Pinon Grill, Inn at Regal McCormick Ranch, 7401 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-5050. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
It's no surprise to discover that there are many good Cuban restaurants in Miami, many good Cajun restaurants in New Orleans and many good delis in New York. These restaurants draw from a large pool of hard-to-please locals, folks who know the difference between quality and mediocrity. And knowledgeable diners force restaurants to ratchet up their culinary levels.
When it comes to our native Southwestern fare, the Valley experience is very similar. We're hardly overrun with Southwestern restaurants, which tend to be pricey. But the ones we do have--Cafe Terra Cotta, Arizona Kitchen, Z'Tejas Grill, Windows on the Green, Vincent Guerithault on Camelback and Sam's Cafe come to mind--flourish because they dish out consistently first-rate regional cuisine.
Once upon a time, Pinon Grill did, too. Years ago, the kitchen copped a Best of Phoenix for the best Southwestern food in town. But over the next few years, management let standards slowly slide, letting the restaurant continue to live off its reputation. Inevitably, though, that slow slide turned into a free-fall descent. Earlier this year, I had a meal here so shamefully bad that I wondered how the perpetrators could look at themselves in the mirror.
I guess restaurants, like people, sometimes have to reach rock bottom before they can turn things around. Because over the past seven months, Pinon Grill has made an astonishing recovery.
I don't know if it was a 12-Step program. But I suspect that the crucial step was bringing back Farn Boggie, the chef who had manned the kitchen during the restaurant's award-winning days, and who left soon afterward. Like Hercules cleaning out the Augean stable, he has swiftly and heroically wiped away all traces of neglect. Let's hope he has a long-term contract.
After my woeful visit last April, if someone had told me that by November I'd be putting this place back in the top rank of Valley Southwestern restaurants, I'd have scheduled a sanity hearing. Well, you can put away the butterfly nets: I'm in my right mind. And I declare that Pinon Grill now serves marvelous Southwestern dishes that should please even the fussiest, most demanding local experts.
One thing hasn't changed over the years: the wonderful setting. Pinon Grill looks like a woodsy Southwestern lodge, swirling with regional colors. From the patio, you can gaze on swaying palms, a big lake and an army of marching ducks.
But you're going to be hard-pressed to take your eyes off your dinner. That's because just about everything here is both beautifully presented and rivetingly scrumptious.
If you're not careful, you may not even make it past the bowl of green chile corn bread. It's been fully restored to its former glory: moist, thick, crusty, with a real chile bite. Wash it down with Pinon Grill's sweet, potent prickly pear margarita, and you'll quickly learn both how the Southwest was won, and why it loosened its belt.
Appetizers furnish several clues to the kitchen's talents. The crunchy quesadilla stuffed with chicken and Oaxaca cheese gets perked up by a tangy mango-jicama salsa. Four grilled Guaymas shrimp, big and meaty, come crusted with spices and paired with a tart tomatillo salsa.
But it may be wiser (and more cost-effective) to take the edge off dinner with either the soup or salad that accompanies the entrees. Both the creamy, chile-spiked salmon chowder and the house salad zipped up by a blueberry vinaigrette are obviously more than the afterthoughts of a lazy kitchen.
The main dishes, however, are the true stars of Pinon Grill's show. They're simply bursting with flavors that don't quit from first bite to last.
Grilled ahi tuna should silence any skeptics. Yes, every restaurant in town serves grilled ahi tuna. But every restaurant in town doesn't fire it up with a dreamy red jalapeno basil sauce and cool it down with a refreshing melon salsa. And how many kitchens are creative enough to team their tuna with gnocchi?
Chicken is deftly handled. A ravishing pasilla chile-sesame sauce transforms chicken breast into edible poetry. Orzo and chayote squash, meanwhile, make worthy backdrops.
Pinon Grill also breathes life into salmon, an otherwise potential menu snoozer. It's bathed in a rich jalapeno-pesto cream studded with pine nuts, and paired with two huge, juicy sea scallops atop wilted spinach. The side of sun-dried tomato risotto suggests that the kitchen still has creative energy to spare.
That's apparent from the outstanding beef tenderloin, a carnivore's delight. This tender hunk of meat is adorned with a mild achiote sauce that generates real Southwestern flair. Shiitake mushrooms and an irresistible vegetable crisp fashioned from squash, peppers and chile complete the platter.
