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Coyote Ugly

So cool you can taste it: Patrons aren't flocking to Priv for the food.
Erik Guzowski

Some things are just so male. There are events that fascinate guys in ways I'll never understand. Like last week, after a squirrel crawled into my car engine, I considered it a bad thing. After driving with me a few blocks, the poor creature didn't fare well at all. My car didn't do so well, either, and I moaned about having to replace two destroyed, sickly furry fan belts. It pretty much ruined my day.

My buddy Bradley thought it was totally cool, though. His eyes actually lit up when I told him my car was wrecked. After a moment of respectful silence for the squirrel, he gripped its stiff little body with pliers, pulled it out of the engine, and announced that we would be spending the rest of the day tracking down the lowest-price, best-quality belts, and installing them (requiring tracking down the lowest-price, best-quality specialty tools). He was actually excited about the assignment, getting into it so much that he changed my brake pads, too, emerging from under the auto clotted in grease and dirt and happy as could be.

Guys. These are the same mystery specimens that surprise me with how excited they get when I tell them about Privé, the newest restaurant effort for the San Carlos Hotel in downtown Phoenix. Is it the funky, ultra-trendy ambiance? The extensive Italian-Mediterranean menu? Nah. It's the fact that Privé is co-owned by Andrei Nazarov, who plays left wing for the Phoenix Coyotes.

It's a marvel to me. Because even with its rich past (circa 1928, playground to celebrities like Clark Gable and Mae West), for the past 15 years or so, the lovable but long-suffering San Carlos Hotel has had a hard time attracting quality restaurants. It's been a revolving door of so-so places sucking profit primarily from room service victims. And even after I warn these boys that Privé has potential to finally make a difference, but has a long -- long -- way to go toward great (or even pretty good) restaurant, they're still giddy to go.

Nazarov doesn't work at the restaurant; I wonder how often he even goes there. There's no sports theme, either, with the sole nod being a flat-screen TV in the cafe adjacent to the main restaurant. Privé's other owner, Stephen D'Amico, doesn't even care to play up the celebrity partnership, preferring to label the property as a hip destination in its own right, much like Miami's très chic Delano Hotel in South Beach. D'Amico's put all his effort into design, fashioning a restaurant of sleek blue walls, billowy sheer curtains, high-backed sofas, and glistening stainless steel cocktail bars. It's the kind of look I love; the kind that most of my sports-grunting boy friends sneer at.

Yet here I am, seeking supper with an avid Coyotes fan who's thrilled that the essence of Nazarov might be lurking somewhere nearby. His only irritation is that I've brought him along on an evening where there's no game (in his warped mind, he thinks that besides paying for dinner, I'd have sprung for tickets, too, and ice-level at that).

I'm actually pretty irritated myself, at how much I'm having to struggle to get fed. Because the main stumbling block at Privé is that management hasn't yet decided if it wants to be a full-service restaurant, a Latin Beat nightclub, both, or neither.There are two sides to this operation fronting Central and Monroe. There's a casual Privé Cafe, and across the lobby hall, the stylish Privé Restaurant & Lounge. I call, and am told Privé (both) is open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. I arrive for lunch, and not so -- Privé (the fancy one) opens at 4 daily, my gentle server informs me. I return for dinner on a Tuesday -- no luck -- now I'm told Privé is only open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. I wander over to the Cafe, where they tell me the restaurant serves Wednesday through Sunday. A call to management places operating days Thursday through Sunday, so what the hell, it's easier finding squirrel-proof fan belts.

In the end, though, it doesn't matter. Both Privés serve the same dinner menu. And it's certainly no loss to miss out on this overpriced, only acceptable cuisine. Like my Coyotes stalker friend, people coming here aren't in it for the food. Who cares about an embarrassing weak weed-and-water broth that is escarole soup, soggy with giant olive-oil-soaked croutons, when they're happy just to find a place to grab a bite and a stiff drink before or after a game? All other times, the joint is empty.

I'm just about trampled by rowdies snacking pre-concert for the Tony Bennett sing-along at Dodge Theatre just down the block. They're slamming back pizza -- oblivious of a way-too-sweet thick crust, bland tomato sauce and flat-flavored mozzarella studded with pepperoni, meatballs (crumbled beef) and sliced sausage. By neighboring tables' conversations, diners are more interested in making curtain time than in the fact they've paid $22.50 for a positively mediocre tiny cut of pan-roasted beef tenderloin (with the tepid flavor I find in my grocery store cuts), paired with shiitake mushrooms, a drizzle of sweet port wine and a ridiculous concoction called a "potato and bleu cheese ravioli" that is just a grilled hash spud wad.

The menu reads beautifully enough -- long and glamorous with dishes like portobello mushroom stuffed with seafood salad and avocado vinaigrette, grilled lemon garlic shrimp over saffron risotto, and beef carpaccio with shaved Parmesan, balsamic syrup and garlic crisps. Yet there are too many mistakes -- harshly over-herbed vegetable beef soup, cold linguini under an under-seasoned marinara sauce, and a spinach fettuccine that's nice with juicy tomato chunks, mushrooms and pancetta but would be so much better with chunk sausage than the sliced skin-on roll we get here. And has the kitchen ever heard of using salt?

I don't mind drinking at Privé -- the Cafe bar is fun, with glass walls slid open to the street, Euro music playing over the roar of street traffic and the periodic knell of church bells. And a few dishes show spark -- a terrific chicken parmigiana that's faulted only because there's so ridiculously little of it, and a marvelous salmon Provençal topped with an excellent, gutsy kalamata tapenade and tomato confit. An ahi appetizer is better than average, too, seared rare, rolled in black and white sesame seeds and paired with a dynamite tangy-hot chile garlic sauce. I could see a much shorter, more tightly controlled offering of eats being effective.

My Coyotes pal has grown bored over his chicken and broccoli ziti capped with a timid white wine cream sauce ($18.50!). He wanders away to explore what's the most impressive thing about Privé -- its setting within the old-fashioned, heavy chandelier-hung hotel. He comes back breathless and happy about 15 minutes later.

Has he seen Nazarov? No. He'd stumbled onto one of the floors undergoing renovation. He's fascinated by the ancient pipes, the crazy wiring system, the great clouds of dust generated by workers wielding sledgehammers. Who cares about the food, he says. This is totally cool.

What a guy.


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