Regional Doubt

Coyote Grill, 7077 East Bell, Scottsdale, 480-922-8424. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 11 p.m.

Back in 1994, an unpretentious Southwestern restaurant opened at 32nd Street and Greenway Road, one of the Valley's lower-profile culinary intersections. Coyote Grill bravely took over a shopping strip storefront that had swiftly sent its two previous tenants into restaurant oblivion.

Southwestern restaurants in this town have almost always been higher-end destination spots, set mostly in fancy resorts and malls: Cafe Terra Cotta, Arizona Kitchen, Pinon Grill, Top of the Rock and Vincent's. If you wanted a taste of the Southwest, you had to be prepared to pay for it. (And, unfortunately, that's still pretty much the case now.)

Coyote Grill, though, was different. It aimed to be a friendly neighborhood spot, and it hit the target. The food was wonderfully inventive and exceptionally tasty, and the casual, low-key staff and setting were very congenial. Even better, an evening at Coyote Grill didn't set off alarm bells at Visa headquarters. With entrees in the $9 to $12 range, you could put together a terrific three-course meal for 20 bucks or less. I loved eating here. And so did plenty of other folks in the neighborhood.

But the proprietor clearly had ambitions. Over the next few years, he made costly renovations. Menu prices started creeping up. The place developed more of an upscale air. As a result, Coyote Grill seemed less and less in synch with the neighborhood. Not surprisingly, about a year ago the proprietor closed it down and looked for another neighborhood.

Where did he go? Where every restaurateur with a recipe book, matching cutlery and a line of credit has been flocking these days: the exploding northeast Valley. They all know that the area's well-heeled new arrivals enjoy nothing more than disposing of their disposable income over a restaurant dinner.

The location decision may have been a no-brainer. But choosing a chef is a lot trickier. Coyote Grill pulled off a coup by luring Farn Boggie over from the Pinon Grill. During his two stints there during the 1990s, Boggie turned Pinon Grill into a Best of Phoenix winner, one of this town's premier Southwestern restaurants. So I set out to visit Coyote Grill armed with an appetite and an unusually heightened sense of anticipation.

The restaurant is set in one of those spanking-new shopping centers that seem to be springing full-blown out of the desert earth. The place itself looks great: sleek, stylish and snazzy. The two-tiered room features clever copper accents, from the bud-filled vase on the table to the strips set in colored glass on the walls. The booths come in soothing earth tones. The live music is just soothing, courtesy of a guitarist who knows every tune written by Cat Stevens, Paul Simon and James Taylor, and who has the uncanny knack of sounding just like whoever he's playing. There's not a painting, print or poster in sight, and I found myself staring at the bare walls more than I would have had something actually been hung on them. Maybe the designers are making a postmodern artistic statement.

During his Pinon Grill days, Boggie made his own artistic statement. He put out a basket with absolutely the best chile cheese muffins I have ever tasted. When we ate there, I'd instruct my wife to bring a big purse, so we could squirrel some away. Coyote Grill's cheese muffins, flecked with red chile and corn, are outstanding. But good as they are, I know for a fact the chef hasn't tapped his full muffin potential.

He hasn't plumbed the appetizer depths, either. Does anyone get excited anymore about a quesadilla, mussels, onion rings or bruschetta? Why hire a chef to oversee such hackneyed starters? And it's not only the conception that's underwhelming--the execution is sometimes just as weak. The seafood cocktail is a Mexican-style cocktail that needs some serious punching up. A dash more cilantro, onion, lime and cucumber in the bland tomato sauce would help, as would a Southwestern jalapeno kick. The rock shrimp in the cream-cheese-filled spring rolls must have been measured out with tweezers--I couldn't taste them. At two for seven dollars, you don't get much bang for your buck, either. The homemade onion rings, stacked in a cone around a sprig of rosemary, are fresh and crunchy, and teamed with homemade ketchup. But at $4.50, the portion is way too miserly.

If you're going to fill up on something besides the corn muffins before dinner, consider the soups. The old Coyote Grill used to make some great ones--I still recall with enormous pleasure the chile-spiked cream of cilantro studded with grilled mussels. (Why isn't it on the menu here?) Still, if the crock of vigorous onion soup, fashioned with beef stock and beer, is any indication, the place hasn't lost its knack.

