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Out-of-Place Mats

Sebastian's, 1926 West Deer Valley Road, Phoenix, 516-0718. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

It shouldn't take an MBA from Harvard to see that launching a steak house in New Delhi isn't a sound investment strategy.

Savvy entrepreneurs don't need a restaurant consultant to tell them that a barbecued-pork-ribs operation probably won't flourish in Jerusalem.

And despite their international success, you can pretty well bet that the owners of Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe won't be planning new movie or rock-'n'-roll-themed branches in Burundi or Bangladesh anytime soon.

Keying menu to location is critical in the restaurant business. That's why I'm still scratching my head over the long-term prospects of a couple of new Valley restaurants I recently checked out. Both Sebastian's and the Charcoal House seem to be serving the right food, but in the wrong place.

Talk about odd couplings. I can imagine many types of restaurants moving into a distant, unpretentious, sparsely settled north Valley neighborhood, just off the I-17 freeway on Deer Valley Road: mom-and-pop diners, pizza parlors, burger chains. But even after two visits, I still have a hard time imagining a fine-dining establishment, complete with linen tablecloths, $18 entrees and deferential servers who refold napkins, replace cutlery and call diners "sir" and "madam."

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has had a hard time conceptualizing Sebastian's. On my first visit, in the middle of the week, we were the only customers there. A couple of weeks later, on a Friday night, the place was maybe a third full. And several of my fellow diners apparently had no idea that Sebastian's was anything more than a joint--they were decked out in shorts and tee shirts. I hope the proprietors are armed with lots of capital--it's going to take some time to educate the neighborhood.

The nondescript exterior gives no hint as to what lies inside the front door. The room is surprisingly plush, embellished by a burgundy color scheme, dim lighting from a crystal chandelier, a brick fireplace and a wallful of paintings in gilt frames that look like they once hung in milord's manor. At the back of the dining area, a player piano that never asks for wages, a break or a free dinner pounds out nonstop computer-programmed sounds, from Clair de Lune to the score of The Phantom of the Opera.

Operated by a Guatemalan chef, Sebastian's offers what it calls "continental" fare. Basically, that means beef, veal, chicken, pasta and seafood dishes, delivered with flair. I found just about everything interesting and tasty enough to erase my skepticism and make me forget I was dining on the edge of nowhere.

Take the appetizers, which would feel at home on even a ritzy Scottsdale menu. The pistachio chicken pt meets every pt standard, slathered with whole-grain mustard and properly adorned with Cornichons (tiny French pickles). Lobster ravioli are also compelling, two big, doughy pouches thickly stuffed with minced lobster and moistened with a sorrel-tinged beurre blanc.

Soups are also well-crafted. The crock of French onion soup is first-rate, not too salty and heaped with what tasted like real Gruyre cheese. Even better is the luscious yellow tomato crayfish bisque, a sublimely flavored creamy pure. Unfortunately, I neglected to hide its charms from my companions, who, after a spoonful, felt it was their duty to help me polish it off.

The kitchen also pays attention to the pre-dinner greenery. There's radicchio, not iceberg lettuce, in the salad, which is dressed with a worthy house-made creamy vinaigrette. A basket of fresh, hot, chewy dinner rolls sustains the pleasure.

The main dishes suggest that the chef has a real future in front of him. He's particularly adept with seafood.

One evening's special, for example, featured an enormously pleasing mixed grill of halibut, salmon and big, juicy sea scallops, all glazed with a snappy ginger-and-prickly-pear sauce, accented with a hint of guava. What a beguiling set of flavors! A mound of cheese-spiked rice rounded off the platter, furnishing tasty diversion.Another aquatic treat, listed under the "Chef's Specialties" section of the menu, brings together shrimp and scallops. Three hefty shrimp are wrapped in kataifi--crisp, shredded dough often used in Greek and Middle Eastern desserts. Two scallops, meanwhile, come entombed inside a wonderful potato crust. Everything's set on a heap of fettuccine gilded with a creamy roasted-pepper sauce, garnished by fresh sprigs of dill. If you wish, the server will also bring over a hunk of Parmesan cheese and grate it over the plate. I certainly didn't stop him.

The deceptively named seafood cioppino--it's not a broth--has its moments, too. Mussels, clams, shrimp and scallops embellish fettuccine perked up by an exceptionally fragrant seafood sauce, the kind of sauce I could eat with a tablespoon.  

Carnivores aren't neglected, either. Veal roulade brings tender veal rolled up with prosciutto and spinach, accompanied by rice and julienned vegetables. A sliced New York steak is also deftly prepared, aided by a somewhat miserly drizzle of mascarpone cheese.

