Chart House, 7255 McCormick Parkway, Scottsdale, 951-1733. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Remember this old Twilight Zone episode? The Earth has slipped out of its customary orbit, and is circling ever closer to the sun. We follow a family trying to cope with the mounting heat and for most of the half-hour, viewers are treated to scenes of intense sweating and water-gulping. Near the end of the story, the sweltering protagonists decide to drive to the Arctic Circle, hoping to delay the inevitable final meltdown.
Then comes the famous Twilight Zone twist. At the last moment, we discover--it's a dream! Actually, the Earth is moving away from the sun. In frozen delirium, the lead character has succumbed to hallucinations. Everyone's really heading toward the equator, trying to postpone a cryogenic fate.
Hokey? You bet. Unrealistic? Not at all. Just check out the way some Valley restaurants aim to delude supposedly wide-awake locals into believing we don't live in the furnacelike heat of the parched Sonoran desert.
Places like the Chart House and the Waterfront Restaurant try to pretend the Valley is a tropical paradise. The key element in this make-believe dining drama? Water. Acres and acres of water.
Both places are strategically perched on the edge of a large manmade lake, ringed with swaying palm trees. That craggy peak just to the west of the Chart House? That's not Camelback; it must be Diamondhead. Those seaside villas with their own docks across from the Waterfront? Don't blame lunatic development; we're on the Isle of Capri.
Started way back in the 1960s in Aspen, Colorado, the Chart House has developed into a successful chain, with scores of restaurants operating in tourist destinations throughout the country. The Scottsdale link has the typical island look: cane chairs and carpeting with assorted tropical prints, table-tops covered with laminated nautical maps of Honolulu harbor, servers decked out in brightly colored tropical outfits. One nod to Arizona--Soleri bells hanging in the center of the room.
The dining concept is as well-worn as the decor. The Chart House relies on steak, seafood and salad bar to make customers happy. And, apparently, they are. This place is likely to be filled, even during the summer doldrums. Bargain prices, though, certainly can't be the attraction. Except for a couple of chicken dishes, almost every entree goes for at least $20.
Diners tend to cluster at two spots: window seats and the salad bar. It's easy to understand why we cactus-dwellers like to sit by the windows and stare at the lake. It's somewhat more difficult to account for the continuing lure of the salad bar.
No doubt national nutritional hysteria has something to do with it. People want to be reassured that greenery is available. They also like the idea of putting together their own salad course. And don't discount the mistaken belief that because the salad bar's cost is included with all dinners, folks are getting something for nothing.
The salad bar here has a pretty good reputation, and a few trips through it showed me why. Just remember to ignore the tubs filled with the usual suspects and concentrate on the winners: fresh tomatoes with hearts of palm; well-dressed zucchini and peppers; marinated broccoli, peppers and snow peas. There's also a deft, freshly tossed caesar salad, and a separate serving plate of anchovies nearby for those who insist on authenticity.
The salad bar pretty much means you don't need to fill up on appetizers. Good thing. The "steamed" artichoke seemed to have been boiled. Forever. Ours arrived a water-logged, soggy mess. If you love artichokes, take your $4.95 and buy five at the supermarket to treat yourself at home. The coconut-battered calamari also managed to keep its charms well-hidden.
Entrees are another story. You'll pay for your thrills, but you won't be disappointed. Especially if you enjoy a slab of animal protein. The Chart House uses choice, not prime meats, but I was hard-pressed to notice the difference.
The restaurant touts its prime rib as a "specialty," and the kitchen backs up the claim. The regular cut isn't particularly massive--maybe ten ounces--but the quality is there in every bite. I didn't encounter any fat or gristle, and the meat was butter-soft, without a hint of stringiness.
At $25, the New York pepper steak is the most expensive regular-menu option. If they can overcome the sticker shock, carnivores will find lots of beefy satisfaction. The steak is perfectly grilled, and doused in an invigorating peppercorn-and-brandy sauce, accompanied by a mound of grilled onions.
A successful swordfish entree depends on two elements: fresh fish and competent preparation. The Chart House delivers both. The swordfish is removed from the flames at just the right moment, and served with an innocuous pineapple salsa.
