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Low Steaks Game

Michael Monti's of Scottsdale, 7500 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 480-585-3000. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Who says this isn't a cow town?
Outside of India, no place in the world venerates cattle the way we do here in the Valley. However, we don't venerate them in quite the same way.

What are the signs of this worshipful devotion? If you live in Scottsdale, they're plentiful: lots of new, higher-end steak houses, eager to feed up-market beef lovers.

Five restaurants aimed at the animal-protein crowd have recently opened for business within a few weeks--and a few miles--of each other. Morton's of Chicago now operates a second Valley branch at the intersection of Scottsdale and Kierland roads. Paul Fleming, who used to own the two local Ruth's Chris outlets, has started up Fleming's Prime Steakhouse at the Scottsdale Hilton. The folks behind Marco Polo have set up Mastro's Steakhouse in the massive complex on the northeast corner of Pima and Pinnacle Peak roads. Brown Derby Roadhouse, at the Civic Center Mall, should be opening its doors any moment now.

The other steak-house contender is Michael Monti's of Scottsdale, set in a freestanding building a few hundred yards east of the throbbing intersection of Scottsdale and Pinnacle Peak roads.

Like their competitors, Michael Monti's proprietors are no novices. The family has operated restaurants for years, most notably Monti's La Casa Vieja in Tempe.

How do they get the new place to stand out from the rest of the pack? Monti's has opted to go the value route. That means meals come with soup or salad. It means potatoes and vegetables aren't pricey à la carte options, as they are in many fancy steak houses, but part of dinner. And it means steak dinners start at $11.95 and top out at $21.95.

Of course, the value derived from lower prices may also signal some trade-off in quality. In a zip code now swarming with steak houses, carnivores are going to come here and ask themselves the Big Question: Is Michael Monti's worth it?

It's a smart-looking place, though still casual enough for diners to feel comfortable wearing jeans or shorts. Just inside the door is a handsome granite-topped bar, backed by a striking copper-hooded fireplace. If you're lucky, the hostess will walk you past the wine cellar into the main dining room, which has more atmosphere than the two smaller dining areas off to the side. The room is lit by catchy, inverted-pyramid fixtures suspended from the ceiling. The leatherette booths are comfy, and the linenless tables are set with cloth napkins and hefty steak-house cutlery. Light jazz is piped in. A jaunty portrait of the late family patriarch, Leonard Monti Sr. (1912-1997), watches over the entire operation.

I wish Leonard could have taken a more active role. That's because after my visits here, I came away with the impression that Michael Monti's isn't trying very hard.

But the immediate impression is quite favorable. Credit the basket of "Roman bread," a signature item at La Casa Vieja that's made the move north. It's fresh, hot focaccia, aromatically accented with rosemary. In retrospect, I would have been wise to fill up on it.

When a restaurant meal includes a pre-entree soup or salad, you can expect the appetizers to be pretty lame. Management probably figures (rightly) that not too many folks will order them.

But a couple of these are worth your attention. That is, if you can get the kitchen to prepare them.

On one visit, our appetizer order simply never showed up. When we pointed out the lapse, our group got just the kind of reaction I hoped for: apologies from everyone involved, including the manager, and comped desserts. I have to salute Michael Monti's for trying to set things right. I also have to wonder how it could get things so wrong in the first place.

Once it appeared on a subsequent visit, the starter of lightly seared ahi tuna, crusted in pepper and set in a puddle of soy sauce, displayed some real charm. So did the mushroom appetizer, a chafing dish heaped with sauteed shiitake and button mushrooms, floating in a potent sherry wine sauce that the focaccia soaks up like a sponge.

The soups and house salad come at no additional cost, but that's about the only positive thing I can say about them. Whether it's the tomato with pasta shells, cream of broccoli or chicken rice, the broths don't rise above coffee-shop quality. And the salad, consisting of unremarkable greenery and a wedge of tasteless tomato, is similarly uninspired.

But ultimately, Michael Monti's success is going to rest on its meat. Unfortunately, with a couple of exceptions, the meat here will make you wonder what the steak-house boom is all about.

Nothing on the menu is more disappointing than the Special Cut Sirloin, 16 ounces of unfulfilled potential. It can fool you at first--it sounds and looks great, hissing and sizzling. The $18.95 tag also got me to ease my critical standards a bit--at that price, it's unreasonable to expect prime-grade quality. But I do expect something better than "tough." You can do better yourself, throwing a supermarket steak on the grill.

The filet mignon also needs work. It lacks the exquisite butter-soft tenderness this cut is noted for, and the beef isn't nearly as moist and juicy as it ought to be. This filet mignon is not going to set any carnivore's heart racing.

Prime rib, meanwhile, is perhaps the least impressive piece of beef here. Fatty and chewy, it's banquet fare. Surely, Michael Monti's can do better.

Two steaks do make the grade. The fact that they're the most expensive ones on the menu only confirms one of my long-standing steak-house beliefs: When it comes to restaurant beef, price and quality generally go hand in hand.

The T-bone delivers 18 ounces of beefy flavor, particularly on the sirloin side of the bone. No reasonable person could have any complaints. Even better, however, is the 12-ounce New York strip, the only piece of meat here that will actively get your body pumped with real pleasure. It's everything a steak ought to be: juicy, tender and beefy with a sizzling charred exterior.

Steer clear of the other animal-protein options. It won't take more than one bite to discover that Michael Monti's is no rib house. These have to be some of the most innocuous baby backs on the planet, and the snoozy sauce doesn't add anything to the energy level. The pork chops are a major letdown. This is the kind of platter I expect to run into at an interstate truck stop, not in north Scottsdale. The meat is neither particularly moist nor flavorful, and it's served with awful, salty rice pilaf that could have come out of an employee cafeteria chafing tray.

For years, I've been hailing the virtues of ostrich: It's as flavorful as beef, while delivering fewer calories and grams of fat than skinless, white-meat chicken. But Michael Monti's Big Bird isn't doing the ostrich industry any favors. The chewy medallions come in an unappetizing heap, accompanied by a third-rate teriyaki sauce, inelegantly served in a metal cup. Ostrich requires care and flair, both of which are in short supply here.

Side dishes send out mixed signals. Along with the New York strip, the heavy, tasty garlic mashed potatoes are what the kitchen does best. The French fries, though, are limp, lukewarm and useless. And don't expect to be bowled over by veggies like peas and carrots, which could have come out of a 10-gallon warehouse drum.

Perhaps the strongest indication of Michael Monti's halfhearted kitchen effort is its dessert policy: Let somebody else make it. In this case, according to the staff, it's AJ's supermarket. I have nothing against AJ's desserts. But who in this neck of the woods goes out to a restaurant for heavily marked-up supermarket treats? The one homemade dessert, creme brulee, doesn't suggest management has hired any pastry-academy graduates, either.

The lack of effort also carries over into the service side of the operation. It's more than forgetting to put in the appetizer order. It's busboys trying to snatch plates while you're still chewing. It's the waiter holding your group's entrees, asking who gets what. It's scraping the leftover food from your plate yourself, filling up your own doggie bag. (And, believe me, in this case the food was earmarked for a real live dog.)

Michael Monti's business plan is right on the money: Give the neighborhood--a growing, affluent, beef-loving corner of the Valley--a casual, mid-priced, quality steak-house alternative. At this point, though, the place is all concept, and very little execution.

Michael Monti's of Scottsdale:
Sauteed mushrooms
$4.25
Filet mignon (10 ounce)
17.95
New York strip
21.95
Creme brulee
6.

95


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