Desert Moon Grill and Saloon, 15415 North 65th Place, Scottsdale, 607-1811. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," wrote the poet. As far as I know, Rudyard Kipling didn't develop this insight after visiting the Valley of the Sun. But he could have.
Two restaurants, one in Scottsdale, the other in Glendale, illustrate Kipling's point. Each is only a few months old. Each has set up camp in restaurant-scarce neighborhoods exploding with pricey new homes. Neither Desert Moon nor Javelina Springs targets tourists, trendoids or splurging diners celebrating a special occasion. Their core customers are neighborhood folks, on the lookout for a casual, tasty and affordable meal not too far from the house.
But Scottsdale isn't Glendale, and Glendale isn't Scottsdale. Another poet once asked, "What's in a name?" Quite a bit, actually. Scottsdale's Desert Moon bills itself as a "Grill and Saloon." Glendale's Javelina Springs calls itself a "Restaurant & Bar." Semantically, it's a distinction without a difference. But from a marketing standpoint, it's critical. "Grill and Saloon" suggests an up-to-date edge, a hip energy. "Restaurant & Bar," on the other hand, sounds a lot more old-fashioned. Scottsdalians won't go to a Restaurant & Bar. West-siders won't go to a Grill and Saloon.
The restaurants offer remarkably similar fare--seafood, beef, chicken, pasta--at almost identical prices. But the two kitchens have widely different culinary philosophies, which have been carefully tuned and calibrated to their zip code's tastes. At Desert Moon, for instance, the chicken is roasted with herbs; at Javelina Springs, the poultry is battered and fried. Javelina Springs serves pork ribs with barbecue sauce; Desert Moon serves "Chinese style" pork ribs rubbed with tamarind, ginger and honey. Each restaurant makes a strawberry dessert. But Desert Moon soaks its berries in liqueur.
Our tale of two cities begins in Scottsdale. Desert Moon is set on the fringes of Kierland, a golf course and master-planned community. By day, through its big picture windows, diners can watch guys in plaid pants conceding themselves 10-foot putts on the seventh green. By night, they can admire the moonlight pouring over the McDowell Mountains. The room is sleekly designed and dimly lit, with a semiopen kitchen, abstract art on the walls and jazzy, bongo-inflected music spilling out of the music system. I hear there's a vase of fresh flowers in the women's room, a nice touch that demonstrates a commendable attention to detail.
The menu is as craftily designed as the setting. It seems perfectly pitched to the neighborhood, and the kitchen knows how to bring it to life.
Desert Moon's clientele enjoys nibbling on appetizers, but this isn't a chicken-wing, potato-skin, mozzarella-stick crowd. These patrons prefer munching on garlic crostini that they can plunge into a dip fashioned from crab, artichokes and cheese, broiled up to a crusty sheen. Who can blame them? It's luscious. So is the oven-roasted portabello, a huge pile of sliced fungi heaped over wedges of grilled polenta draped with gorgonzola, then punched up with a bit of balsamic vinegar. Don't order this on your own--there's enough here for three appetites.
Potstickers are also skillfully prepared, a half-dozen plump dumplings filled with chicken and shiitake mushrooms, slickly moistened in a fruity, spicy sauce. In contrast, the appetizer pizza is nothing special, prepared with a light, lahvosh-type crust and heavily coated with four unremarkable cheeses.
Of course, you can skip appetizers entirely and fill up on the addictive molasses rye bread. "It's the only thing here we don't make ourselves," said our waiter. But who cares where the bread is made, when it's this good?
The chef realizes this neighborhood expects a kitchen with a bit of style. So he's always looking to give his main dishes an extra boost. Take the wonderfully juicy herb-roasted chicken, which he pairs with wilted spinach enlivened with bacon and garlic. This 10-dollar platter gives you 10 bucks' worth of pleasure.
Lovely grilled mahimahi gets the same sort of treatment. It's teamed with a papaya-mango salsa and a mound of couscous. This is hardly a revolutionary trio, but a less creative kitchen would have slapped down mashed potatoes or rice and steamed veggies. Desert Moon isn't just going through the culinary motions.
That's clear from the "Crispy Fried Alaskan Halibut," Desert Moon's upscale take on fish and chips. It's a good idea, and the moist, battered fish is irresistible. But the freezer-bag-quality fries are a mistake. This dish really deserves fresh, bubbling-hot, thick-cut spuds.
Desert Moon takes care of red-meat fans. Pan-seared pork loin is a gorgeous hunk of meat, pure animal-protein heaven, and it's accompanied by an earthy mix of sweet corn and wild rice that I could have eaten by the bowl. Asian-style spare ribs are another intriguing pork option, lined with a thick, sweet and pungent glaze of tamarind, ginger and honey. (Spring for an extra three bucks and order the side of Szechuan-style green beans, crisply sauteed in a hoisin-type sauce.) And beef eaters will appreciate the simple charms of the beef tenderloin with peppercorns and scalloped potatoes, at $17.50 the most expensive menu option.
