Bar dining isn't anything new. Since the dawn of professional sports and big-screen TVs, patrons have been swarming bars, seeking a tall cold one. They're content to cheer a game through with the likes of straight-from-the-freezer-bag bites like cheese sticks, potato skins, deep-fried zucchini and mushrooms, or chicken wings. Hungrier appetites fill up on greasy burgers -- or perhaps for a step up, a leathery steak sandwich.
Food quality isn't the priority at these places -- it's the entertainment, the camaraderie of a social atmosphere, and, of course, alcohol.
Bars with excellent food, however, are a recent addition to the Valley's bar scene; bars where even the lowly French fry is treated with respect, while the proprietors retain a healthy concern for low prices and casual settings.
Some of these are wine bars, cropping up increasingly across the Valley. Higher priced, and more elegant than the average speakeasy, wine bars have made snacking sophisticated. Earlier this year, Valley sippers were introduced to Postino, in a former post office in Arcadia, Vintage Grape at the Esplanade, and Altos Bistro & Wine Bar in Ahwatukee, a sister to the Altos location at 44th Street and Camelback.
In February, wine lovers were given Kazimierz, an extension of Scottsdale's eternally hot restaurant, Cowboy Ciao. Kazimierz shows how terrific the sip-and-nibble concept can be, with a fashionably funky interior, eclectic music, creative wines, and superb "small plates."
Kazimierz knows it's cool, but the owners may be playing it a bit too cool. There's nothing more than a small sign directing customers to the rear of the building. No name is posted, just an invitation to trek down an alley to an unmarked, weathered, wooden door and to find "the truth inside."
I come early (7 p.m.), to avoid the inevitable Saturday-night crowds, and am rewarded for my efforts. The place is virtually empty. By 8 p.m., it's packed. Arriving early gets me primo seating, at one of the clutches of cozy, cushy, overstuffed armchairs and sofas that lend beauty to this bar. Other seating isn't bad -- a few rows of cafe and bar tables, and a long bar with stools. But snag a sofa, and you'll never want to leave.
Which is a good thing, since Kazimierz invites guests to linger. There's no rushed, gum-cracking service -- one evening's order of two-and-a-half glasses of wine plus five appetizers takes nearly three hours to complete.
Who's complaining? I'm more than happy to sprawl back amid candles and shrouded lights, enjoying a magical display as the sun sets behind an elaborate paper-and-gel "stained glass" window that comprises the bar's northern wall. The light splashes with thin tendrils across a gorgeous wall-sized mural of the earth, the design an Old World mosaic with our planet's oceans represented by pennies. Once the sun sets, it's pure, cool calm cave, with walls of faux stone, wooden wine barrels, concrete floors and low-slung, ornately carved coffee tables.
Amazingly, the place isn't loud, even at capacity. And joy of joy, there's no smoking, except at the bar proper. Music is another gem, featuring a rambunctious (but played at restrained volume) mix of jazz and techno, spiced up with, no kidding, big band, Broadway, Irish jig and mariachi themes. It's a thoroughly entertaining mix, and not at all as management describes it on the wine list: "You call that noise music? I thought for sure there was a giant nest of rabid squirrels stuck in the fireplace!"
Cowboy Ciao was one of the first places to introduce wine flights to the Valley, and owner Peter Kasperski has brought them to Kazimierz. Pick up the red loose-leaf notebook on your table, and browse through about two-dozen themed flight selections, each flight a trio of three-ounce pours of different wines. While selections are ever-evolving, it's hard to go wrong with Pinot Grigios of Italy, a friendly and affordable ($13) partnering of Montresor, Torre Rosazza and Pierpaolo.
For the more adventurous and affluent, there's a $36 offering of "really really really really really really rare Shiraz" from Australia -- tastes of '99 Burge Family from Draycott Vineyard, a '98 Genders, and a '99 Henry's Drive reserve.
Still not enough? Another notebook includes more than 800 bottles, priced from affordable to astronomical, and secured from every corner of the world.
Kazimierz's food menu is much smaller -- fewer than two-dozen selections -- but equally carefully crafted. Pay attention to price when ordering, though -- a couple of snacks can take the value out of that Pinot trio.
An antipasto platter, for example, is a pretty plate of prosciutto, serrano ham, sopressata, assorted cheeses and whatever is the chef's whim, but it's $16. And San Danielle prosciutto, while of pleasing quality, brings just two meat rolls stuffed with lettuce, three nubbins of creamy chèvre (goat cheese) and three chewy figs. It's a delightful mix of flavors -- salty ham, milky cheese and sweet fruit with the beautifully barest drizzle of balsamic -- but don't plan on filling up.
The best bargain comes in the Palliser salad, a heaping mound of marinated calamari and octopus -- squiggly tentacles and all -- tossed with a touch of mixed greens, crisp green beans, pickled eggplant (is that brown sugar it's bathed in?) and chopped red onions. This, with a loaf of Kazimierz's fine crusty French bread, is a sumptuous meal.
But of course, we're not here for dinner. This is a savoring experience. For that, duck pâté fills the bill, bringing two slabs of firm, nutty-toned liver nuanced with truffles. A small slick of stone-ground mustard spread on French bread adds bite; cornichons and marinated vegetables add character.
