Pros and Connoisseurs
Brio, 7243 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 947-0795. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Sometimes, there's no substitute for experience.
A couple of veteran Valley restaurateurs have recently opened new Scottsdale dining spots. Tycoon Paul Fleming is already a local force. He's behind the two Ruth's Chris Steak Houses (which he's in the process of selling to Ruth Fertel), the wonderful south-by-Southwestern fare at Z'Tejas Grill, and the somewhat less-than-wonderful Americanized ethnic fare at P.F. Chang's and Nola's. Now he's brought Brio to town, about a year after he first launched the concept in Austin, Texas.
Georges Venezia was the longtime proprietor of Mes Amis. During his run there, he tried adding to his French empire with the 32nd Street Bistro, but that venture didn't work out. Now, with Mes Amis in other hands, he's back on the French dining scene with Chez Georges.
Having gotten their restaurants up and running, both gentlemen ought to take a relaxing summer vacation, resting on their laurels. That's because, in a few months, when the natives emerge from their summer aestivation and the tourist hordes return, these guys are going to need all the energy they can muster. Once discerning diners discover Brio and Chez Georges, I predict this pair won't be having too many quiet moments.
A press release describes Brio's cuisine as a "fusion of hearty Texas, European and Asian flavors." My first instinct? Frankly, I thought it sounded like the kind of fare you should be running from, not toward. I imagined loony, mishmash menu offerings like ancho chile-ginger chicken, in a pesto wasabi barbecue sauce--a scary prospect, even for a professionally trained belly like my own.
But Brio pulls off the concept, because (thank goodness) the kitchen isn't demented enough to try to fuse Southwestern, European and Asian flavors in each individual dish. While Brio's ingredients range all over the world, individual dishes generally maintain a certain geographic integrity.
Brio's look is as eclectic as the menu. Depending on where you're seated, you might view Roman bas-reliefs or reproductions of the Mona Lisa and the Bayeux tapestry. Meanwhile, brick walls and arches, cast-iron chandeliers and electric tapers with curled parchment shades furnish odd medieval cues. If you walked in here cold, you'd probably think Brio specialized in serving ye olde roast beef.
Think again. There's nothing medieval about the appetizer of shredded duck and scallion pancakes. It's Brio's version of moo shu pork: four scallion-flecked crepes, a mound of luscious duck, greenery and cucumbers, and a fragrant hoisin-barbecue sauce. Assembly is required, but that's half the fun. Although this starter is perfect to share, you may be tempted not to. Another Asian-themed appetizer, Thai fish cakes, also produced exclamations of delight. You get two plump disks, zipped up by a zesty, chile-spiked ginger sauce.
The Southwestern-inspired appetizers pack the same kind of flavor punch. The smoked-beef tenderloin is particularly noteworthy, strips of pungent, thin-sliced meat, served cold, coated with a mild horseradish sauce and teamed with scrumptious green-chile grits. If your taste buds have been napping, this plate provides a real wake-up call. So will the ancho chile relleno, a spicy specimen stuffed with carnitas and cheese, softened by a mild tomatillo sauce.
By the time they've polished off appetizers and Brio's irresistibly fresh, crusty bread, some diners might consider calling it a night. That would be a mistake--the entrees here are worth loosening your belt for.
In fact, I'd remove my belt entirely for the pork tenderloin. If the chef who created beef Wellington had lived in the American Southwest instead of Europe, he would have come up with something like this: Tender pork layered with cheese, encased in a puff pastry that's lined with a chile-mushroom paste, moistened with a red chile sauce. The side of sugar snap peas also makes a very favorable impression.
Venison is another source of animal protein that benefits from regional cooking flair. The kitchen sears two strong-scented medallions and coats them in a guajillo chile batter, then pours on a green-chile gravy that has some bite. The accompaniments also deserve star billing. Both the skillet-fried croquette, fashioned from white beans and corn, and the French green beans are further evidence that Brio is directed by a higher intelligence.
Cilantro shrimp is equally compelling. You get four big, primo-quality crustaceans, served over a heap of pan-fried noodles and crunchy Chinese long beans, all smoothed in a fragrant black-bean sauce. The ingredients in this platter work together in perfect harmony.
That's not quite the case with the off-key salmon entree. I'd call it an interesting failure. The principal culprit? A too-sweet orange-ginger sauce better suited to ice cream than fish. The tasty side of aromatic, Thai-style coconut rice gets overwhelmed here.
