PLEASANT UNDER GLOSS
Bamboo Club, Biltmore Fashion Park, 2596 East Camelback, Phoenix, 955-1288. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 5 p.m. to midnight.
Does your idea of a great meal out mean hunting for a funky, inexpensive joint, with Formica-topped tables, semifluent servers and offbeat specialties posted on the wall in the native language? Do you enjoy zesty spices, unfamiliar ingredients and exotic preparations? If this describes you, cross the Bamboo Club and Mr. C's off your list. These two places are simply too chic, too pricey and too dull for genuine food adventurers. But what if I asked a different set of ethnic-restaurant questions? For instance, would you like to dine in comfort? Are elegant decor and lively atmosphere a plus? Do your tastes run to dishes mild and unthreatening enough to keep you from breaking out into a sweat? Can your wallet handle the pressure? If that's where you're coming from, maybe the Bamboo Club and Mr. C's are where you should be heading. It's no secret that when it comes to ethnic fare, I'm from the funky school. The plainer the place, the stranger the food and cheaper the prices, the happier I am.
But that doesn't blind me to the appeal of the Bamboo Club for a large class of local diners. I'm certain the place will flourish. It's run by the former proprietors of the excellent Vagara Bistro. Now they've changed gears, shifting from a swanky continental menu to a trendy Asian one. No doubt they've intensively studied P.F. Chang's China Bistro, which the Bamboo Club seems to be modeled after. Both are planted in relentlessly upscale malls. Both have spent heavily on decor and design. Both target an affluent, with-it crowd. Neither offers family dinners for four or a free pot of tea. And both feature dishes that aren't nearly as hip as the setting or the crowd consuming them. I feel somewhat less crotchety about the Bamboo Club than I do about P.F. Chang's. First, to my relief, it's not nearly as pretentious-looking. The Bamboo Club sports a Los Angeles-Asian high-tech flair. There's lots of black: the ceiling, the upstairs carpet, the table edges, the servers' garb. There's enough bamboo here to feed a zoo full of pandas. Bamboo frames the mirrored panels on the staircase; flower arrangements sprout from lengths of bamboo; and a notched piece of bamboo holds the wine list at every table. Secondly, at least some of the food doesn't taste like the chop-suey-parlor fare slung out during the Eisenhower years. The Bamboo Club's menu is cleverly divided into sections, each with about five choices, indicating how the dishes are prepared: sizzled, deep-fried, barbecued, noodled, steamed and woked. (There are salads, side dishes and desserts, too.) They're served family-style, designed for sharing. But if you share the siew mai, the steamed pork dumplings, you may expire from hunger. Five teeny critters go for $6--that's $1.20 a bite. We used the mixed barbecue platter as an appetizer supplement. A combination of three barbecue items, it isn't much more cost-effective than the dumplings. You get to nibble on Cantonese-style long spare ribs, barbecued pork and barbecued duck. If there are three of you sharing, however, someone won't get a spare rib. That's not all bad news--although they're meaty, the two we got were crunchless and lukewarm. You'd be better off with individual orders of the pungent pork and duck. The sizzling section is a disappointing misnomer. How can you advertise a sizzling section and then send out dishes that have all the sizzle of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? The two dishes we tried lacked both the physical sizzle we expected as well as any taste sizzle. Beef with ginger and green onion got points for tender beef, but nothing else. Sweet-and-sour chicken was a lot more sweet than sour. And it mostly consisted of canned pineapple chunks and dull pieces of unbattered, unfried fowl. For me, part of the Bamboo Club's problem derives from how little the Pan-Asian menu takes advantage of the Valley's culinary sophistication. Where's the oomph from five-spice, ginger, peppers, garlic or lemon grass? Instead, we're offered dishes like the braised bean cake with seasonal vegetables, from the "woked" section. It's a wildly uninteresting platter, thickened with hoary standbys like water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and baby corn (what's seasonal about these?), with wedges of tofu. You'd think a platter like this would need a zippy sauce to give it some life. The kitchen here thinks otherwise. On the other hand, the coconut shrimp from the deep-fried section are wonderful, crunchy delights freshened with a fruit salsa of fresh pineapple and melon. The noodle dishes also indicate that the kitchen is capable of uniting