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ATTA GRILL!

Bistro, trattoria, grill. No matter what the nationality, the idea is the same: Convince customers that dining out needn't be so theatrical, so expensive. "It's an eating thing," as George Bush might say. "Fork, knife, meat, potatoes. Food is fuel. Spending lots of money . . . wouldn't be prudent at this juncture." Locally, KousKooz owners Larry Cohn and Eddie Matney were among the first to downtrend. (Downgrade just doesn't have a nice connotation, does it?) After introducing a menu change in August, they decided, a month later, to commit every public-relations person's nightmare. They changed the name of their restaurant from KousKooz to Eddie's Grill.

The concept? As the plebeian name implies, Cohn and Matney's plan was to simplify. Abandon "Ameriterranean" in favor of "American cuisine with a homestyle flair." Become less trendy and more basic. Well, as basic as a dramatic, taste-oriented chef like Eddie Matney can become.

My initial visit to Eddie's Grill takes place at the time of the changeover. Frankly, I'm not overwhelmed. While the appetizer of baked goat cheese with black beans and salsa has a triad of enticing tastes, it is difficult to eat. Black beans spill everywhere. Homemade potato chips with onion dip and barbecue sauce are easier to manage, but not as mind-blowing as anticipated.

My opinion on our entrees is equally split. I like the grilled sirloin encased in mashed potatoes and cheese. It's homey, hearty and reminiscent of my sister's shepherd's pie. But I'm terribly disappointed by the linguini with grilled vegetables. On the night we visit, this lovely-sounding pasta dish emerges from the kitchen pretossed and smothered in a red sauce overpowered by sun-dried tomatoes.

Factor in an indifferent, too-cool-for-this-world waiter and a twenty-minute wait for the check, and yes, you could say I am less than enthusiastic about returning. But return I do, three months later. And, happily, I am won over.

On my second visit, Goat, an out-of-town visitor and I are seated at a table across from rock-music veteran Alice Cooper and his family. Goat and I worry that Mr. Cooper will think we are following him. A couple of months ago, we sat near him at Tapas-Papa-Frita. He gives Goat a piercing look--"This guy again?"--then continues his dinner conversation about a campaign to prevent teen suicide.

Our out-of-town visitor, who has been known to hum "Only Women," is impressed by this rock-star sighting. Goat, who owned every album by the original Alice Cooper band, confides, "There he sits, ten feet away, and he doesn't know that twenty years ago he was a god to me." Thank goodness.

The physical changes in the room are subtle. You can now see through a tinted window into the kitchen. The waitstaff is casually dressed in jeans and voluminous shirts--most of which are dark green. But the neon art remains, and so, as a result, does the not-unpleasant sensation of big-city slickness.

As our visitor has a plane to catch, we are dining early. The restaurant, aside from Mr. Cooper and his family, is mostly empty. By the time we leave, circa eight o'clock, the restaurant has filled. Eddie's regular clientele, clad in expensive casual clothes, glitters with life. Our waitress is a charming young woman who speaks knowledgeably about the menu. She is sincere, warm and not overbearing. She plays a key role in my overall favorable impression this second time around.

We start with two appetizers and soup. The soup is French onion capped with baked cheese. "I hear you guys provide little scissors with the soup," I say to our waitress as we order. "I'm glad you reminded me," she giggles. "Usually, I forget to bring them out."

Actually, the blue plastic Crayola scissors help only marginally in managing the mass of molten cheese and soup-soaked bread. Eddie's version uses slivers of Bermuda onion in a rosemary-tinged broth, but show me the person who can eat this soup with any kind of decorum. I wouldn't order it on a first date or important business luncheon.

As for our two appetizers, the grilled chicken relleno is wonderful. It tastes of black beans, cilantro, cheese and grilled chicken. I could eat several in one sitting, but Goat and I let our spice-starved Eastern visitor eat the lion's share.

Fried sourdough calamari are overwhelmed by the strongly flavored batter. It's hard to taste the calamari. The accompanying red-pepper mayo has a nice kick to it. We could have used more.

Live music wafts from the bar area to our table. "I left my heart . . . ," croons singer Chuck Mathews. Goat, a secret Tony Bennett fan, taps his foot. At the next table, the Cooper clan readies itself for departure. In response to pleas for dessert, Alice reminds his young son that they will stop for frozen yogurt on the way home. What a dad!

 

Our waitress arrives with our salads. She deftly clears our appetizer plates before serving. Tart with lemon and crisp with romaine, the caesar is definitely the way to go here. I'm disappointed with the house salad. It looks tired and is soggy with balsamic vinegar dressing.

A large group of fortyish couples who look like prosperous attorneys and attorneys' wives enters our section of the restaurant. They exchange pleasantries and kisses on the cheek, then sit to study the menu.