The dessert list has been put together with the same attention to quality as the rest of the menu. The coconut buttermilk pie is a rich way to finish up. So is the chocolate pate, two small slabs gilded with candied orange peel and an espresso-custard sauce.
With its all-over-the-map fare, Brio is not an easy restaurant to pigeon-hole. But why worry about a hardening of the categories? However you characterize it, food this good speaks for itself.
Chez Georges, Scottsdale Promenade, 7000 East Shea, Scottsdale, 991-9484. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
The fare at Chez Georges also speaks for itself. Mostly it says ooh-la-la.
The restaurant is housed in an up-and-coming commercial development, alongside such high-quality dining attractions as Sushi on Shea, a branch of Such Is Life and Maria's When in Naples. I'd call Chez Georges an attraction, too.
It's an airy place, with lots of faux brick, a painted sky on the ceiling and potted banana plants scattered about the room. The music tape spills out alternating selections of French pop and Tony Bennett. The handsome, French-accented servers, dressed in blue jeans, white shirts, ties and aprons, look like they came from Central Casting.
It's not only the setting that gives Chez Georges a Gallic flair. So does the menu. And with appetizers in the $4 to $6 range, and entrees topping out at $14, the price is right, too.
If you're lucky, dinner may start off with an unexpected treat. On one visit, our server surprised us with small bowls of tasty tortellini and refreshing cucumber salad. "On the house," she said, three words whose thrilling intensity is unmatched in the English language. Even if you miss out on the freebies, you still get to munch on a good French loaf.
If you're a fan of mussels, don't even bother reading to the end of this column. Close up the newspaper, rush over to Chez Georges and order the mussels mariniere. Without putting too fine a point on it, I was blown away by this dish: 18 hot, steamy, tender bivalves, floating in a riveting broth flavored with garlic, shallot, parsley, white wine and celery. It was all I could do to remember my professional obligations, and not order the mussels for my main dish and dessert.
That's not to say the other appetizers aren't worthy as well. The escargots croustade gets dinner off to a quick start, a ladleful of snails tossed in a creamy garlic sauce, nestled by a delicate piece of puff pastry. (And let's hope the $4.50 tag is not a misprint the proprietor plans to correct.) Three juicy, butterflied shrimp garnished with fresh chopped tomatoes also press the right buttons. And the roasted red pepper plate, bathed in olive oil and garnished with feta and pesto has the scent of the Mediterranean on a summer's day.
For the most part, main dishes are simple and effective. Simplest of all is the steak and frites, a bistro staple. The kitchen rubs fragrant seasonings on a beefy New York steak, and adds a full load of thin, crunchy French-style fries. It's basic satisfaction. Chicken Normandy works because a bland whole chicken breast is rescued from dullsville by a pungent, mushroom-studded apple-brandy sauce.
The kitchen knows its way around duck. A meaty half-bird is roasted and served with a tempting sauce Bigarde, an orange sauce that's citrusy without being annoyingly sweet. Roasted potatoes and gently steamed broccoli make good side-dish foils.
If you crave some main-dish excitement, opt for the monkfish, a species found on too few Valley menus. This creature has never been very popular in America, probably because it's so incredibly ugly. (At one time, French law forbade bringing monkfish--called lotte in French--into port with their heads on. The authorities feared that consumers would be frightened.) But aficionados hail monkfish as "the poor man's lobster" for its meaty texture and delicate taste (although it tastes nothing like lobster), and in our gastronomic capitals, it's quite fashionable.
At Chez Georges, it's filleted, teamed with risotto and moistened by a winy, lemony broth. Like just about everything here, it's bursting with sharp scents.
At this time of year, the fresh strawberries soaked in Grand Marnier that Chez Georges offers are a refreshing way to finish up the meal. And although the restaurant's cakes and pastries come from a supplier (an unfortunate decision), we were told that the supplier is nearby Pierre's Pastry Cafe, so it's unlikely anyone will leave with an unsatisfied sweet tooth. One plus: Somebody here knows how to make a decent cup of espresso.
With just a few exceptions, the Valley's French restaurants are a pretty mediocre lot. I'm grateful that Chez Georges prefers raising our standards to lowering our expectations.
Shredded duck and scallion pancakes
Coconut buttermilk pie
Monkfish and risotto
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