Leave It to Bistro

Convivo, 7000 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 997-7676. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

Some restaurants make me want to throw in my napkin and look for another line of work.

No, it's not the lousy places that inspire fantasies of a career change. Bad restaurants actually stir up my blood. They fill me with righteous indignation, and the same kind of I'll-get-them prosecutorial zeal that riled Kenneth Starr. When I eat awful, overpriced food, I don't want to lay down my fork and knife: I want to put on my cape, expose the wrongdoers and bring the perpetrators to justice.

It's the really wonderful restaurants that depress me. That's because in the love-'em-and-leave-'em world of reviewing, I know that after a magical dining-out fling, I'll be forced to move on. Imagine, for a moment, that Clint Eastwood had fallen in love with a restaurant, and not Meryl Streep, in Madison County. Now you can appreciate the poignancy of my situation. You could call my story The Restaurants of Maricopa County.

It's a heartbreaking tale. In my case, the Cheers theme song mocks me with cruel irony: If I'm doing my job right, nobody knows my name. I can't become a regular anywhere. I wander from restaurant to restaurant, a man with 52 first dates every year. And on those few occasions when I do find a place I'd like to settle down with, I'm unable to sustain the relationship and make a lasting commitment.

These morose musings struck me with particular force after three captivating evenings at Convivo, a terrific new restaurant with a vaguely Italian name and contemporary seasonal American fare. I could feel the chemistry, the connection between us: This is the kind of spot, I thought, a critic could happily spend his own money in.

Convivo and I, though, have no future. No matter how much I'm attracted to it, I always have to eat elsewhere. So I won't call. I won't be stopping in anytime soon. All I'll have is memories. But if you're smart, you won't wait until the end of this review to make a reservation and start creating memories of your own.

Initially, the thought of coming here filled me with dread. That's because I knew I'd be recognized by the wife part of Convivo's husband-and-wife team. (She used to work at Sportsman's, where I was a customer before I became New Times' restaurant reviewer.) I keep the kind of low profile that Mafia informants in the Witness Protection Program aspire to. While I'm not worried about getting whacked, I am concerned about preserving my anonymity, because my credibility depends on it. And for more than seven years, I've done everything I could to stay off restaurants' radar screens.

I know what can happen when restaurants learn a reviewer is in the house. (See this week's Second Helpings on page 93 to find out what kind of treatment a local critic got after she was spotted.) So, did my table get an extra measure of attention? No doubt Convivo's proprietors were tempted--they'd be candidates for sainthood if they weren't. But even if it tries to impress a critic who shows up unannounced, no restaurant can conjure up at will a grown-up setting, quality ingredients, an imaginative menu that changes weekly, a well-thought-out wine list and reasonable prices. This place has so much going for it that any special handling we may have received was probably unnecessary.

If Convivo did try to go out of its way to impress me, it initially chose an odd way to go about it. On our first visit, we were seated in the front left corner of the room. In that spot, the chemical fumes seeping in from the next-door beauty salon were so overpowering we had to change tables. (The problem was apparently fixed, since on subsequent visits the odor was gone.)

The place is small and sparely furnished. Set in a shopping strip storefront, Convivo, like too many local restaurants, looks out into a parking lot. ("The bustling urban scene," said our server with an ironic smile, as headlights flooded the room.) Four soothing abstract paintings line one wall, while copper pans hang from another. You can watch the occasional spurt of flame shoot from the open kitchen, which fills the back corner of the room. The tables are set with heavy linen and fresh flowers in a vase. Unobtrusive light jazz provides aural background.

The human decor is more striking. Convivo isn't "hot" in the traditional restaurant sense. It certainly isn't attracting the good-time trendoids--you won't see any guys here with ponytails and cell phones, or their fashionably dressed girlfriends. But after just a few months, it's already drawing a crowd of grown-ups, sophisticated diners savvy enough to recognize a restaurant jewel when they see it.

What's luring them? The wonderful, chewy French bread, served with a cruet of first-quality olive oil and a little bowl of addictive Italian olives, makes a very strong first impression. The appetizers make an even stronger one. The chef, Mark Bloom, spent several years running the kitchen at Tarbell's before launching his own enterprise. He's clearly done some thinking.

Take the rock shrimp and wild rice cake. It's not a cake, really, since nothing binds the ingredients. But I can't get too worked up over the nomenclature when the results are this luscious. Rock shrimp, which swim off the Florida coast, are one of nature's joys, with a sweet flavor and firm, crawfish-like texture. (On my last Florida trip, I went to a seafood restaurant and ate four dozen.) Bloom teams several specimens with wild rice, a crunchy slaw of apple, jicama and carrot, and a robust horseradish cream sauce. The combination of flavors smacks you right in the snout.

