MOOD FOR THOUGHT
Marque Bar and Grill, 8700 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 994-8700. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
I don't have too many hang-ups about a restaurant's setting. Once I sit down and get the menu in my hands, I'm pretty well focused on the food. Unless a place overlooks a Superfund cleanup site or has the ambiance of a hospital cafeteria, I can pretty well ignore my surroundings. The same holds true even if a restaurant looks down on the Bay of Naples or hires the design team that furnished Versailles. Gorgeous flower arrangements, oak paneling and gilt-framed watercolors are all very nice. So is stunning scenery. But just like theatregoers, who know they can't leave a musical humming the sets, diners know it's impossible to walk out of a restaurant patting our bellies over the decor or view. Or so I thought. But my reactions to two Valley grills have made me rethink my ability to separate food from the setting it's served in. Marque Bar and Grill and Alexi's Grill offer almost-identical menu choices: upscale pastas, grilled fish, gussied-up chicken and slabs of beef. The quality of the items matches just about as closely, although Alexi's costs a few dollars less. But if forced to choose between the two, there's no question. I'd make the long drive to Pinnacle Peak Road and head for the Marque. And I suspect it's the setting that tilts the scales in its favor.
Actually, the drive is part of the charm. I happened to hit a night when an enormous, orange-yellow full moon was just peeping out over the McDowell Mountains. I like to think my critical faculties are strong enough to resist poetic shafts of moonlight, but even a professional faultfinder like me has his soft spots. And once you arrive, the sensory assault continues. First, it's your eyes. From the upstairs outdoor patio, you can look out over the receding desert to the ever-closer twinkling Valley lights. The outdoor fireplaces and heaters provide warmth on chilly autumn evenings. (There's cozy seating inside, as well.) And on weekends, a wonderful pianist soothes the ears with everything from Gershwin tunes to Ray Charles' greatest hits. If you use some discretion, you can put together a meal as appealing as the setting. That means not bothering with breaded and fried catfish nuggets, high-priced chicken wings (12 for $7) or deep-fried breaded jalape¤os filled with cream cheese. Instead, go for the … la carte soups, which are the same models that grace the menu at 8700, the swanky restaurant downstairs that's run by the same proprietors as the Marque. Pumpkin soup has been the signature soup here for years. But the smoked corn chowder, intense, hearty and flecked with bacon, is too good to pass up. It was even better after we reminded the waiter to bring some bread, which turned out to be a first-rate, crusty sourdough loaf, ideal for dipping into creamy soups. Main dishes hover at about the $15 range, and you won't find any soup or salad extras orbiting in their gravitational pull. That's not necessarily a negative: I'd rather gaze at saguaros in the moonlight than at another pile of undistinguished restaurant greenery.
The best-tasting entree I sampled was also the simplest--not a coincidence, I'm sure. That was the beautiful slab of Angus beef. This tender, gristle-free New York steak didn't look like it weighed in at much more than eight ounces--practically hors d'oeuvre-size for some he-man appetites. But beefy juiciness helped compensate for its lack of heft. So did the snappy wild-mushroom sauce, punched up with a Jack Daniel's kick. Cheesy scalloped potatoes and Italian green beans rounded out the platter.
