Pacific Rim Shots

Zen 32, Biltmore Plaza, 3160 East Camelback, Phoenix, 954-8700. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

This week's story: A Tale of Two Restaurants.
Both Zen 32 and Kiawe Grill, two recent additions to the Valley dining-out scene, tap into one of the 1990s' hottest menu formulas: Pacific Rim cuisine. Both have kitchen shelves stocked with an arsenal of Asian ingredients. And both have chefs skilled in Eastern cooking techniques.

But here the comparison breaks down. On most nights, high-energy Zen 32 is filled to bursting with hip, upscale Camelback Corridor dwellers, who sip "sake-ritas" with their sushi. Sleepy Kiawe Grill, on the other hand, is usually filled with a distressing number of empty tables.

You can account for their differing fortunes in three words: location, location, location. Zen 32 occupies a high-profile corner storefront in the Biltmore Plaza, at 32nd Street and Camelback. The Pacific Rim concept has been cagily tuned to appeal to this fashionable, affluent neighborhood. Kiawe Grill, however, operates out of a hard-to-find spot on the fringes of Metrocenter. For the moment, at least, selling west-side neighbors on the latest culinary trend seems to be as daunting a prospect as selling them on earmuffs in July.

Zen 32's designer wants to make you forget you're only a few doors down from a Safeway store. The noise alone should make you forget--this place has all the tranquil serenity of an aircraft-carrier deck. The bar, dining area and sushi counter occupy three parallel segments, keeping the activities separate. Clever rice-paper pods cover the lights. The rest rooms are identified by a "W" and an "M," projected by light on the doors. The staff is amusingly outfitted like extras in a Bruce Lee movie: guys in Chinese jackets, gals in long, tight, slinky dresses. I can almost forgive putting televisions in the bar. But why does management have to put them in every corner of the room?

The kitchen doesn't take many chances with the food. The risk-averse proprietor (who also operates the Blue Burrito Grille) seems to have taken his culinary cues from the wildly successful P.F. Chang's.

Chang's pseudo-Chinese fare is finely tuned not to upset delicate American palates and sensibilities. Similarly, nothing at Zen 32 should disturb even the most chopstick-phobic diner. Looking for signs of cutting-edge culinary creativity at Zen 32 is about as productive as searching for snow on Squaw Peak. You want a fork for your sushi? No problem. Unable to achieve Zenlike contentment without counting calories? There's a steamed-vegetable dish. Panting for a rich dessert? Rest assured, those traditional Oriental treats, "chocolate Zen triangles" and "Mandarin chocolate cheesecake," are on the menu.

Tame as it is, Zen 32's fare is generally well-crafted. Sushi fans won't have any complaints. Among the highlights are toro, silky marbled tuna belly; the rainbow roll, fashioned with shrimp, salmon, tuna and yellowtail; the Alaskan roll, featuring grilled salmon; and an outstanding spicy scallop hand roll, stuffed with meltingly moist scallops. The only disappointment was the eel cucumber roll--too heavy on the cucumber, too light on the eel.

If sushi doesn't turn you on, Zen 32 offers other pre-entree options. Spring rolls are the least intriguing. Chicken endive is the most interesting: ground, seasoned chicken teamed with endive leaves. The idea is to scoop the chicken into an endive leaf, dip into the hoisin sauce and munch. I'd order this again, especially if I could convince the chef not to use a shovel when he adds salt. But once is enough for the tempura. It falls short on the batter, which lacks the light, lacy touch that characterizes the best models.

The main-dish selections are a lot more conservative than I would have expected in such a trendy place. Teriyaki chicken? Noodles with stir-fried vegetables? At least there were no combination plates.

There is, however, tasty grilled New York steak, thinly sliced and fanned out over rice and veggies. Barbecued pork loin medallions are a tad dry, despite a curry-pineapple marinade. But the apple-ginger relish makes a good moistening agent and provides a flavor boost as well. Asian primavera teams two kinds of noodles, green tea and lemon pepper, with the usual mixed veggies and an innocuous light soy sauce.

At $19, lobster tailspin is the most expensive entree. It's also the best one, a whole meaty tail scooped out of the shell, scented with lemongrass and a ginger beet sauce, then artfully wedged into a mound of terrific wasabi mashed potatoes.

I had a strange experience with my sake steamed whitefish. When I opened the bamboo basket lid, I saw that the fish was virtually raw. Thinking that's how the kitchen intended to prepare it, I dug in. Big mistake--it was inedible.