Salmon tartare's another stellar nosh, the chopped fish splayed in a classy star pattern with chopped red onion, gutsy sharp capers, a dab of spicy mustardy sauce and French bread.
Feeling rowdy? Test your server for recommended wine pairings with Kazimierz's Egyptian flatbreads, essentially pizzas but supported by gorgeous fluffier crusts, browned just to a golden crisp. The Burgundian is excellent, layering earthy morels and roasted shallots on Brie with just a touch of truffle oil. The Mediterranean is marvelous, too, bedecked with a high-class ensemble of roast lamb, chèvre, figs and balsamic.
In a fun touch, Kazimierz presents a flight of dessert wines, served in one-ounce pours. Sample them with the sweet treats: dreamy bread pudding melded with white chocolate and hazelnut plus muscat-noted anglaise; or a chocolate-peanut tart topped with caramel sauce and banana-cream whip.
With this type of bar nibbling, Kazimierz is cashmere all the way.
Monroe's Food and Fine Spirits
Monroe's calls itself Food and Fine Spirits. But it should give some star billing to the eats, too. Because while the victuals served here aren't upscale, they're awfully good. Add in the fact that most items are priced at less than $6, and Monroe's retains bar-food bargains, but with much better than average bar-food fare.
Add in a hip, non-sport setting and attentive service, and the deals are that much more delicious. Set in a basement in downtown Phoenix, Monroe's is hidden behind old-fashioned, saloon-style doors. It takes a trip down weathered wooden stairs to reach the dim, candlelit and red-bulbed lamp interior, and a few minutes for our eyes to adjust and find a table, camouflaged with dark wood. Once we can see, we find dark wood walls and brick, lightened just barely by a half wall of mirrors and some Christmas lights twinkling in the black, low-slung ceiling. A bar spans one wall, and a dance floor another, backed by a space for the live jazz and blues bands that rock the house (after 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. depending on the night, and with a periodic but low cover charge).
The place caters to a mixed clientele -- lots of office types at lunch, and a wild group of diners, partiers, and jazz lovers at night -- plus here and there, a few of our less fashionable downtown residents enjoying a shot at the bar. During lunch, music plays loud but cool, with classic warblings from folks like Bob Dylan. Except for the choking smoke that often suffocates the small place, I'm completely at home.
Appetizers are brew food, with the expected wings, potato skins and chicken fingers, but these are worth their weight in oil. Or lack of it -- we're not drenched in grease with the crunchy-edged, golden-brown, deep-fried zucchini and mushrooms, or the fried mozzarella that remains gooey and finds flavor even without being dunked in a side of marinara. The fanciest starter is a quesadilla, and it's a good one, the grilled tortillas stuffed with ample chicken breast, Cheddar, tomato and onions. Even more interesting, though, is the soup -- a beguiling onion, served in a crock, the beefy, not-too-sweet broth buried under mounds of soft, hot provolone.
A cheese steak is one of the best I've had in recent memory. The hefty sandwich is packed with quality, lacy-thin beef and buckets of melted provolone. I love the bread, a soft hoagie roll that's been grilled to a wonderful crust. French fries are addictive, too, skin-on and fresh from the fryer. A triple-decker club sandwich rises to the top, meanwhile, with generous stackings of honest deli-style turkey breast and ham, bacon and ruby red tomatoes on my choice of toasted sourdough.
It's quite girly of me to order a salad at such a cool club, but I do, and am rewarded. Classic Cobb is terrific, a massive platter brimming with honest mixed greens (not faking it with iceberg), big chunks of grilled chicken breast, crisp bacon (and the real thing, not that rubbery stuff), chopped hard-boiled egg, fresh avocado and plenty of tangy blue cheese.
And while no one will mistake Monroe's for a ladies-who-lunch place, there's plenty for more discriminating bar diners. Wraps, in a blues club? But they're worthwhile, particularly a fine Thai chicken version, folding a flour tortilla around a plump mixture of grilled bird, julienne carrot, mixed greens and crispy noodles in a delicate Thai peanut sauce. A selection of pastas is surprising in its reach, too, including shrimp linguine, sautéed with scallions, tomato and broccoli in a nice, light, white wine, garlic and butter sauce.
Pub fare does make its presence known, with a meatloaf sandwich, and pot roast, served with pleasant mashed potatoes and very peppery mushroom gravy. But these aren't the best items here -- I'd swear the meatloaf, two plump slabs with a roll on the side rather than served as a sandwich, has been mixed with sugar -- it's overbearingly sweet. And the pot roast is just average meat, pulled and served with a slider bun instead of open-faced as promised.
Monroe's signature dish, unfortunately, is just awful. The green chile stew combines shredded chicken, beef, pork, corn, onion, tomato and tortilla chips, but tastes jarringly vinegary and scorched.
Monroe's is a casual, kick-back club, and its best food keeps that experience in mind. A cheese steak, a brew, and the down and dirty tunes of Sistah Blue or Big Pete Pearson -- that sure tastes good to me.
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