Sizzle Shtick

Carvers, 10825 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 998-8777. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Morton's of Chicago and Ruth's Chris Steak House, the Valley's two premier steak restaurants. They each boast prime-grade beef, the best money can buy. Steaks run from about $22 to $30, strictly a la carte. Throw in appetizers, side dishes and desserts, and dinner for two can easily range into triple digits.

That's a range most folks aren't at home on.
Still, most red-blooded Americans crave beef, despite its cost and nutritional shortcomings. These days, it's often how we "reward" ourselves on Saturday night for virtuous eating the rest of the week. On those occasions, we want something a little more upscale and elegant than a Sizzler steak-and-salad-bar platter. But a meal at Morton's or Ruth's Chris is simply too much of a budget stretch.

Savvy restaurant operators have identified this new, midmarket splurge niche, and are ready to exploit it. You'll be seeing more and more steak houses positioned between mass-market, sawdust-on-the-floor, crank-up-the-country-music joints and high-end places that cater to the folded-linen-napkin, money-is-no-object, check-out-the-trophy-wife crowd.

What will this midmarket restaurant look like? It'll be too posh to bring the kids, but the setting won't intimidate adults.

What will the menu look like? Don't expect Buffalo wings or hamburgers--they're too downscale. And don't expect aged prime beef or souffles--they're too upscale.

Look for a place like Carvers, a new chain steak house run by the same group that operates Hungry Hunter. For a bit under 20 bucks, Carvers offers complete steak dinners, featuring choice-grade beef (one grade below prime), served in an almost-swanky setting. In nearly every respect, this place is a winner.

Carvers looks good, a freestanding building set at one end of an enormous Scottsdale shopping center. (There's a branch in the northwest Valley, too.) The room is woodsy, lined with plush booths and lots of potted greenery. Music from the 1940s spills softly out of the music system.

The food is good, too; even startlingly good. Someone back at company headquarters knows how to put together a tempting steak-house menu. And someone here knows how to cook.

The appetizer list furnishes evidence of both corporate and kitchen know-how. Among the five starters, there's not a single deep-fried munchie. Imagine a steak house without potato skins, wings, onion rings or battered mushrooms. In this age of copycat concepts and menus, that takes courage.

Instead, we were wowed by excellent grilled, smoked-chicken sausage, teamed with cabbage and moistened with a grown-up horseradish-mustard sauce zipped up with aniseed. Equally compelling is the inventive portabella mushroom layered with cheese and coated with spinach and shrimp in a cream sauce. The only misstep? A breadbasket of no distinction. (Attention, manager: The Arizona Bread Company is less than a quarter-mile away.)

You're in no danger of starving to death if you pass on the appetizers. Meals come with soup or salad, and they're another happy indication that Carvers isn't just going through the motions.

The crock of thick lentil soup will make you forget it's not exactly soup season. But I'd opt for the first-rate spinach salad, studded with dried cranberries, apples and nuts in a honey-mustard dressing. The house caesar salad also displays a bit of flair.

The real star of Carvers' operation is the beef. I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that, for the price, it's about as good as you can get in the Valley.

The menu calls the prime rib a signature dish. I won't argue. The chef's cut is 12 ounces of beefy beauty, burnished by an herb crust and gilded with a port wine sauce that ratchets up the pleasure an extra notch. In a town full of fatty, gristly, tough, overpriced prime rib, this model stands out.

My beef-averse spouse accompanied me to Carvers out of a sense of wifely devotion, not culinary enthusiasm. When I commanded her to order the grilled rib eye, she did her duty, as always, without flinching.

When the steak arrived, however, duty turned to joy. She attacked this beef with totally uncharacteristic, even unnatural, gusto. After I pried a few bites away from her, I could see why. The meat is rubbed with fragrant chile oil, which gives it a bit of a kick. Then it's paired with a luscious sweet-pepper-and-onion relish. It's obvious Carvers can do more than just grill up a slab of meat.

On the other hand, if it's grilled slabs of meat you want, Carvers can do that with equal skill. The New York strip is a topnotch piece of animal protein, beefy and juicy. No, it's not in the same sublime class as Morton's. But it's not $29.95, either. Mildly flavored filet mignon is also appealing, tender enough to gum.