A chafing dish, dreamily layered with asparagus, organic leeks, ham and French comte, one of the world's great cheeses that's especially good melted, is beguiling. The assortment of grilled veggies, meanwhile, shows off the kitchen's commitment to quality. The carrots, leeks, beets, turnips, mushrooms and roasted peppers will remind you of what vegetables used to taste like before they were bred for shelf life. The platter's other components--a garlicky homemade hummus, wheatberry salad and mozzarella--furnish additional gilding.

I ordered the mozzarella with tomato to see what kind of tomato I'd get in February. Convivo passed the test--this juicy beauty could have made me believe the calendar said July. The chef showed imagination, too, by forgoing the usual basil garnish. Instead, he devised a perky olive relish, and tossed on some fabulous greens that tasted as if they were just pulled out of the earth.

The one less-than-stellar starter? That would be the mussels. There are certainly enough of them, at least 18. But the tomato-saffron broth they floated in was too subtle for my taste. These bivalves need more punch.

The main dishes are as tempting as the appetizers. Your group's meat-and-potatoes guy will enjoy the knockout grilled flank steak, infused with a snappy lime and soy sauce marinade, and teamed with hashed Yukon Gold potatoes and wild mushrooms. Exceptional braised short ribs, meaty and tender, coated with a rich, tart/sweet tomato sauce show how an accomplished chef can turn a homey, old-fashioned dish into something vigorous and compelling. Wine-braised lamb shank is on every menu in town, and this model compares with any of them. But you won't find niftier sides--French lentils goosed up with mustard, butternut squash, and griddled polenta--anywhere else. Compared to the beef and lamb, the grilled pork chop seems sort of ordinary. But there's nothing ordinary about the outstanding side of sauteed cauliflower and red peppers. The chef should consider putting together an entree plate composed entirely of the veggie sides.

Poultry fans can also find a thrill. I never thought I'd see the day when I'd rave over chicken, but Convivo's rustic poussin gets my vote for pullet surprise. It's a whole roasted spring chicken, almost miraculously juicy and browned just right, paired with garlic cheese mashed spuds and cubes of butter-soaked butternut squash. If it's simple perfection you're looking for, your search has ended.

The duck also has its charms, but this bird isn't in the same poultry league as the poussin. Meaty slices of breast are pan-seared, fanned across the plate and coated with a pungent but somewhat one-dimensional molasses-black pepper sauce. The combo side of broccoli, baby bok choy and caramelized sweet potato (whose skin should have been removed) gives the platter a boost.

The two fish dishes I sampled demonstrate the chef's facility with ocean fare. Pan-seared Chilean sea bass is practically the Platonic ideal sprung to life. It's gorgeously moist, lightly adorned with a crust of coriander and fennel seeds, smoothed with a tangy citrus vinaigrette, and perched on a bed of arugula and mizuma. Once again, the marvelous veggie accompaniment--crispy parsnip, caramelized yam and a saute of broccoli, mint and tomato--is practically good enough to get star billing.

The chef also knows how to handle strawberry grouper. Too bad the menu writer doesn't. It's too much to expect folks to know that it's a species of grouper, not a method of preparation. The name turned off several diners at my table (fish and strawberries? Ugh), and I bet they weren't the only ones. Like all grouper, it's a mild, meaty, flaky fish, very popular in Florida and in the Caribbean, its native habitat. For understandable reasons, you don't see it much here in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. The kitchen prepares it simply, grilled with a touch of thyme, to let the delicate flavor come through.

Desserts are the domain of Pat Bloom, the chef's wife. Although she's not a trained pastry chef, she has proved to be a very quick study. Apple raisin cobbler is just right, with the apples cooked all the way through. It's served with an astonishing homemade fig ice cream that almost had me weeping with happiness. (The other ice creams I devoured--chocolate, pistachio, coffee almond--are also good enough to be sold retail.) Ricotta-cranberry cheesecake, drizzled with a tangy tangelo sauce, is deftly done, not too light and not too sweet. The warm flourless chocolate square is an intense experience, especially once you spoon on the rich espresso cream sauce. Creme brulee, tarted up with sun-dried blueberries, is a custardy treat. And the maple-walnut bread pudding disappeared so fast that I couldn't get in a sufficient number of bites to render an informed opinion.

What else is luring people to Convivo? The prices. Entrees range from $15.95 to $18.95, a range it's still possible to be at home on. And how many restaurants these days charge only $1.50 for espresso?

Wine is another attraction. There's an offbeat selection of Italian, French and California varietals and blends, about a dozen available by the glass.

Convivo is going to be a success. Let's hope the proprietors can resist the temptation to move to north Scottsdale and turn it into a 200-seat bistro, complete with hostesses in tight dresses, managers in Italian suits and $30 entrees.

Rock shrimp/ wild rice cake
Roasted poussin
Chilean sea bass
Apple raisin cobbler



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