Surprisingly, the least compelling entree was the one I had the highest hopes for. I imagined the Nova Scotia sea scallops would resemble the giant, moist mollusks I've had at the Valley's best restaurants. (The $23 price also stirred my gourmet reveries.) But these creatures were nothing special, and neither was the unimaginative garlic, butter and breadcrumb recipe.
You get a choice of only two side dishes. There's not much to say about the baked potato. But the peppy rice pilaf, flecked with wild rice, almonds and pineapple, indicates that someone back at corporate headquarters is paying attention to details.
Our server encouraged us to finish up with the made-on-the-premises mud pie, but the dessert didn't match the hype. It's an indifferent wedge of coffee ice cream on a cookie crust, glopped with less-than-fabulous whipped cream. The rich mousse pie, fashioned with good bittersweet chocolate, is a tastier and very caloric alternative.
The Chart House isn't skating on the cutting edge of any restaurant trends. The decor and menu not only show their age, they more or less flaunt it. But I can see why well-heeled diners turned on by waterfront views, salad bars and basic animal protein are still smitten.
Waterfront Restaurant, 5350 South Lakeshore, Tempe, 756-0508. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.
There's water, water everywhere at the Waterfront Restaurant, a new enterprise launched early this year by the same company that runs Pinnacle Peak Patio, Bitter Root Cattle Company and T-Bone Steak House.
Inside, a fountain shoots sheets of water over metal walls. Outside, gaze on a soothing sea surrounded by expensive condos and homes. At dusk, the sun sets directly over the far edge of the lake, silhouetting paddle boats meandering across the lake and firing up a brilliant orange sky. This is desert denial with a vengeance. It's also very pretty.
Unfortunately, the food isn't nearly as slick as the setting. The six appetizers don't get any more inventive than shrimp cocktail and fried calamari. We tried perking up the fried mozzarella starter with drinks, but even this tried-and-true method wasn't terribly successful. The frozen margaritas don't have much sting, and the beer on tap was so flat I had to ask the waitress to take it away.
You're better off waiting for the soup or salad that comes with meals. The beef broth, stocked with broccoli and zucchini, is salty, hearty and tasty. The salad is freshened with a zippy vinaigrette. You can mop up both of them with some mushy, focaccialike bread.
Entrees, most of which run in the $12 to $17 range, are much less ambitious than they were when the restaurant first opened. Gone are oysters poached in cognac, bouillabaisse, braised lamb shank and chicken in white wine with capers and artichokes. Apparently, East Valley diners won't support such a menu. They want basic meat, seafood and chicken, and that's what they get.
Already very familiar with the fine quality of the company's steaks through T-Bone Steak House, we opted for main dishes you can't get there.
That meant rack of lamb, a substantial platter of seven tender chops, moistened with cognac sauce and seasoned with a scoop of tarragon. Salty chunks of new red potatoes made a pleasing accompaniment.
I'm not sure what's Costa Rican about the shrimp Costa Rica, but we all agreed it has a nice ring to it. The name, however, is a lot more interesting than the dish itself. It's just six grilled shrimp next to a mound of rice, served with a medley of zucchini, broccoli and mushrooms. There's nothing remotely distinctive or memorable about this.
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Chicken is usually the dullest restaurant dish, but chicken Waldo, a holdover from the Waterfront's earlier menu, sounded promising. We looked forward to chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and spinach in a mushroom-and-wine sauce. But the chef couldn't quite live up to the menu writer's description. For one thing, the sauce is boring. Second, to find the goat cheese, you'd need the same equipment the L.A.P.D. used to find blood on O.J.'s socks. There's really no reason to search for chicken Waldo.
Nor are the baby back ribs anything special. The meat's not fall-off-the-bone tender, and the sauce could have sported a lot more punch.
Our waitress said that desserts come from a supplier, which suggests to me that the kitchen doesn't take this course seriously. The institutional cheesecake and nondescript Black Forest cake confirmed my suspicions.
The delightful setting makes Waterfront Restaurant's culinary lapses that much more disappointing. This place could have, and should have, been a contender.