My personal mantra in all things culinary and cultural mimics that wry, clock-wearing philosopher of yore, Public Enemy's Flava Flav, who was fond of advising listeners, "Don't believe the hype!" That ageless, pithy axiom can apply equally to Jay-Z's announced intention to resign from rap (not again!), as well as to anyone who tells you Donald Trump is a financial wizard (if you start out with a daddy as rich as Crassus, financial wizardry ain't exactly rocket science, bub).
This premise bears also on the cosmos of dining, where fawning boosterism is often the order of the day, so much so that whenever the title of "celebrity chef" is trotted out, my built-in bullshit detector clicks on and I start sharpening the long knives.
After all, are there any other types of chefs these days? Seems as if behind every bar menu in this town there's some bozo in a white shirt and cap getting ready for his or her close-up on the Food Network.
Such was my state of mind when I assembled a posse to ride on Robert McGrath's famed Roaring Fork restaurant in Scottsdale. I confess I was eager to jab my perfumed ice pick to the kidneys of this six-and-a-half-year-old Southwestern eatery, which has a name that sounds like the opening act at a reggae festival. (It's really a river in Colorado.) Along for the free grub they get when I'm paying with the company credit card were vodka addict Mikey and his date Jenny-from-the-Block, the esteemed Judge Jeffrey and his sultry lap-warmer Brenda, and, of course, Madame X, my own ravishing raison d'etre.
"You know, Stevie," said my pinko jurist pal as we sauntered through RF's front door, "I doubt you'll find a lot of fans of the New Times amongst this right-wing crowd."
Indeed, the interior of the establishment has that sort of moneyed cowboy decor, which would appeal to the late senator Barry Goldwater were he still with us. Lamps festooned with rusted barbed wire and chandeliers fashioned from elk horns hover above polished floors of dark Brazilian wood. Wrought-iron lasso sculptures sit on some of the tables, and affixed on the walls are taxidermied trout McGrath has caught on his many fly-fishing expeditions. Additionally, the bleached skull of an American bison sits above the long, burnished bar.
As to the political affiliation of the guests, I cannot say if Judge Jeffrey is absolutely correct, though I did hear one table of Republicans next to us talking about how they intended to "screw" Governor Napolitano over the prison standoff. Still, that's only one table, and my leather-bound, blues-lovin' magistrate tends to be just left of V.I. Lenin or Teddy Kennedy, take your pick. So his political antennae may be slightly skewed.
In any case, once we were seated, it was time for drinks, and the ever-anal Mikey put in his order for a Grey Goose Gibson from our waitress, while I selected a bottle of Dashe Cellars Sangiovese 2000, a Sonoma red created by this wine geek couple in Northern Cali. I was quite impressed with RF's wine list, as it offers a range of vino by the glass better than some so-called "wine bars" in this burg. The Dashe Sangiovese was nice and tart, with enough sophistication to make me go for a second bottle. During a subsequent visit, I enjoyed a glass of Tractor Shed Red, a Napa table wine that, despite its unpretentious title, even an oenologist could adore.
Essentially, our repast lived up to every positive tale I'd ever heard about McGrath & Co. Crimey, in the case of Roaring Fork, not only can you believe the hype, you could take out a home loan using RF's reputation as collateral.
Southwestern comfort food of the highest order is prepared here with inventiveness, élan, and all the care used in great French cuisine -- Frenchie fare being hautest of haute cuisine. And why the hell not? When the Frogs eat their comfort food (consider cassoulet or coq au vin), it's taken seriously as part of the grand tradition of French cooking. McGrath's genius is to do the same with the provincial dishes of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. He may not be the only chef doing this, but the results of his labors seem far more successful by comparison.
Of the appetizers we tried, the two our table devoured with the greatest relish were the New Mexico fondue pot and McGrath's ever-popular oven-baked kettle of green chile pork stew. We had our excellent waitress Terry bring us double portions of each, and let me tell you those starters disappeared tout de suite.
The fondue offered small lamb chops, butternut squash slices, and pistachio bread morsels. Of course, it was those tender lamb chops we all reached for first, dipping them into a mix of white wine and pepper jack cheese. We inhaled them until the bones were clean, the fondue juice slowly dribbling down our chins.
The small, squat cast-iron pots of green chile pork with flour tortillas were also wunderbar. Ah, how I savored that thick, meaty stew with its New Mexico chiles, its poblano, its jack cheese and its generous use of butter! I greedily noshed on our other appetizer of sautéed shrimp, tomatoes and ham over black bean cakes, but it couldn't match the green chile pork or the fondue as far as pure stomach satisfaction is concerned.
When it came time for main courses, the exquisite Madame X chose grilled ahi tuna, and J.Lo's twin -- she of the trés tight jeans -- went for the pan-grilled rainbow trout. Fish is fine if you're Aquaman (or Aquawoman, if there's a piscatory heroine), but I'd rather fill Dr. Atkins' britches, no matter how big they were toward the end.
Judge Jeffrey and Brenda were in complete agreement, so we three got meat of one kind or another: Jeffrey copped a pork porterhouse with red bell pepper ketchup; Brenda went for the beef tenderloin with a whiskey glaze; and I opted for the oddest item on the menu, beef short ribs prepared with Dr Pepper, of all things! Mikey? Well, as Mikey always has to be the rebel, he garnered a platter of sugar and chile-cured duck.
The only item that disappointed me was the one I selected. Seems the Waco sarsaparilla is used to tenderize the meat, but I found my ribs, well, somewhat gristly, though the cheese grits underneath them were outstanding, as were the mushrooms served alongside. To be honest, knowing that Dr Pepper was used, I was anticipating at least a hint of that soda's unique taste in the flesh, but there was none. Silly me, I know, but why even mention it if you're not going to be able to discern the special tang of that Texas ambrosia?
It was Brenda's steak I envied more than any other item, especially its Merlot-bourbon-Kahlúa glace de viande, a glaze so exquisite it could entice me to relinquish my Mary Kate and Ashley wall calendar for a bite. The crisp haricots verts that came with them also won my admiration despite the sauce, some mushroom-béchamel thing I could've done without.
We sampled several desserts, but as a former son of the South, I can recommend none more highly than the toffee chocolate pecan pie topped with a scoop of butter pecan ice cream and pecan Anglaise sauce. It even beats the version made by my 83-year-old grandmother in N.C. Now there's some hype you can buy, which doesn't mean Flava Flav was wrong, necessarily, as it's the exception, I believe, which proves the rule.
A quick note about my recent fish and chips survey, on which we've received gobs of mail. Of course, everyone at Pete's now hates my innards nearly as much as I despise Sex and the City. That I can live with, but I've recently received a letter of complaint from the owners of my favorite English pub, the George and Dragon, whose fish and chips I rated second only to Rosie McCaffrey's!
Seems they didn't dig the reference to all great English pubs -- theirs included -- smelling like stale ciggies, spilt beer and urine. This, I can testify, from having lived, loved and imbibed heavily in England, is true.
But on the particular night I visited G&D, maybe I'd peed my pants from having one pint too many and that was what I was whiffing. By Prince Charles' kneepads, it wouldn't be the first time, people. So perhaps G&D only smells proper when I'm there, piss-britches and all.
Finally, one or two readers have written in asserting that the practice of serving fish and chips in newspaper is kaput in England. Sure, the ganja I was smokin' on my last visit was good, but not that good. So I called manager Mark Prescott at the Mulberry Tree restaurant in Lancashire, whose shop serves them wrapped in the Financial Times. "There's no law," Prescott says. "Most places just don't like doing it." But as Mulberry Tree proves, some still do.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.