San Francisco Trite

Fog City Diner, 7014 East Camelback Road (Fashion Square Mall), Scottsdale, 874-2300. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Phoenix is the sixth-largest city in the country. Maricopa County is the fastest-growing county in the country. But the East and West Coast elites haven't really noticed. To them, the Valley of the Sun means one thing: hicks in the sticks.

That's why some Academy Award-nominated films come to town eight months after they open in Los Angeles. That's why hit shows get here three years after their Broadway runs. And, apparently, that's why a wildly successful Bay Area restaurant waited 13 years to launch a branch in our middle-of-nowhere desert outpost.

Fog City Diner captivated sophisticated San Franciscans when it debuted in 1985. Everyone loved the concept: a sleek, sharp diner for the sleek, sharp 1980s, serving both innovative fare and updated diner favorites with an upscale twist. Pretty soon restaurants all over the country were copying the formula, right down to the "Small Plates" and "Large Plates" menu headings.

Had Fog City Diner come to the Valley in 1985, we local yokels would have been stunned by its trendy audacity. Had it come in 1995, I suspect we might have still been wowed by the novelty. But it's 1999, and frankly, I can't see even our most recent silo-dwelling Midwestern arrivals getting very excited about the look or the food here. Fog City Diner may be new in town, but the concept is no longer particularly fresh.

Ironically, the restaurant is probably a victim of its own success: Because of the imitators it spawned, by now we've all been there, and eaten that.

No doubt the savvy operators behind Fog City Diner (they also run next-door Bistecca) fully understand how the culinary landscape has been transformed. They know that some of their once-daring dishes have become menu cliches. And that may be why they decided to locate their Valley unit in Fashion Square, and not in some freestanding building in north Scottsdale or along Camelback Road.

To be blunt: Fog City Diner is no longer a cool, cutting-edge destination spot, where you might eat something new, impress your date and mix with the in crowd. The Valley branch is aimed directly at the high-end mall crowd, mostly tourists and women with too much time on their hands. You won't see any foodies, trendoids or Beautiful People in this 1999 Fog City Diner, at least not more than once. Instead, you'll be mingling with folks who've come here to rest their Nordstrom bags and refuel, gathering the energy to resume their assault on the shops.

That's not to say this bustling place doesn't look snazzy. It does, from the swivel stools along the counter to the comfy leather booths. Vintage photos of San Francisco landmarks like the Cliff House and Golden Gate Bridge line the walls. A skimpily stocked seafood display case shows off a few oysters and crab legs. And naturally, you can get yourself a souvenir of your Fog City Diner experience. How about a nice $29.95 sweatshirt?

The fare isn't nearly as snazzy, though some of it has merit. But there isn't enough merit to make me want to come back.

Fog City Diner's all-day menu certainly doesn't deliver much bang for your buck. You want bread? You'll have to cough up $2.95 for a small, toasted, butter-drenched garlic, leek and basil sourdough loaf that's barely sufficient for two people to share. The wonderful jalapeno corn bread is a better option. It costs a dollar less and comes with a nifty, sweet/hot pepper jelly.

The only thing that comes with the soups, however, is a spoon--not even a cracker. With the seafood chowder, that's a mixed blessing. This creamy, deftly seasoned soup is so good it doesn't need bread or crackers. But it does need a bigger bowl or a smaller price tag. You sure don't get much for $5.95. A soup-of-the-day beef barley also skimps on value. While it's 25 percent cheaper than the seafood chowder, it's about 50 percent less interesting.

If you feel the urge to order the shellfish tray as a shared pre-entree treat, I suggest you lie down until the feeling passes. Eighteen bucks gets you five lackluster oysters, six flabby, water-logged shrimp (the waitress said they were rock shrimp, but they weren't) and two King Crab legs. If you've forgotten that we're in the middle of the desert, this aquatic platter will yank you back to reality in a hurry.

I'd not only skip the salad portion of the menu, I'd take a flying leap over it. Such is my reaction after an unfortunate collision with the "Titanic Iceberg Wedge." It's a retro idea, much in vogue recently, a hunk of iceberg lettuce draped with a Thousand Island-style dressing and a bit of crab. The problem? This greenery had peaked about a week before I ordered it. By the time it reached the table, it was shot through with ugly brown spots. How could someone have ever let this out of the kitchen? And I wasn't too thrilled with the snoozy "crab Louis" part of the salad, either.

The "Small Plates" offer one outstanding choice, the grilled poblano chile. It's got a bit of bite, softened by a dreamy filling made up of five cheeses, pine nuts, polenta and avocado. This dish suggests that somebody in this company once had an active culinary imagination. You certainly don't get that impression, though, from the one-dimensional grilled sesame chicken, skewers of white-meat poultry coated with hot Chinese mustard. And the moo shu pork--two rolled pancakes scantily filled with pork, celery and red pepper--is not so much a clever take on a familiar Chinese dish as it is an inferior version of it.

The best food here is listed under "Large Plates." That's where you'll find the marvelous pork chop: grilled, flavorful meat energized by a first-rate, tamarind-accented tomato sauce. The energy lasts all the way to the last bite. Large Plates is where you'll also find the skirt steak. This cut isn't a common one, except in ethnic restaurants--it's cheap, and not the tenderest part of the cow. But good things can happen to the beef if it's skillfully marinated and grilled, and that's what happens here. Too bad the pre-fab fries that come alongside are so dismal. The big, thick slab of veal meatloaf is a little bland, but it's moistened with a potent chile sauce that furnishes some needed zing. Lumpy garlic mashed potatoes and excellent steamed green beans are just the right complements to this homey platter. And if you lift the beautifully moist sea bass out of the bowl of broth it's inexplicably served in, you'll experience some genuine pleasure.

"Pleasure," however, is not the word that comes to mind when I think of Fog City Diner's sandwiches. The only thing reddened by the reddened snapper poor boy is the embarrassed chef's face. It's just a battered and fried piece of fish, with none of the New Orleans touches the name suggests. Served on undistinguished bread with a bit of tomato, onion and tartar sauce, this poor boy is scarcely indistinguishable from fast food.

No one, however, will mistake the sandwich fashioned from pastrami and curried egg salad for fast food. It's too weird. And if you're hankering for a burger, I suggest you search out a drive-through lane instead. There's no need to come here for this $7.75 model, which has nothing special going for it.

Desserts, like everything else, are a mixed lot. The deep dish apple pie, draped with a canopy of pastry dough, won't remind you of anything Mom ever made. The interior is very dry, and it wasn't even hot all the way through, as promised. Banana chocolate bread pudding, meanwhile, sounds intriguing. Too bad the rum caramel sauce it's smoothed with tastes nothing like rum or caramel.

On the other hand, the chocolate fudge pie almost makes up for all the kitchen's shortcomings. Topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce, it's very rich, very fudgy and very good. And so is the creme brulee, which comes with a chewy cookie.

As you might expect, Fog City Diner is not where you'd want to settle in for a serene, leisurely meal. At prime eating hours, the serving philosophy seems to be, "Move 'em in, and move 'em out." Dishes come out of the kitchen with the kind of breathtaking speed that suggests three-handed line cooks. Busers are ever-watchful, ready to snatch your plate the moment you lay your fork down.

In 1985, in San Francisco, Fog City Diner was a trend-setting restaurant whose time had come. But in 1999, in the Valley of the Sun, it comes across as a restaurant whose time may have come, and gone.

Fog City Diner:
Grilled poblano chile
Pork chop
Skirt steak
Chocolate fudge pie



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