Marco Polo Supper Club, 8608 East Shea, Scottsdale, 483-1900. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
When it comes to watching summertime television reruns, you know just what you're going to see: the exact same show you saw the first time around.
But restaurant reruns don't necessarily follow the same fixed script. When a successful restaurant opens a second location, customers no doubt expect to be guided on a comfortable trip through a familiar menu. But any new eating journey inevitably takes some unexpected twists and turns.
Cases in point: Marco Polo Supper Club and T-Bone Steak House. Looking to ride the wave of our growing dining-out market, each has opened new branches in the past few months. The new operations offer virtually the same dishes that built up loyal followings at their first spots. But the results of the two expansions are hardly identical.
The new Marco Polo, set in a sprawling northeast Valley shopping center, outdoes the original in every respect. It's clearly one of this town's better restaurants.
Don't bother searching for the first Marco Polo, by the way. Set in a shopping strip storefront at Goldwater and East Camelback, it recently closed. Nordstrom's is taking over the site.
The new place has snappy big-city style, and big-city looks. Dark wood paneling, dark wood floors, gilded mirrors and tiled ceilings provide clubby elegance. Old-fashioned globe lamps with etched glass furnish dim, but not somber, lighting. Hundreds of family-album photos of the restaurant's nine partners and their families line the walls, furnishing homey reassurance. The up-tempo, vintage Sinatra on the music system ("Old Devil Moon," "Pennies From Heaven") also contributes to the let's-dress-up, it's-Saturday-night feel.
The only decor misstep: a television in the bar, entirely too visible from the dining area, that cheapens the otherwise sophisticated visual and audio effects.
Named after the 13th-century Italian merchant and adventurer, Marco Polo aims to bridge the gap between East and West by marrying Chinese flavors to Italian dishes. The results, particularly in the main dishes, can be extraordinary.
Appetizers don't do much more than hint at what's to follow. Kung Pao prawns feature four stir-fried crustaceans blended with peppers, pineapple, scallions and cashews, in a peppy hoisin sauce. The clump of crispy rice noodles alongside, however, is more decorative than tasty. Deep-fried potstickers are another munching option that can pleasurably kill some time before the entrees arrive.
But frankly, it's just as effective, and considerably cheaper, to stir up the appetite juices by nibbling on the outstanding bread (from the nearby Arizona Bread Company, I was told). Olive oil and Parmesan cheese help gild the bread lily.
The main dishes sport an ingenuity and flair that grab you by the lapels and don't let go. There are lots of places in town that serve entrees in the $15-to-$20 range--almost none of them are this good, or this interesting.
Of the two dozen or so choices, nine come tagged as "Original Marco Polo house specialties." These are where you want to focus your attention.
The lobster and shrimp pasta, an occasional special at the first Marco Polo, is now a featured menu item. It deserves to be. And it will give you a good idea of what Marco Polo is all about.
The chef sauts a generous amount of shellfish in olive oil and garlic, adds a heap of soft lo mein noodles, throws in cabbage and bok choy and stir-fries the mix in a wok. A mildly spicy tomato sauce moistens the ingredients and injects a zesty, just-right flavor note.
No way could the other entrees surpass this one, I thought. Wrong. After I sampled the Hong Kong chicken, penne alla Szechuan duck and filet mignon broccoli steak, I was paralyzed with indecision trying to figure out which dish was my favorite.
Hong Kong chicken brings a hefty platter of chicken breast rolled with mozzarella, calamari (not shrimp, as the menu advertises), sprouts and spinach. It's paired with linguini tossed with a tangy orange sauce packing a sharp citrusy smack. This has to be one of the most appealing poultry dishes in the Valley. And for lip-smacking diversion, check out the wonderful side of skin-on eggplant parmigiana that comes with it.
Penne alla Szechuan duck is equally beguiling. Tubes of pasta are stir-fried with mushrooms, cabbage and unconscionable amounts of crisp, meaty, boneless duck. Everything's coated with an on-target, slightly sweet Oriental sauce. If you've got $12.95 and a yen for something different in the way of pasta, this should be your first stop.