Side dishes could use some perking up. Why not offer cottage fries or spinach au gratin, like they do at Ruth's Chris? Instead, diners are limited to a snoozy baked potato, a too-salty almond rice pilaf or a very tasty roast vegetable medley fashioned from squash, red pepper and broccoli.

Desserts are the weakest part of the meal. Most of the sweets aren't made in-house, and they have an institutional look. The pecan pie, for instance, is strictly routine. The homemade raspberry bread pudding needs a punchier vanilla sauce.

The after-dinner espresso was so wretched, we complained. The waitress apologized and said the machine was not reliable. But if the machine isn't working right, it should be shut off before customers start squawking.

Carvers is already a first-rate steak house, a place that will satisfy all beefy cravings. With a little tweaking, it could turn into something even more formidable: a first-rate restaurant.

Austins, 3636 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 675-9085. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.

Is there anything to distinguish Austins from most of its steak-house rivals, like Outback Steakhouse and Lone Star Cafe? Not that I can notice.

Austins is a chain outfit out of Nebraska, serving exactly the same kind of food, in exactly the same kind of setting, as just about every other chain steakhouse in America.

Can you be a restaurant designer? Take this simple test.
1. Hanging on Austins' walls are
a) Picasso reproductions from his "Blue" period
b) photos from the Robert Mapplethorpe collection

c) cutesy stuffed animal heads: a fox with glasses, a deer with a football helmet, and a buffalo head with a "No hunting" sign around its neck

2. To make customers feel at home, management pipes in
a) chants of the Benedictine monks
b) Dr. Dre
c) twangy country music
3. Every television set in the room is tuned to
a) Benny Hinn
b) scrambled signals from the Playboy Channel
c) whatever is on ESPN

The food is just as predictable as the decor. It's not bad at all, especially the meat. It's just indistinguishable from the competition's.

There's nothing very creative or compelling about the appetizers, the usual assortment of dips and deep-fried munchies. You're better off filling up for free on the fresh biscuits--they're even better once you coat them with Austins' honey butter. The soup or salad that comes with steak dinners is also a reasonably effective way to deal with hunger pangs.

The meat is impressive, most of it Angus beef from Nebraska. Platters hover around $15, but you can get smaller cuts, like a six-ounce, center-cut sirloin for $9.95, or massive cuts like the 30-ounce porterhouse for $25.95.

The 18-ounce T-bone is the best choice: sizzling, beefy and juicy, with just enough resistance to put your jaws pleasantly to work. The House Steak isn't too far behind. It's a 14-ounce rib eye encrusted with pepper and spices, served on a hissing iron skillet. This preparation is somewhat offbeat, but it works. Prime rib also presses the right carnivore buttons. It's a thick-cut slab, notable for its deep flavor, satisfying texture and lack of gristle. In comparison, however, the 11-ounce New York strip seems rather ho-hum, lacking both beefy wallop and juicy tenderness.

Nobody in the kitchen is working overtime on the side dishes. Mashed potatoes are decent enough, as long as you can keep the cook from ladling on the horrendous gravy. French fries and rice pilaf taste like they came out of a 50-pound bag. The assorted steamed vegetables seem to be seasoned only by Austins' ventilation system. Your best bet is to fork out an extra $1.25 and spring for the twice-baked potato, an honest-to-God spud covered with a glop of orange cheese.

Don't bother lingering for dessert. There's a very sweet chocolate brownie that comes with a scoop of second-rate vanilla ice cream. The lackluster cherry cobbler might be homemade, as the menu says, but "homemade" isn't necessarily a synonym for "high quality."

Like most corporate restaurants, Austins has a goofy tale on the back of its menu. The heroine is Sadie Austin, who says things like, "I'll open me a roadhouse and it'll be a Nebraska beef, 100%, true blue, all-American, star-spangled, best-in-the-world roadhouse! (No Australians need apply.)"

However, in small type at the very bottom of the page, you'll find the true story. It reads: "Austins Steaks & Saloon, Inc., is a publicly traded company. NASDAQ symbol: 'STAK.'"

My advice: Buy stock, and eat at Carvers.

Smoked-chicken sausage
Grilled rib eye
Prime rib (12 ounces)
New York strip

Prime rib (12 ounces)
House Steak
T-bone steak
Brownie sundae



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