While the kitchen didn't perform any culinary magic with the swordfish, it did have the skill not to bury its charms. A smallish fillet came pan-blackened with what the menu calls "spicy" Southwest seasonings, seasonings that I thought were barely detectable. This turned out to be yet another illustration of how less can be more--the crunchy exterior and relatively untarnished swordfish flavor created a winning blend of taste and texture. But sometimes less can be less, too. Witness the wild-rice accompaniment, which seemed to have been seasoned by nothing more substantial than the Friday-night desert air. The menu description of the Marque pasta plate sounds irresistible: "Farfalle pasta tossed with prosciutto ham, sausage, mushrooms, peppers, artichokes and tomatoes, flamed with tequila and fanned with grilled breast of chicken." But the execution didn't keep pace with my imagination. If you'd stitched together all the tiny strips of prosciutto in this plate, you couldn't have covered a postage stamp. Same for the mushrooms and tomatoes. Sausage? You'll have to take the kitchen's word for it. And I innocently expected the waiter to come out and torch the platter with tequila before our eyes. The only flames you'll see here, however, are in the fireplace. Though big chunks of grilled chicken and artichoke helped, this dish didn't have nearly the oomph I expected. Desserts, however, do. And the fact that the main dishes don't fill up all the appetite cracks makes the sweets even more alluring. One is particularly explosive: two layers of fudgy chocolate torte sandwiching a layer of double chocolate ice cream, all surrounded by dozens of macadamia nuts bobbing in a sea of caramel sauce. An appropriate name for this nutritional A-bomb might be the "Jenny Craig Introductory Special." A well-crafted caramel apple cheesecake suffers only by comparison. Dinner at Marque Bar and Grill turned out to be more than the sum of its parts. For me, at least, a moonlighted desert sky and sophisticated piano playing boosted a generally well-fashioned meal into a delightful evening's entertainment. Alexi's Grill, 3550 North Central, Phoenix, 279-0982. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Run by the same folks behind the popular Italian restaurant Christo's, the recently opened Alexi's Grill offers, according to its press release, "an American contemporary menu with influences of Italian, Southwest and Spanish cuisine." Translation? The food is all over the map: Check out the chicken marsala with jalape¤os and Gorgonzola, snapper Veracrusano, fettuccine Alfredo with smoked salmon, grilled trout with roasted almonds, and New York steak.
Although there's no geographic consistency, that's not much of a shortcoming. The food is consistently good, and offered at reasonable prices, too. But you'd better keep your eyes firmly glued to your plate. That's because this must be the most charmless-looking place I've come across this year. It's inoffensiveness is almost offensive. From the drab, bare peach walls to the vapid potted greenery, Alexi's Grill doesn't have a bit of sparkle. Insipid elevator music and a lifeless view of the parking lot don't help. If the dining room had a magazine rack, you could mistake the customers for patients. You couldn't help thinking that instead of a good meal, they'd come here for a good flossing and a set of x-rays. I used to think I was impervious to this sort of morose setting. I'm not. I wouldn't waste time hammering this point if Alexi's fare exhibited the same lack of character as the surroundings. But much of the food sports a zest wholly at odds with the decor. Not the breadbasket, though. Surely the operators can do better than these indifferent garlic rolls. On the other hand, you can strike gold in the appetizers, particularly if you opt for the scrumptious melanzane Alexi. It's three thick slabs of grilled eggplant belligerently loaded with garlic. I was ready to order this as a main dish and head straight for dessert. Escargots capelli, six out-of-the-shell snails saut‚ed in garlic over angel-hair pasta, is also a winning way to edge into dinner. But wave off the waiter when he comes around with the grated "Parmesan" cheese. It's that fluffy, flavorless white stuff that not even a hungry mouse would touch. Meals come with soup or salad. Lackluster lentil soup won't rev anyone's engines, but the house salad, zipped up with a nifty honey-mustard dressing, will get you out of first gear. And that's where you'll have to be when the high-powered entrees arrive.
The kitchen has found a quirkily appealing way to pep up grilled sirloin. It cuts the meat into strips and throws it on top of penne pasta, bathed in a fragrant red-wine sauce sharpened with tomatillo and Gorgonzola cheese. This is a first-rate multicultural combination of ingredients. The zippy snapper Veracrusano also got me hooked. The fish is taken off the flames at just the right moment, and covered with the rich flavors of cilantro, olives, lemon, capers and tomato. Sides of roasted potatoes, along with grilled squash and carrot, also make a good impression. A chicken Genovese special showed skill with poultry. Delicately breaded chicken breasts sit in an aromatic garlic white-wine sauce, surrounded by artichokes and mushrooms. Chicken, apparently, doesn't always have to be dull. Neither do desserts. A picky friend, who makes desserts for the restaurants at a high-toned Valley resort, initially turned up her nose at the cräme caramel. "We wouldn't send this out," she said, pointing to a crack in the foundation the same way Marcia Clark might point to O.J.'s bloody glove. Still, she admitted after a spoonful, it tasted wonderful. And the chocolate suicide cake, an impossibly rich confection, got high artistic marks, as well as a good technical score for being served on a chilled plate. If you've got a night planned downtown, Alexi's Grill is worth keeping in mind for dinner. Just keep your eyes closed.
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.