When our entrees arrive, it's my turn to be in awe. The plates are Bunyanesque, the portions Herculean and the food looks, well, great. We've purposely ordered basic dishes to test the sincerity of the switchover. What I didn't expect was such lovely presentations or such great flavor from such mundane materials.

For example, ordering the crispy herb-roasted chicken would hardly make you feel you've hit hard times. The dark, herb-laden skin is crackly and crisp, the chicken moist and hot. Oven-roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes are the perfect accompaniment.

An ample square of grilled sea bass looks at least two inches high. It sits on a "pancake" of linguini in a cream sauce. Just so you don't get bored, a mound of guacamole, spiked with lemon zest, sits nearby. The combination is scrumptious.

Commonplace pork chops blossom under Chef Eddie Matney's care. My accomplices thought me a bit daffy for wanting to order them, but the last laugh's on them. Marinated in a teriyakilike sauce, the grilled chops are tender, fresh and flavorful. The accompanying "Arizona apple chutney" recalls baked apples. I save my biggest raves for the shoestring sweet potatoes that come with the pork chops. Noodle-thin, crisp and slightly salty, they are nothing less than fantastic. Note to Cohn and Matney: Market these as a snack food immediately. We manage to make a good dent in our plates before our waitress returns to tempt us with dessert. She doesn't have to try very hard. With her help we decide on the chocolate-pecan-Kahlua pie, the pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap crust and the apple-raspberry tart.

All three are satisfying, lovely and quite different. If decadence is your thing, go for the rich, chocolate-heavy pecan pie with a walnut crust. Pumpkin lovers will adore the cheesecake. The flavors hit in waves: pumpkin, sour cream, gingersnap. For a dessert so fruity it tastes "virtuous," as our visitor phrases it, try the apple-raspberry tart. The pinkened apples have a sensual, fleshy texture and the layer of frangipane adds an almond flavor.

The big-city restaurant looks like a different place on our way out. Full, alive, happening. I feel pampered, but not broke. "This," I think to myself, "is what it's like to experience value."

Grill is something of a misnomer when applied to Joe's American Grill and Bar. Yes, the Orange Tree Golf and Conference Resort's only restaurant is casual and informal, but it has the unmistakable feel of a hotel dining room. Decorated in striated Southwestern tones, the open, tiered room offers a view of the golf course, but little in the way of originality.

On the day this same out-of-towner and I stop in for lunch, luggage is piled high in the lobby. Inside Joe's, the dress is golf casual: Golf sweaters, golf pants, but of course, no golf shoes.

Menu prices are on the high side, and I get the strong feeling Joe's caters to a captive audience: people on vacation, people on business trips. The selections are obvious--burger, steak, salad, pizza--tinged with "Southwestern" flavors. From my perspective, the pickings are lean.

We start with the gulf shrimp and a Tokyo grilled chicken salad. Our waitress, who deserves high praise for her excellent service, brings two empty plates so we can share. Both dishes are edible, but mediocre. Five big but flavorless shrimp rest on leaves of butter lettuce. They are accompanied by an odd, cumin-flavored cucumber-onion relish and nondescript cilantro catsup. The Tokyo grilled chicken salad features cut (!) spinach and other greens, tomato, sliced water chestnuts and a lone scallion. A pile of fried noodles, the likes of which I haven't seen since before Nixon's trip to China, occupies one section of the plate. The sesame-oil dressing is pleasant, but I find the combination of ingredients strange and the cut greens disconcerting.

Our second course is worse. A shrimp pizza is inedible. The dough is gooey and uncooked. The shrimp are the dreaded bay variety. The whole thing is glopped down with canned and fresh tomatoes under a lid of melted cheese. To Joe's--and our waitress's--credit, when we explain why the pizza remains uneaten, the item is removed from our check.

 

A Fairway burger is nothing special for $6.50. It is juicy, but not medium rare, as I had requested.

By 1:45 p.m., Joe's is empty. The departing travelers have left for the airport. The restaurant staff begins to reset the tables for dinner. Our waitress is not in sight.

Needless to say, we do not stay for dessert or coffee. My out-of-town visitor clamors to be in the sunshine. I don't blame her. Joe's may seem satisfactory to resort visitors after eighteen holes of Arizona golf, but for the rest of us, I wouldn't recommend a trip.

Eddie's Grill, 4747 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 241-1188. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Joe's American Grill and Bar, Orange Tree Golf and Conference Resort, 56th Street and Shea, Scottsdale, 443-2119. Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. eddie's

As the plebeian name implies, the plan was to simplify. Become less trendy and more basic.

My accomplice owned every album by Alice Cooper. "There he sits, ten feet away. He doesn't know twenty years ago he was a god to me."

joe's

Our second course is worse. A shrimp pizza is inedible. The dough is gooey and uncooked. The shrimp are the dreaded bay variety.

Joe's may seem satisfactory to resort visitors after eighteen holes of Arizona golf, but for the rest of us, I wouldn't recommend it.


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