The homemade desserts are worth lingering over. The flourless, fudgy chocolate torte, topped with Haagen-Dazs ice cream, is primal fun. Cheesecake with Chambord-soaked strawberries makes a refreshing summer treat. But the kitchen went overboard with the numbingly sweet white chocolate passion fruit creme brulee. In this case, less would have been more. There's at least one ingredient too many here.
Desert Moon has planted itself in fertile soil--the right concept at the right time in the right place. It should flourish. If you live nearby, it's a wonderful day in the neighborhood.
Javelina Springs, 20585 North 59th Avenue, Glendale, 566-8100. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
I was stunned when I walked into Javelina Springs at 7 o'clock on a midweek summer night. "There's about a 20-minute wait," the hostess sweetly informed us. "Please have a seat at the bar."
Waiting for a table on the avenues at 7 p.m.? Stop the presses! In the past, most west-siders haven't even been awake at this hour. And those who were would have finished dinner three hours earlier. Traditionally, the only meal west-siders ate at 7 p.m. was tomorrow morning's breakfast.
But it's 1998, and this place has its finger squarely on the northwest Valley's new culinary pulse. Set just off the recently opened Loop 101 and close to booming Arrowhead Ranch, Javelina Springs aims to give the fast-growing neighborhood's residents exactly what they're panting for: unthreatening fare at a reasonable price.
Javelina Springs isn't a chain, but it has the somewhat antiseptic look of one. There are two principal decor motifs: javelinas and Native Americans. A herd of metal javelinas stands guard outside. Inside, the walls are lined with Indian blankets. Vintage photos of Native Americans hang in every booth.
The menu is vintage, too. Javelina Springs' proprietors understand that their neighborhood's tastes are not the same as Desert Moon's. So you won't be seeing words like "crostini," "portabello mushroom" and "polenta" on the appetizer list. You will find--surprise!--chicken fingers, shrimp cocktail and wings. There's also a "Javelonion," one of those whole, deep-fried onions; sauteed button mushrooms drenched in oil; and a cheesy, curry-tinged artichoke dip served with crackers.
I don't know if there's a municipal ordinance that requires every restaurant west of Central Avenue to offer soup or salad with dinner. But there may as well be, since value-conscious west-siders apparently demand it. Javelina Springs prepares a variety of creamy vegetable soups--we had broccoli and cauliflower--that actually taste like the vegetables they're made from. The salad greenery, however, is routine.
The main dishes seemed, at best, tame and ordinary. But it may be a matter of perspective. If I had been marooned in a sea of dreadful chain restaurants and fast-food parlors, like Javelina Springs' west-side customers, perhaps I might have reached their level of enthusiasm.
The barbecue sampler has its hits and misses. The juicy pork roast delivers smoky flavor, and the meaty beef ribs are tender enough and not too fatty. But the pork ribs have no energy, while the tough chicken breast is practically inedible.
The kitchen could use some help with its fish. I didn't mind the minimalist preparation of the grilled halibut, which comes lightly brushed with olive oil. I did mind that it was overcooked. And the menu promises grilled mahimahi, marinated in ginger, soy and white wine. Mine came broiled, and dusted with off-putting chile powder.
Pasta is weak, if the Mostaccioli Rojo with Sausage is any guide. Pasta tubes are coated with gobs of nondescript cheese and doused with a snoozy tomato sauce. Heaped unappetizingly on top are two fat sausages. The whole platter, served in an oversize bowl, made me flinch just to look at it.
Chinese chicken salad also suffers from the same west-side confusion of "big" with "better." A mass of dull greens, teamed with a bit of zucchini, snow peas, orange segments, red pepper, crunchy noodles and chicken comes on a plate so large you could lie down on it. But so what? No one will finish this salad, nor, from what I could taste, would anyone want to.
The 9-ounce filet mignon is more impressive, packing the butter-soft texture and beefy flavor I expected. Paired with au gratin potatoes, Javelina Springs' number-one side dish, it's a wholly gratifying entree.
Desserts are the strongest part of the meal. The massive strawberrry shortcake is homemade, in the best sense of the word. The apple cobbler is plump with fruit and sports a lovely pastry-crust canopy. Jave Java, a waffle cup filled with coffee ice cream, drizzled with chocolate and caramel syrups and garnished with strawberries, delivers uncomplicated sweet-tooth satisfaction.
I don't think Javelina Springs is the answer to the northwest Valley's eating-out prayers. But perhaps it's an indication that, for the first time, the restaurant gods may at least be listening.
Desert Moon Grill and Saloon:
Fried Alaskan halibut
Pan-seared pork loin
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