurrying away. Ice's press materials tell us to expect progressive jazz and light grooves, but we're assaulted by techno-beat and '80s music played at what must be the highest level Scottsdale's zoning permits. I like the Violent Femmes and Elvis Costello as much as anyone, but not throbbing through my skull during dinner. (It seems like the acoustical attack is going to get worse, too -- flyers on our table promote a new, "Mix-it-Up" virtual DJ, an interactive touch-screen kiosk; and Coyote Ugly Mondays, with girls brought in to mimic the antics of the movie chicks). Add to the blend the click-clack clump-clump of women in platform shoes on the metal catwalk right above our heads, and we're in for a very noisy night.
So by the time the shrieking bachelorette party arrives -- complete with a three-foot-tall inflatable penis -- my dining companion and I are numb. We're too overstimulated to care, even when a waiter on the second floor takes off his shirt and leaps around; or when, on a later visit, we walk past the upstairs bar to witness two male strippers doing a thong dance around yet another bride-to-be. This is fine dining? I hardly think we'll be seeing these kinds of antics at Vincent's any time soon.
I don't know where, if anywhere, we'll be seeing such a bizarre wine list, either. More of a crib sheet than a full list, it reads like a purveyor's garage sale, with a meager selection of labels few people will recognize. What are all those pretty bottles winking at us from above the bar, then? Selections also are overpriced for the quality of the wine offered.
At least the wine is in synch with the food, which arrives equally costly and amateurishly handled. A salmon and brie pizza, for example, sets us back $11 for a mini pie of four small slices that are primarily crust. It's a nice, buttery crust, granted, but I expect better toppings than the smoky, fishy-flavored strips and tasteless, greasy cheese we're served. A few stalks of asparagus cap it all off with a tough, chewy finish. And is that a ribbon of onion I clamp down on, or perhaps Scotch tape? Either way, the taste is the same.
If there's lobster in the cakes brought to our table as an appetizer, it's been so finely blended it's disappeared into the two thick, hockey puck-size critters. They go cold before my companion and I have finished our first few forkfuls. I like the spicy lemon aioli drizzled on top, though, and a side of kimchi is delicious. The pickled, peppery cabbage is an unusual partner on the plate, but the flavor boost is appreciated.
It's not nearly as weird, though, as N'awlins shrimp, served inexplicably in a bread bowl. The intentions are good -- a heap of fresh, meaty shrimp sautéed in Cajun spices, butter and beer. But it appears the kitchen has scraped some of the soft bread interior into the blend, making a mushy mixture that reminds me of dry cat food left in the rain. The texture is simply creepy.
I'd eat a bucket of the goop, though, before putting another forkful of Ice's tuna sashimi to my lips. The peppered fish has been properly seared but can't hide the fact that it's not entirely fresh. Sorry, guys -- with food this dainty, there's no faking it. A toss of red peppers, Swiss chard, baby spinach and oak leaf lettuce is crisp and yummy, until I'm slammed to a screeching halt with the dressing. Orange and ginger? I doubt it. Only straight vinegar could make me wince this way. I don't recall ever having been served baby potatoes with sashimi before, and it still hasn't happened -- the ingredient, promised on the menu, is missing. Yet the most frightening thing in the dish is something we didn't expect. The sashimi slices are heavily dabbed with a peanut and wasabi combo that has been cooked to the consistency of caramel. It's like rubber cement with a kick, and really awful. It's also not listed on the menu, and our server stares at it quizzically when we point it out; she's never noticed it before.
It's obvious we're not happy with our meals, leaving more than half of our shrimp and salad untouched. Yet our waitress simply smiles sympathetically when we report our distress, noting she'll "pass it on" to the kitchen as she removes the plates. A true elegant restaurant would have removed the charge from our bill, as well.
Ultimately, Ice would be giving away a lot of dinners if it comped poor meals. We run into the same situation with entrees on another evening, leaving most of our pasta lying cold and lifeless on our plates, although no one asks us why. Portabello ravioli is quite inedible, cooling so quickly in its big soup plate that I have to wonder if it's been microwaved. Certainly the pudding skin that forms on the pasty, rosemary cream sauce suggests that. And who puts rosemary on delicate-flavored pasta, anyway? This aromatic herb is much too overpowering for noodles or mellow mushrooms, particularly the bland paste to which these portabellos have been reduced. Rigatoni is better, tumbled with crumbles of Italian sausage, but its tomato cream sauce smacks of too loose a hand with the sugar.
Ice is heavy on the sandwich selections, with standard chicken, burgers and ham stuffings. We're drawn to the sliced steak fillet, appealingly described as being served on garlic bread with creamy horseradish. Actually, it's fine, and good enough as bar food with its French fry side and toppings of red onion and tomato. Once we remind our server to bring the horseradish, it's even better.
Steak shows up again as one of Ice's few entrees, this time as a hefty, black pepper-crusted fillet. This dish also completely changes our run of luck. It's really good, even served rare instead of medium as requested. I love real mashed potatoes, and these are them, lumps and all. We get extra gravy and dip every indulgent forkful.
Still, even this fine steak doesn't prepare me for Ice's fabulous salmon. Is this the same kitchen, or did management finally give up and order out? I can't get enough of the massive grilled fillet, so buttery, juicy and firm. I make a very happy meal of it, skipping the dry, overly herbed basil mashed potatoes and banquet-style veggies served alongside.
I've no doubt where we are when dessert arrives, however. Ice's signature finale is a frozen apple martini, even if our waitress admits she's never seen one served before. No wonder. This is a perfect example of creativity spun out of control. Imagine a lime-green, apple-flavored snow cone presented in a martini glass topped with slices of granny apple. Boring. A little side cup holds lukewarm caramel, I guess for dipping the apple slices. Baffling.
By the time we leave, it's almost 10, and the bar area is starting to pick up, adding bodies to the musical bedlam. Everybody's wearing black, everybody's smoking and talking on cell phones. They're all having fun.
Sure they are. They're in a bar, after all. They're here to get drunk and flirt. They didn't read the press release, and they were smart enough to pass on Ice's "fine dining" experience.
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