At that moment, the chef appeared in the dining room, making his rounds. After a few minutes, he reached our table. "How's everything?" he asked. I pointed to the fish: "Is it supposed to be like this?" He inspected the specimen with growing horror, mumbled something about his jet-steaming equipment and whisked it away. He came back five minutes later with a much-improved version. A new fish came wrapped in leeks and surrounded by veggies--sweet potato, squash, carrot and asparagus. An on-the-side bowl of black-bean sauce made for fragrant dipping.

After I finished, the proprietor wandered by. "You the one with the bad fish?" I nodded. "I'm very sorry. We're going to comp you a dessert."

He needn't have bothered. There's nothing remotely Pacific Rim about any of these sweets, and they close the meal on a heavy, jarring note. Under other circumstances, I might have enjoyed the tart Key lime pie, the creamy chocolate mousse with the dark chocolate coating or the rich chocolate cheesecake. But not after sushi and sake steamed fish. You're better off with a pot of steaming green tea.

Inevitably, a new hot spot will come along to replace Zen 32. But in the restaurant business, geography is often destiny. With its great location and play-it-safe fare, this place looks ready to settle in for a long, unremarkable run.

Kiawe Grill, 10402 North Metro Parkway, Phoenix, 997-8281. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

Let's hope geography isn't destiny for Kiawe Grill. That's because the west side, the Metrocenter area in particular, has the same effect on culinary creativity as the Bermuda Triangle has on airplanes: Both soon fly off the screen. (Restaurants aren't the only fine-foods victims. The Metrocenter branch of Trader Joe's is the weakest link in the company's Arizona chain.)

Maybe the folks behind Kiawe Grill can change enough west-side tastes to make a go of it. I'm rooting for them, because this place serves some of the most provocative fare west of I-17.

The Pacific Rim menu tilts heavily toward seafood, and the skilled kitchen knows what to do with it. Lobster pot stickers are a tasty way to edge into dinner, six dumplings filled with lobster, peppers and chives, then teamed with a sweet and pungent pepper-ginger-plum sauce. The plump, delicately battered fried oysters have an almost tempuralike quality. Crunchy spring rolls, filled with a thimbleful of crab, cucumber and carrot, deliver deep-fried pleasure. But Island poki takes appetizer honors. It's raw chunks of ahi tuna, steeped in a marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil and chile and served with crisp jasmine rice cakes. There's nothing like this anywhere else along the avenues.

Kiawe Grill also puts together a superb pre-dinner salad, notable for its fresh mixed greens and knockout coconut dressing.

If you're attracted to aquatic fare, Kiawe Grill is worth a visit even if you live east of Central Avenue. I'd certainly make the drive for the intriguing Dancing Chile Lime Scallops. They're a revelation, eight big, juicy scallops tarted up with a zesty chile lime marinade, served over angel hair and topped with grated cheese. The combination of flavors is irresistible.

Wok-seared prawns are equally compelling. This platter features eight jumbo shrimp tossed in a catchy garlic-black-bean sauce. At $15.95, you get your money's worth, too.

Kiawe Grill unleashes its creative energies on salmon, reminding us why we liked this overused fish in the first place. It's expertly grilled--slightly charred on the outside, moist on the inside. Then it's paired with cappellini that's been aromatically bathed in an Asian-inspired lemongrass cream sauce tinged with basil. If salmon has been putting you to sleep for the past several years, this platter will revive your enthusiasm.

The kitchen also understands the virtues of simplicity. Escalar, a delicate, white-fleshed Pacific Ocean fish that's turning up on more and more menus, gets steamed and gently seasoned in a soy/balsamic-vinegar sauce. Portabella mushrooms, baby bok choy and jasmice rice round off this tempting plate. Mahimahi also gets first-class treatment. It's seared and coated with a fetching hoisin-raspberry glaze, accompanied by rice, a pineapple/bean salsa and wonderful wood-grilled veggies doused in a sweet, Asian-accented sauce.

Two homemade desserts complete the menu. The thick, creamy cheesecake doesn't mesh very well with the preceding courses. But the refreshing puff pastry tart, filled with coconut custard and gilded with diced pineapple, kiwi and papaya, is right on target.

Kiawe Grill is too good to languish. To those west-siders who bemoan the area's paucity of fine-dining options, let me point out: Someone has built it; now it's up to you to come.

Zen 32:
Chicken endive
Sake steamed fish
New York steak
Key lime pie

Kiawe Grill:
Island poki
Grilled salmon
Dancing Chile Lime Scallops
Coconut custard tart


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