conception and execution. Thin rice noodles come flecked with shrimp in a subtle curry sauce. And at $8, the dozen curried mussels atop thick-textured Japanese soba noodles make a first-rate treat as well as first-rate value. But in general, the Bamboo Club is not where you want to go if your appetite is bigger than your bank account. Although the prices for each dish are mostly in the $7 and $8 range, portions are small. A bowl of salty fried rice, for example, will set you back six bucks. And the proprietors have taken leave of their senses over the tea, which we innocently ordered. First, we got four classless teabags. Then we got a $7.80 jolt to the tab. For you nonmathematicians, that's $1.95 each. I can report, though, that additional hot water was served free of charge. I can also report that desserts are superb. They're about as Asian as my Aunt Minnie, but they will suit the clientele. The homemade ice creams suggest that the Bamboo Club could profitably operate a summertime stand. And the papaya tart, in a swirl of ginger cream, sets my heart racing even in retrospect. Ultimately, the Bamboo Club seems to be more a shrine to trendiness than to Asian food. If that's how you prefer to worship, you'll find plenty of like-minded parishioners. Mr. C's, 4302 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 941-4460. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Like the Bamboo Club, Mr. C's is not the kind of place that Asians homesick for native cooking are likely to flock to. The restaurant targets well-heeled Scottsdalians looking for elegant surroundings and elegant service. I can't imagine that the Chinese food is the main attraction. At these prices, in another setting, there's no way Mr. C's could have maintained its long run. The two dining rooms are gorgeous, little museums. Glass display cases angled into the room show off some riveting objets d'art: a carved jade fish, vases and porcelain horses. Behind protective glass by the entrance is an eye-catching silk outfit encrusted with pearls and glittering beads. And don't miss the display case near the kitchen, featuring a work of pale green jade shrimp crawling over dark jade seaweed. Throw in relaxing Chinese background music, fresh flowers sprinkled around the room and a solicitous staff dressed in black-tie, and you can see why folks might be won over even before the first course has been served. Unfortunately, the food is only occasionally as mesmerizing as everything else. The spring rolls and pork dumplings were routinely serviceable appetizers. The quail curl, though, had the style and flair I was looking for: Minced quail, dotted with celery, mushrooms, pine nuts, water chestnuts and red pepper, came wrapped in lettuce fronds. Finding main dishes with that same verve wasn't easy. Beef mimosa promised to be hot and peppery, but in a place like this I knew that was a pipe dream. The mild, citrusy sauce furnished only a one-dimensional note. Peacock duck, thin slices of fowl, lacked a muscular punch. And while Mr. C's serves good-quality lamb, it's hard to get excited over the unimaginative preparations. Neither the lamb with red chile pepper nor lamb saut‚ed with scallions had a smidgen of unpredictability.
The kitchen does a better job with seafood. Emerald scallops were plate-scrapingly good, delicate morsels coated with thin slices of ham and snow peas. And despite the small portion, the jumbo prawns in the silver gourd savoury, adorned with green peppers, straw mushrooms and scallions, made us feel like we were getting our $13.50 worth. Oddly enough, I found Mr. C's does its best work with the menu's least expensive offerings. Pork loquats is an upscale take on sweet-and-sour pork, and it's a winner. Gristle-free chunks of thickly battered and fried pork came surrounded by loquats and walnuts. Everything was smothered in a delicate sauce that expertly balanced sweet and tart flavors. Noodle fans also get treated right. The empress noodle featured extremely generous amounts of shrimp, chicken, pork and veggies, perking up a heap of pan-fried noodles. Fancy? No, but satisfying. Two other less-than-$10 entrees also displayed simple charms. Macadamian chicken is a twist on chicken with peanuts or cashews, and the kitchen didn't stint on the nuts. Pork julienne blends pork strips and scallions in a lip-smacking light plum sauce. As you might expect, desserts are aimed directly at the Occidental palate. Apple-raisin cake and amaretto cheesecake seem to me a pretty bizarre way to finish up a Chinese meal, but then again, the patrons here aren't looking for a streets-of-Hong Kong experience. And that's the defining element of Mr. C's: safe and sane fare, soothingly served in plush comfort.
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