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Grate Expectations

Grilled Expedition offers an alternative to eating at ubiquitous restaurant chains.
Erik Guzowski

A person could have starved to death living at Scottsdale's Desert Ridge since it opened in 1995. Sure, developers built gajillions of gorgeous homes in the upscale master-planned community, but nary a decent restaurant. It only took seven years for a good place to move in. In December, Desert Ridge Marketplace mall finally opened, bringing with it Grilled Expedition.

Grilled Expedition isn't great. It's got too many inconsistencies, and feels too much like a chain. Yet in this enclave starved for interesting, convenient dining options, it's an oasis.

The competition is bleak, after all. Other Marketplace offerings are the same as any mall around town: chains like California Pizza Kitchen, Mimi's Cafe, Bahama Breeze, Rock Bottom Brewery, On the Border, Macaroni Grill, Texas Land & Cattle, Fat Tuesday, TGI Friday's, Jillian's, and Islands Fine Burgers. Yawn. A few choices are a bit better, including expansions of other successful Valley independents -- Salute Italian, Malee's Thai and Sushi Restaurant (opening later this month), and Eddie Matney's casual shop, World Noodles.

Despite its corporate feel, Grilled Expedition is an independent (for how long, though, I don't know -- investors are being courted). It's obvious someone cares -- owners Jim Nagy and Chris Dushinski are visible, both working at the restaurant full-time. Ingredients used are much higher quality than typical mall-based chains, while prices remain in line with the masses. Servers know the menu, and have pulses.

Grilled Expedition's theme, as the restaurant's slogan shouts, is wood-fired adventure, meaning an emphasis on meats, chicken and fish flamed over roaring logs of oak and mesquite. The menu successes, appropriately enough, are these same dishes. Kudos to the kitchen for keeping a firm hand on the firing process -- often wood-flaming means dishes that taste of bark, but not so here.

After one meal, it's easy to predict what subsequent adventures will entail. If a particular sauce shows up draped on one dish, it'll be on several. If there's an opportunity to send out an exotic-sounding accompaniment, it'll be taken, though any authenticity will be in the name rather than the taste. And portions will be so massive that it stuns the senses.

The business screams big bucks, from the lavish exterior of stone walls, expansive glass doors and towering bins of logs. The interior is impressive, too, in a Houston's kind of way, with cherry wood tables and chairs, stone floors, walls and booth fabrics in earthy tones of olive, rust, tan and black, plus light wood paneling, all warmly lighted by high-tech pin lights. Visual spark is limited to a partial exposition kitchen, tin-framed prints of woodpiles, and a crackling wood-burning oven in the foyer. Soaring ceilings laced with crisscrossed fabric accents between wood rafters help absorb the noise. The effect is nice and clubby, though we've seen this look everywhere. The bar is the most unique feature, wrapping around a patio perfect for people-watching, with a pass-through wall that makes the bar open-air in good weather.

Service is friendly, if sometimes inept. We're barely seated before an eager young waiter presents us with shrimp on a stick, asking if we've ever ordered the grilled crustaceans with green curry rub and mango lime chile sauce before. No, they're not ours, we tell him, we haven't even placed our drink order yet, so he whisks them away, wandering among rows of booths to find them a home. On the same evening, we drum our heels for 20 minutes, wondering where the rest of our party is, only to finally walk through the restaurant and discover them seated at another table. They were on time, so were we, but the hostess didn't make note on the reservation pad that we had been seated first.

This place could better be called Grilled Expectations, sending out just a few funky dishes on a solid foundation of mainstream plates. Argentinean street tacos, pork tenderloin fancied up with pepper crust and black cherry sauce, and the Little Big Wedge dessert (frozen caramel peanut butter cake with a toffee bar on the side) show some imagination; the bulk is simply a step up from Outback Steakhouse.

There's the ubiquitous skewered appetizer nibbles, such as Thai chicken stix, served with an excellent, pepper-hot creamy peanut sauce; or the fire stix, six strips of slightly sweet and admirably tender marinated beef to be sludged through a pool of respectably potent hot pepper glaze.

A grilled quesadilla stuffed with marinated vegetables is too routine to rate notice, but street tacos are standouts, bringing four pudgy rolls of herbed tortilla gorged with soft and pliable, moist and salty pork; crumbly goat cheese; peppers; and a sweet-spicy salsa.

