I'm at a sushi bar the other day, waiting for the chef to finish up some toro nigiri for me, when I decide to pay the raw-fish maestro a compliment. I praise the swank new restaurant he works in, and comment that the sushi has improved since it first opened. "It's pretty good now," I opine.
"Yeah, pretty good," he snarls sarcastically. "Pretty good for Phoenix!"
I chuckled because this fella really does work in one of the better spots in town, and because his is the sort of stylish eatery that could make it in Los Angeles or New York. The guy meant it ironically, but it did get me to thinking about the grade-inflation we practice in the Valley when assessing restaurants. One of my fellow food critics, for instance, doles out handfuls of four-star reviews like he has an option on a galaxy. Nothing wrong with encouraging folks. But just because someone digs a hole in his or her backyard doesn't mean it's the Holland Tunnel.
My Florist Cafe
530 West McDowell Road
Cafe panini: $9.25
Caprese salad: $9.50
Willo chips and salsa: $5.75
Pastries: $6 each
602-254-0333. web link.
Hours: 7 a.m. to midnight daily.
Though I'm always on guard against a creeping bout of lower standards, I'm not entirely immune. If an Indian restaurant with a half-decent vindaloo moved next door to where I live or work, I'd be kicking my heels together like a leprechaun on meth. This may be part of the reason My Florist Cafe draws a maddening crowd of ladies who lunch for the midday meal, with a valet jamming as many Beamers as possible into that dinky little lot.
Partly, this rush can be attributed to the still-dismal déjeuner options in the area. As recently as 2003, a New Times scribbler awarded My Florist "Best Downtown Lunch," a pretty sad state of affairs considering the poor quality of the vittles. Indeed, my assessment of this pinkie-cocked soup-and-sammy shop hasn't changed since my arrival in Phoenix nearly two years ago: nice looking, and the pianist in the evenings is cool, but the comestibles are on the level of Coco's. Actually, Coco's may have the edge, because most of what My Florist serves is just a matter of slapping two pieces of Willo bread together with something in the middle. At least Coco's does hot plates.
A quick point about that Willo bread before I continue: Has anyone ever noticed that it's simply not that good? Few are the slices of Willo bread I've encountered that did not want to take one of my incisors with them. Tough and chewy is the way I like my jerky, not my bread. Willo, which is also owned by My Florist's David Lacy, could argue that prolonged mastication is great exercise, but I'll stick to saltwater taffy, thank you very much.
Normally, I wouldn't waste a bullet on a place like My Florist, but lately every time I turn around, its devotees are begging me to write about how horrible the food is there. These are people who sup there regularly because they like the atmosphere and the way Nicole Pesce tickles the ivories. Pesce is incredibly talented, and listening to her knock out everything from Rimsky-Korsakov and Chopin to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, I concede that all her plaudits are deserved. But a piano makes a bar, it doesn't make a restaurant.
One My Florist fanatic in particular that I know adores its San Fran-like ambiance so much that he's almost willing to brown bag a meal, as long as he doesn't have to chew My Florist's chow. I have sympathy. It is an attractive restaurant, with a long steel bar, simple black tables, teak chairs, and servers smartly dressed in long-sleeved blue shirts with tucked-in black ties. You even get the big-city attitude from the waiters. On recent excursions, one of mine, who bore a striking resemblance to Chris Kattan, punctuated each trip to my table with a perfunctory "Fabulous," or "Excellent."
Nothing fabulous about anything on the menu, alas. The soups du jour should be renamed soups du jejune. One day it was chicken tortilla, and fresh from the can would've been better. Never have so many ingredients gone together to create something so bereft of flavor. Another day, it was "harvest portobello," but tasted like the same stock. Only thing inspired about it was the name, considering that this brownish farrago used portobello flakes. Both were accompanied by Willo bread, which sat on the bottom of my stomach like a hunk of lead. Now, whenever anyone mentions Willo bread, I instinctively reach for my Rolaids.
The most repugnant item My Florist peddles is an appetizer, the "Willo chips and salsa." The "chips" are actually crostini topped with jalapeño jack cheese, and these are somewhat edible, but what really grosses me out is what My Florist does with the avocado. MF peels half an avocado, slices up the flesh, then uses the hollowed-out skin as a little bowl to contain a small dollop of "salsa," which looked and tasted like stewed tomatoes with hot sauce. It's the avocado skin that makes me want to hurl. Where I'm from, we refer to stuff like that peel as garbage.
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You know how sliced ham or cheese begins to appear if you leave it out of the refrigerator for too long? That's what the ham, Swiss and Cheddar on my chef's salad had begun to resemble. It hadn't gone bad, yet. It just wasn't very fresh. Neither were the sliced tomatoes in the Caprese salad, but I'll let this slide since the Caprese at least failed to nauseate me.
And the sandwiches, which comprise half the bill of fare? There's nothing here you can't do better at home. PBJ? Puh-lease. If I'd done it, it would've been without Willo bread, and thus 20 times better from jump. With the Reuben, the sauerkraut was dry, and the pastrami unusually resistant to the battery acid in my stomach. The "cafe panini" could make an Italian suicidal: a couple of slices of ordinary salami, provolone, and caramelized red onion with a little grain mustard. No, it was not pressed. That would've required too much effort, I reckon.
My Florist's pastries, like the carrot cake and the Napoleon I tried, were stale, and the Napoleon in particular, cardboardlike. Breakfasts bite, too, but I don't have time to get into them here. Suffice it to say I'm hereby abolishing grade-inflation on the Phoenix campus. My Florist's food grade is now a D-. Class dismissed.