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HYPE AND GLORY

ACG (Arizona Cafe and Grill), 3113 East Lincoln, Phoenix, 957-0777. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Over the past couple of months, the Valley's restaurant buzz has been swirling around two new, flashy, instantly trendy spots. Both ACG and Tarbell's have been immediate hits. But it's not unreasonable to wonder about the sophistication of a city whose citizens make Planet Hollywood the highest-grossing local restaurant and who wait two hours to get into Macaroni Grill. Obviously, popularity is no measure of quality. So before I risked picking up a fork at ACG and Tarbell's, I took an extra dose of my antihype medication. ACG sprang from the imagination and bank account of chef Christopher Gross and his partners. Already the successful owners of two of this town's finest restaurants, the gourmet Christopher's and the sophisticated Christopher's Bistro, these entrepreneurs are aiming to carve out another dining niche. Their new venture is a high-volume, quick-turnover, moderately priced, Western-themed grill, relying on a carefully crafted menu featuring big portions of standard American favorites.

Their business logic is impeccable. Christopher's has a lock on the expense-account, luxury-end foie gras diner. Christopher's Bistro draws in the free-spending, upper-end blanquette de veau clientele. ACG, they hope, will lure the limited-budget, mass-end salad, pizza, chicken, fish and meat crowd. MBAs will recognize the General Motors cover-the-market philosophy, applied in this case to food instead of cars. With ACG in the lineup, Christopher's team can offer something for every taste and pocketbook, the restaurant equivalents of Cadillac, Buick and Chevrolet. Happily, the food and setting at ACG are just about as finely honed as the business instincts behind them.

About the only Western-themed touch the proprietors missed here was hiring Jack Palance as maitre d'. Cow skulls and ponchos line the walls. The lamps sport rawhide shades. Over the windows hang coils of barbed wire held up with iron brands. The holders for the salt and pepper shakers are made from horseshoes. At the far end of the room, silent Western movies flicker on a big screen. A strolling, guitar-plucking singing cowboy makes the rounds, serenading customers with campfire favorites like "Rhinestone Cowboy." And looming in billowing folds above the room is a huge Arizona flag fashioned from metal mesh.

If this sounds more westful than restful, you can retreat to a patio with a sweeping view of Valley lights. No matter where you sit, though, you'll be getting some high-value, good-tasting eats. You might be tempted to begin munching right away on crunchy tortillas served with two kinds of salsa. Don't. The tortillas, our waitress proudly noted, are baked, not fried. Fewer calories, less taste is a formula I'm not interested in when I go out to eat. Anyway, there's no need to fill up. You get oversize portions of just about every dish here, at prices that make me suspect Christopher's accountant was out of town when the menu was printed. Take the luscious soups. The white bean soup tinged with cilantro pesto comes in a bowl practically big enough to bathe in. It's packed with beans in a light tomato broth. Rich yellow pepper soup is even better, subtly flavored and gilded with sour cream. There are only three other starters on the limited menu. Brochettes of duck brought six skewers of smoked duck breast, surrounded by some hot sauce and a dribble of blue cheese. It's an effective blend of tastes, about as wild as the kitchen gets. The escargots drenched in cilantro garlic butter are meaty specimens, but you'll have to make a special request to get some bread to soak up the liquid. Truly unadventurous diners will be happy with the shrimp cocktail, composed of five huge prawns. Only a sense of professional duty could induce me to order a salad for dinner. But if that's your natural inclination, ACG's grilled chicken salad should make you happy. A lovely mix of fresh greens and a zestily marinated breast of grilled chicken make a thoroughly reliable combination. The pizza is exceptional. The grilled vegetable model featured a marvelously chewy, wood-fired crust and mouth-watering toppings: eggplant, squash, peppers, along with a puddle of goat cheese. At $6.95, the combination of taste and value is irresistible.

One of the menu's most consumer-friendly touches is the two-priced entree. Chicken, ribs, T-bone steak, filet mignon and prime rib all come in two sizes. So, for example, he-man appetites can order a 14-ounce prime rib for $14.95, while daintier folks can put out hunger pangs with the $11.95, eight-ounce model. In either case, they're going to get outstanding prime rib, beefy, juicy and tender without being mushy. Filet mignon is also first-rate. But, take my word for it, the five-ounce version doesn't go very far. Christopher's restaurants have always shown a flair with fish, and that knack is evident here. A slab of ahi tuna arrived skillfully prepared, bathed in an understated, lip-smacking red pepper sauce. And while chicken, like salad, is usually among the least compelling restaurant entrees, the bird here, roasted over a wood fire and moistened with a salty brown gravy, could reset my priorities.