House salad holds no appeal, overpriced at four bucks for iceberg, red cabbage, a thimbleful of field greens, cucumber, tomato wedge and my choice of ranch dressing, an unimpressive sweet-vinegary lotion. One evening's feature soup of Hungarian goulash sounds interesting, but the resulting peppery tomato concoction is barely more than goosed-up American stew, plunked with chunks of good beef, green chile and red pepper.

My appetizer money goes to the flatbreads, compact pizzas elevated by a wonderful, puffy-crispy-chewy crust that manages to remain delightfully moist. Toppings of fresh mozzarella, tomato and fontina are all that's needed for a warm, wonderful mouthful, but blankets of apple-smoked chicken sausage, or shrimp, basil pesto and oven-dried tomatoes, make the pie ample enough for an individual lunch.

An entree of chophouse salad deserves the widest berth possible. What's described as crisp greens, chopped egg, tender chicken and croutons for $9 is actually a soup plate dumped with iceberg lettuce, red cabbage, one sliced egg, three tomato wedges, boxed croutons, a tablespoon of grated cheese and three anorexic satays of meat assaulted by an unexpected thick, sweet glaze.

Stone-oven-baked sandwiches are equally unpredictable, partnered with always terrific salted-and-peppered skinny fries. Thai chicken is everything it promises, mounding shredded breast, skinny vermicelli, red bell peppers, sprouts, and superb sugar-and-fire peanut sauce on a fluffy, lightly grilled pita. An open-face meat loaf is done Southwestern style with chopped onion, yellow bell pepper, corn, red pepper, and green chile. A topping of broiled provolone isn't necessary, but it's nice, while a grainy mustard spread adds a fun kick. Yet the thick white roll propping it up is completely bland, and an unadvertised extra of fruity barbecue sauce just gets in the way, creating an overly sweet, sticky finale.

Main plates cling comfortably to the tried-and-true, with a timid nod to elegance in selections like halibut, traveling uptown with a wood-fired cedar-planked preparation over a bed of sautéed spinach and portabello. Pasta with vegetables gets a touch of class from grilled portabello and a coat of light cream sauce accented with lemon and minced herbs. And while jambalaya won't fool any Cajuns with its over-pasta presentation, the sweet peppers, sausage, chicken and shrimp are competently cooked and pleasingly spicy.

Grilled Expedition does best when focusing on its gimmick, those dishes sizzled over spitting flames. Blackened Angus rib eye is big and beefy, while oak-grilled sirloin maintains enough marbling to keep the slightly chewy cut flavorful. It's not Ruth's Chris, but it's also priced at a more affordable $19, including a generous mound of home-style, lick-the-fork red-skinned mashed potatoes, and a side of vegetables that, if not dramatic, adds some color to the plate (grilled sweet potato, zucchini, red bell pepper).

There's good quality in the baby back ribs, too, the monster rack meaty and moist. A glaze is advertised as black coffee barbecue sauce -- there's no discernible coffee flavor and it tastes the same as the sauces on the chicken satay and meat loaf, but it's fine enough.

I'd prefer that the menu tell me that a hoisin barbecue sauce will be on the roasted chicken, which is listed simply as fire-roasted. Still, there's no questioning that the gargantuan, two-pound half-bird has been lovingly handled, emerging crisp-skinned and juicy alongside truckloads of fries and coleslaw tossed with that terrific peanut sauce.

Perhaps the chef has a secret passion for fish, for this is where the kitchen brings real Grilled Excitement. Oak-grilled salmon arrives in proud spirits, the thick, gloriously fatty fish finished with a subtle butter basil sauce. Ahi is flat-out fabulous, the portion served in a diminutive form, but understandably so for its perfection. I absolutely adore the skillfully seared-but-rare slab, dabbed with pale mint-colored wasabi cream and dots of corn-mango relish, and partnered with two Thai potato cakes that, while lacking distinctive Asian spicing, do have a crisp, greaseless character.

It's no surprise that the Grilled Expedition adventure ends with shameless calorie overloads. For desserts, even the chains do better. Mocha fudge cake is a tasteless chocolate creation topped with coffee-flavored ice cream, while stone-oven apple bake has been overcooked to a limp, tough crust of withered apples under vanilla ice cream.

The Grilled Expedition adventure requires some navigating to get to the good stuff -- the flatbreads, the steaks, the fish. For the time being, it's the best restaurant option in Desert Ridge Marketplace. But competition undoubtedly will be moving in soon. This grill had better get all its elements going in time to meet the great expectations of its customers.

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Grilled Expedition

21001 N. Tatum Blvd.
Phoenix, AZ 85050-4206

480-419-7577

www.grilledexpedition.com


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