Desserts lean heavily toward chocolate, and you won't hear any complaints from me. Both the rich chocolate taco and intense chocolate pate gilded with pistachios and berries keep the meal pitched on a high note.
With its $7 to $10 appetizers, $20 entrees and $7 desserts, dinner can add up fast. But this kitchen is firing bullets, not blanks. At Pinon Grill, you can count on plenty of bang for your bucks.
Chimayo Grill, 1761 East Warner, Tempe, 777-9400. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Everyone knows the East Valley is growing. What the census figures don't show, however, is that gastronomically, the East Valley is also growing up.
Of course, it's impossible to escape the acres of fast-food parlors and chain restaurants that always accompany new development. But Citrus Cafe, one of the best French restaurants in the Valley, is part of the area's restaurant mix. Looking for Greek-Italian fare? Euro Cafe is another destination spot. So are C-Fu Gourmet and Yamakasa, two of the Valley's premier Asian restaurants.
And now there's Chimayo Grill, a new Southwestern restaurant hidden away in a Bashas' shopping center at the southwest corner of McClintock and Warner. For the first time, East Valley dwellers hungry for Southwestern fare have an alternative to driving to Scottsdale or shooting it themselves.
It's furnished with the usual Southwestern touches: metal kokopelli figures; framed prints of scenic wonders; waiters in bola ties. The most striking part of the room is the colorful, Hopi-inspired mural of a horse and moon on the front wall.
The food can be pretty striking as well, particularly the main dishes.
First, however, you have to get past the disappointing green chile corn bread. Alas, it's too dry and flavorless to be tempting, especially if memories of Pinon Grill's version are still strong.
Instead, check your wallet and see if you can afford to splurge on the $7 and $8 appetizers. Two cheese-stuffed empanadas, teamed with a tomatillo relish, are no bargain, but they're undeniably tasty. So is the Southwestern torte, one evening's starter special. It's a thick wedge fashioned from cheese, shrimp and mushrooms, served cold. Steamed clams are notable for the hot red chile broth they swim in. The heat really creeps up on you--about two minutes after you finish, you'll be dabbing sweat from your brow. And for the budget-challenged, the hearty sopa Azteca, brimming with chicken and potatoes in a fiery, chile-laden broth, is a cheaper but wholly satisfying way to edge into dinner.
The main dishes suggest that there's a higher intelligence guiding kitchen operations. Particularly outstanding is the whole pork tenderloin, marinated, grilled and sliced, then adorned with a zippy apple-red chile chutney that provides a pleasing foil for the mild pork. Lovers of animal protein should find the beef tenderloin equally appealing. It's a superb piece of meat, topped with creamy Mexican white cheese, all resting on a crisp tortilla lined with a tomatillo relish. Steer this dish to visiting, steak-loving Midwestern relatives, who want a taste of the Southwest, but who shy away from anything too wild or too hot.
Chimayo Grill knows what to do with poultry, too. Chicken Chimayo features an impressively moist grilled breast, stuffed with chorizo and laden with a papaya-habanero chile salsa that packs a genuine chile wallop.
For the most part, seafood is also skillfully prepared. Shrimp agave benefits from some wonderfully big, meaty crustaceans, the kind you need a knife and fork for. The Southwestern touch comes from being marinated in tequila, and being paired with zesty lime-and-green-chile rice that there should have been more of. A grilled swordfish special benefited from an apple, mango and habanero chile salsa.
Unfortunately, Baja bouillabaisse, one of the more expensive entrees, is also one of the least successful. The idea is sound: shrimp, mussels and hunks of fish, floating in what the menu calls "a silky seafood broth." But the execution is weak. I could scarcely find a trace of the Southwestern ingredients that should have enlivened this dish--no chile, no onions, no lime, no cilantro. The result is a dull, $20 mound of seafood in a dull, watery broth.
Chimayo Grill's homemade desserts show it's serious about becoming an East Valley restaurant force. A very rich triple chocolate torte should satisfy two or three sweet tooths. A wedge of espresso flan in caramel sauce is a lighter alternative. A tasty white-wine mousse cake will also send diners home with a smile.
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Is the East Valley ready for a Southwestern restaurant, housed in a shopping-center storefront, that figures to cost a dining couple $60 or more? Chimayo Grill's proprietors are clearly counting on it, although many tables were dismayingly empty on my visits. Here's hoping their instincts are right.
Chicken and cheese quesadilla
Chicken in pasilla chile sauce
Triple chocolate torte