But if I were forced to hand out top honors, I'd have to go with the filet mignon broccoli steak. It's a riveting blend of glorious, thinly sliced beef and broccoli, smothered in an irresistible hoisin oyster sauce. The carnivorous pal who ordered it demolished every last bite, then attacked the breadbasket to sop up every last bit of sauce. "I can't help it," he said, as I volunteered my own aid.
Compared with the main dishes, desserts are somewhat tame, just as at the first Marco Polo. There are only three sweets: a light cheesecake, a routinely pleasant tiramisu and a chocolate tartufo surrounded by pears in raspberry sauce.
Management has made one nice change. At the old location, espresso went for $3.50. At that price, even the decaffeinated version kept me up. Now it's a more reasonable $2.25.
But success can breed problems, too. Even though the tourist season is long over, Marco Polo is likely to be packed, particularly on weekend evenings. If it is, diners may have to gird themselves against unreasonably swift service that aims to turn tables over as quickly as possible. Our entrees arrived before the appetizers were cleared; the interval between main dishes and dessert left no breathing room; and the check arrived with unsummoned alacrity.
Still, the new Marco Polo belongs on any short list of good-time Valley restaurants. Sinatra once crooned that love can be better the second time around. This place proves that restaurants can be better the second time around, too.
T-Bone Steak House, 5202 North Central, Phoenix, 234-2255. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Somebody obviously thinks that this town needs a second T-Bone Steak House.
I can't think of a single reason to visit this new Central Avenue branch, especially if you're familiar with the wonderful original location. That spot, parked halfway up a mountain on South 19th Avenue, offers a stunning Valley view and genuine Western bustle. In contrast, this place has a view of Central Avenue traffic and the energy of a dentist's waiting room.
Except for some scattered frontier paraphernalia and a deer head stapled to the back wall, this supposedly Western steak house looks distressingly like the last three restaurant failures that have died at this jinxed site over the past few years. It still resembles a coffee shop, only one lined with wagon wheels and farm tools. The piped-in, old-time country western hits ("Ghost Riders in the Sky") certainly can't sustain any cowboy illusions diners may bring along.
It's not only the look that makes this branch suffer in comparison to the original. The food's not nearly as good, either.
Perhaps it's because of some Old West chuck-wagon code I'm not familiar with, but the T-Bone menu doesn't bother with appetizers. Instead, dinners start off with a humdrum iceberg lettuce salad and "Texas" bread, which turned out to be thick slices of mushy whole wheat. Needless to say, neither the greenery nor the bread got the needle moving on my excitement meter.
Surprisingly, though, neither did the main dishes. That's because, unlike our experiences on South 19th Avenue, almost nothing we ordered got cooked according to our specifications. You don't have to be a culinary academy graduate to remove meat from the flames at the right moment. You just have to be attentive.
And it's not as if the cooks are busy preparing exotic sauces or fancy dishes. The menu is small enough to write on the palm of your hand: four cuts of steak, prime rib, chicken and halibut.
A 16-ounce T-bone, ordered medium, came to the table so undercooked that it looked as if it had just been cut from the flank of a live steer. The 12-ounce sirloin also arrived considerably south of the medium rare we had requested. It's good-quality meat--beefy, juicy, tender--but who wants to play steak roulette with the preparation?
The smoked half chicken also experienced a cooking misfire. Sizzling on the outside, it was ice cold in the center. I imagine it had been cooked hours before, and then had sat shivering in a refrigerator before being too briefly exposed to the flames. And after we sent it back, the bird was returned minus its wing. What's going on here?
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Prime rib was the only animal protein success. It was thick-cut, moist and without a spec of stringiness or inedible gristle.
Like the cooking, the side dishes would also benefit from some extra attention. Bland cowboy beans need to be punched up with some seasoning. The out-of-the-bag French fries are disgraceful. When the baked potato is the entree's most exciting accompaniment, you know something's out of whack.
Desserts are better, maybe because no one in the kitchen is actually cooking them. There's a surprisingly good cheesecake and a fine apple pie topped with cinnamon ice cream.
This T-Bone Steak House is no substitute for the original. My advice: Accept no imitations.