Return of the Native: About a year ago I wrote a less-than-glowing review of Tarbell's Restaurant, a glitzy, trendy, pricey bistro that boastfully styled itself a "great American restaurant" the moment it opened. I saw potential, but, at the time, Tarbell's didn't belong in the same league with competitors like Christopher's Bistro, Rancho Pinot Grill, RoxSand, Marco Polo Cafe and Eddie's Grill.
What did impress me was the proprietor's classy response to my assessment. He wrote me a polite letter agreeing with several of my points, and pledging to do everything he could to set things right. No doubt a clear-headed sense of self-interest also lay behind his epistolary flattery. But how many of us, publicly analyzed and dissected, could bring ourselves to be so civil to our critics?
I recently paid a return visit. The place is still glitzy, trendy and pricey. But we no longer have to talk about "potential." Tarbell's has arrived.
I was glad to see the vigorously flavored, smoked rock shrimp appetizer ($8.50) is still around. Another starter, a steamed artichoke in a perky lemon-mustard vinaigrette ($7.95), makes for a light summertime nibble. But I particularly enjoyed the big bargain bowl of steamed mussels ($6.75), bathed in a heady broth of white wine and shallots.
The main dishes have been tweaked and fine-tuned. Last time, for instance, I had a pizza that could have been concocted by Timothy Leary. It was topped with green beans, asparagus, corn, red pepper, blue cheese and sliced potato--not a particularly felicitous combination. These days, however, the pizza toppings impress more with their flavors than with their weirdness. Look for items like smoked portabella mushrooms, barbecue chicken, fresh mozzarella and a toasted pecan-basil pesto.
A year ago, I couldn't get very excited about the undistinguished steak frites. This time, though, this bistro staple made a much better impression. The eight-to-ten-ounce slab of New York sirloin was marvelously tender and expertly grilled, and was accompanied by thin, French-style pommes frites and lightly creamed spinach. The $24.95 tag, though, practically put it in Morton's and Ruth's Chris pricing territory.
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Huge Sea Scallops ($19.50) is not an entirely accurate name for this dish. Some scallops were, some weren't. But they were fashionably undercooked and luscious. However, I wouldn't have minded a few more tablespoons of couscous on the plate--this platter can leave some appetite holes.
Desserts (all $6) send you home in style. Tarbell's continues to serve its Hawaiian chocolate mousse, a rich, intense treat. Mercifully, the chocolate bread pudding isn't too sweet, and isn't too heavy. The gingerbread shortcake lined with fresh peaches and cream can almost make you glad it's still summer. And to my enormous pleasure, Tarbell's brews seriously good coffee and espresso.
Tarbell's is at 3213 East Camelback. Call 955-8100.
Suggestions? Write me at New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,