 

Christopher also knows that in the restaurant business, God is in the details. So the side dishes aren't merely afterthoughts. The fries are a crispy mix of regular spuds and yams. Mashed potatoes are better than Mom's. Sizzling, thin-sliced au gratin potatoes, coated with a bubbling layer of cheese and cream, are good enough to be an entree. And carrots sprinkled with cumin make eating your vegetables a pleasure, not a chore. Oddly enough, desserts are the least exciting part of the meal. You'd think one of this town's most creative chefs would come up with sweets worth panting over. But with one exception, the ones here don't even get you breathing hard. The exception is the cajeta crepe, a thin pancake resting in a puddle of butterscotchlike sauce, surrounded by colorful, fresh berries and kiwi. But the upside down apple tart, sweetened apples with an awful cracker-type wafer, isn't up to standard. Neither is the Mexican mousse cake, which combined only the faintest chocolate tinge with an unpleasant texture. Even the H„agen-Dazs ice cream came to the table half-melted. Okay, so ACG isn't completely perfect. But for a hungry, budget-conscious couple armed with $25 and simple tastes, ACG comes about as close as they can get. Tarbell's, 3213 East Camelback, Phoenix, 955-8100. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Tarbell's is named for its proprietor, Mark Tarbell, a young man with extensive industry experience who most recently directed food and beverage operations at the gorgeous Boulders resort.

He's created a snazzily minimalist-looking place, highlighted by a sweeping crescent bar fronting an open kitchen. Curved copper railings mark off mirror-image dining areas on either side. Elegant vases of colorful flowers and low-key postimpressionist-style paintings provide understated adornment. The overhead lighting is romantically low, and focused directly on the table, where it should be.

There's a certain hubris at work here. After only a few months, Tarbell's already styles itself "a great American restaurant." It certainly prices itself like one. But although some of the signs are propitious, it's not yet there. Check out, for example, one evening's special, the cream of Portobello mushroom soup. It's a potentially exciting starter. I'd love to try it again sometime, when the chef hasn't emptied the salt shaker in it. The other appetizers, however, indicate some genuine kitchen talent. The plate of smoked rock shrimp ringed with plum tomato relish is a real joy, full of heady, vibrant flavors. The cornmeal-dusted soft shell crab, crisped in an oak-burning oven, sports an appealing combination of taste and texture. And a garlicky yellow tomato and basil pesto offers an imaginative backdrop for the subtle woodsy character of oyster mushrooms.

But the main dishes don't follow through on the appetizers' promise. In the abstract, the roasted Portobello mushroom with grilled polenta and curly endive sounds like a great vegetarian option. Reality proved otherwise. Problem number one: Just because you're a vegetarian doesn't mean you can't be hungry. This dish was barely substantial enough to classify as a snack. Problem two: 15 bucks. Even the proprietor must have had second thoughts. On a subsequent visit, it was priced at a still-hefty $13.95. Problem three: A too-tart marinade derailed the mushroom's earthy flavor. A pizza special also fell flat. There's a fine line between inspiration and madness, and this pizza leaped over it. Not even the good crust could save a pizza topped with a bizarre assortment of green beans, asparagus, roasted corn, red pepper, blue cheese and off-putting slices of undercooked potato. Back to the drawing board. A beefy New York steak, served with thin pommes frites and spinach, furnishes hearty, uncomplicated pleasure. But at $21, it's almost in Ruth's Chris pricing territory. If you have your heart set on a steak, why come here? And although the smallish salmon fillet, brushed with a delicate barbecue glaze, makes for a satisfactory one-night stand, it's not the sort of dish that launches you into a long-term relationship. I just can't imagine diners rushing home to tell friends about any of these main dishes. I can imagine them stopping strangers on the street to rave about the chocolate mousse, the single best item on Tarbell's menu. This is how chocolate mousse should taste: rich, velvety, intense. What a treat. The other desserts, though, don't match it. Cheesecake is simply too sweet--I couldn't get through the sugar to the cheese. Cräme br–l‚e is a bit thin, and the chocolate bread pudding would be better off moistened with whiskey sauce, not cräme fraŒche.

 

Tarbell's competition isn't ACG. It's places like RoxSand, Eddie's Grill, Rancho Pinot Grill, Marco Polo Cafe and Christopher's Bistro. At the moment, despite the crowds of beautiful people, it still has some catching up to do.

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Tarbell's

3213 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018

602-955-8100

www.tarbells.com


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