The kitchen puts most of its effort into the main dishes. But despite the attention, the food doesn't have quite the Southwestern zest and flair it did at either the old Coyote Grill or Pinon Grill. No doubt management doesn't want to scare off its skittish neighbors, recent arrivals who may not be able to handle our region's culinary intensity. But while I understand the reasoning, I'm also a little disappointed by it. The Coyote Grill's team is really talented. Imagine going to the ballpark and watching Mark McGwire trying to hit doubles. That's how I felt eating here.

Consider the salmon Wellington. The idea has been around for a while, but it still has some life in it. But this version needs to be juiced up. Salmon is rich, but bland. And when it's wrapped in indifferent puff pastry and draped in a rich, bland Parmesan cream sauce, it doesn't get any more exciting.

Seafood paella could also have used a spark. This dish--shrimp, scallops, halibut, mussels, chicken and asparagus tossed in saffron rice--could soar. But the promised assorted chiles don't make any impression at all. So the paella stays grounded.

Roasted snapper delivers a little more snap, but not because of any Southwestern touches. Instead, the fillet is coated with Parmesan and black-sesame seeds, and set in a bowl full of lemony broth. Actually, there's way too much lemony broth--it's almost like roasted snapper soup. I'd suggest the kitchen transfer the fish to a plate and add the broth with a teaspoon, instead of a bucket.

The entree featuring a shrimp tamale and crab cakes disappeared from the menu after my first visit, and I think I know why. The crab cakes are skillet-crunchy, but the taste couldn't match the texture. The tamale, meanwhile, was way too dry, and the tomato chipotle sauce too weak.

The kitchen turns up the flavor profile when it works on meat. The single best dish here is the sliced New York strip, served on a green chile pancake, adorned with lots of shiitake mushrooms and smothered in a prickly pear barbecue sauce that keeps your attention from first bite to last.

Southwestern beef Wellington is an improvement on its salmon counterpart. The improvement is entirely due to the heady cascabel chile sauce it's moistened with, full of energy and bite. However, the meat itself, an undistinguished hunk of filet mignon, is not as butter-soft as it might be. Still, I understand it's a trade-off: You can't expect prime-grade beef in an $18.95 entree. And you have to salute Coyote Grill for keeping a lid on entree prices--nothing here goes beyond $19.95, and many dishes go for several dollars less.

One of them is the stuffed pork chop, and you won't feel shortchanged. It delivers perfectly grilled meat perked up by a lively mix of flavors: a lusty wild mushroom stuffing and tangy pineapple-apple sauce. I'd come back for this anytime.

But I wouldn't be in quite the same hurry to reacquaint myself with the stuffed chicken breast, filled with sharp, salty chorizo and smoothed with an innocuous yellow pepper sauce that got more or less lost.

Desserts are embarrassingly weak. It's almost as if Coyote Grill decided to say, "The hell with it," and depend mainly on outside suppliers.

You sure won't want to linger over one of the least agreeable tiramisus in Maricopa County. This version sets back the art of pastry-making several decades. After spooning into the leaden bread pudding, my wife noted that "even mine is better." I grimly found myself agreeing with her. And neither the mango pineapple cobbler nor the custard-filled chocolate taco comes close to passing the calorie-to-taste test.

An additional note to management: You're located in one of the most upscale areas in town. It's 1999. At this time and place, an espresso machine is a necessity, not a luxury. Spring for one, and teach the staff how to use it.

The staff could use some training in other areas, as well. I know the job market is tight, and good help is hard to find. But the service isn't as polished as it ought to be. They even had trouble with the basics: refilling water glasses, replacing silver and clearing dishes.

Coyote Grill may be a victim of my great expectations. Given its history and personnel, I expected this reborn restaurant to produce meals that could sing. Right now, though, all they can do is hum.

Coyote Grill:
Seafood cocktail
Stuffed pork chop
New York strip in prickly pear sauce
Mango pineapple cobbler


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