By this point, I figured the desserts would make me happy. They did. The rich chocolate mousse cake is a good effort, sending chocolate rather than sugar signals to the brain. The cheesecake, set on a graham-cracker crust, is superb, moist, creamy, cheesy.

My experience at Sebastian's pointed out the aptness of some lines from Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." In one verse, the poet reminds us that

Full many a flower is born
to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness
on the desert air.

No doubt Sebastian's is blooming. Let's hope its aromas don't vanish undetected into the Sonoran Desert night.

The Charcoal House Bar and Grill, 7373 Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale, 946-8565. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday, and Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Monday.

Sebastian's culinary ambition seems risky for its neighborhood. But the Charcoal House's lack of ambition may turn out to be even riskier.

Here's a restaurant in one of the Valley's loveliest, pedestrian-friendly locations, the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall. Hungry strollers wandering around the grounds already have no shortage of spots to get a meal: the trendy AZ 88, the inventive Back Stage, the chic Pepin Spanish restaurant, to name just three.

What kind of dining alternative does the Charcoal House offer in this fashionable setting? A yawn-inducing menu featuring haven't-we-seen-this-before munchies like Buffalo wings, cheese toast and onion rings; entrees highlighted by snoozy slabs of beef, battered chicken and pasta; and desserts that could put an insomniac to sleep.

It's not that the nondescript fare isn't competently prepared. Most of it is. But what's it doing in this upscale part of town? And why should anybody consider making a special trip for it?

The Charcoal House isn't the first restaurant in this spot to have difficulty developing a niche. Two other restaurants in this location have folded in the last two years.

The new proprietors have opted for an odd, eclectic look. Part of the place has a high-tech feel, particularly the lights hidden in copper disks suspended from the exposed ceiling. Vintage photos on the wall impart a gallery feel. A Sinclair Gas logo on a gumball machine lends a touch of nostalgia. Meanwhile, wire sculpture like the resting figure in a sombrero camped under a saguaro, and a mural depicting a thundering herd of cattle, are designed to signal that you're in the West's westernmost town.

Unfortunately, there's more variety in the decor than in the fare.
Don't expect to assuage a growling stomach by skipping appetizers and filling up on bread and butter. The Charcoal House removes that option by neglecting to set out a breadbasket.

You may as well begin with the penurious plate of pricey onion rings. The quality, however, just about makes up for the quantity and $3.95 tag. These crisp beauties are irresistible, especially once you dip them into the zippy cream sauce.

Soups are another starter option. The homemade chicken and vegetable broth, thickened with pasta and a bit of mushroom and celery, won't remind you of mom's all-day efforts, but it won't remind you of the swill in the employee cafeteria, either. The French onion soup, though, uses bland mozzarella cheese and relies too heavily on salt for flavor.

There's nothing cutting edge about the main dishes. They're about as thrilling as kissing your sister. At $16.95, the grilled New York strip is the most expensive item here, but it's no more than an ordinary slab of meat. The 11-ounce rib eye is a better choice for animal protein, beefy and tender. But I got more pleasure from the juicy, ten-ounce chopped steak, topped with sauted mushrooms, than I did from either of the steaks.

Southern pan chicken features a whole boneless breast coated with a crunchy, coconut-tinged batter. But it could have used a moistening agent, maybe a salsa or gravy. This bird is dry. Shrimp pasta is not up to snuff: four medium-size crustaceans lacking that right-out-of-the-sea taste, resting on a stingy mound of pasta doused with a watery cream sauce. Grilled chicken pasta is a clear improvement, aided by peppers, mushrooms and an uncomplicated marinara sauce.

Only in one of the side dishes does the kitchen show some cleverness. There's a terrific skillet-fried pancake blending grated potato and sweet potato with onions, peppers and cheese. Why couldn't anything else be this interesting?  

Dessert sure isn't. The one house-made offering, an apple dumpling with ice cream, fills a big crock with too much dough and too little fruit. A wretched, supplier-provided cheesecake is dry and completely flavorless.

In another spot--say, Deer Valley Road near the I-17 freeway--the Charcoal House could develop into a neighborhood favorite. But right now it's not ready for the Scottsdale big leagues.

Sebastian's:
Yellow tomto crayfish bisque
$4.00
Veal roulade
17.95
Shrimp and scallops
18.95
Cheesecake
4.25

The Charcoal House Bar and Grill:
Onion soup
$3.95
Grilled chicken pasta
8.95
Rib eye steak
12.95
Apple dumpling
3.50


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