Arizona's dining scene is exploding at record levels, bringing unheard of variety and competition to every corner of the Valley. Last year, in fact, Arizona experienced the nation's third-largest increase in restaurant revenues, and is projected to be among the country's top three again in 2001.
With more than 8,300 restaurants in the state, any restaurant hoping to make a name for itself these days has to be something pretty special. Unfortunately, Suroeste Grille, opened last fall in Ahwatukee, brings nothing new to our plates.
As little as a few years ago, Suroeste could have been a player, jostling primarily with Grace Inn and Valle Luna Mexican Restaurant for area diners' dollars. But today's stakes are much higher. From upscale Tomaso's and Va Bene to pack-'em-in steakhouses like Outback to pseudo but highly popular "exotic" places like Bahama Breeze, the Ahwatukee 'burb is booming with plenty of new restaurants from which to choose.
As it is, it's doubtful that Suroeste's highly familiar menu and sleepy, predictable presentation will break through the clutter. Meaning "southwest" in Spanish, the restaurant's menu has little in the way of Southwestern, nothing in the way of Mexican, and hardly anything that makes it any different from dozens of other eateries within a few short miles. Instead, it's primarily continental American with an Italian bent. Suroeste resonates of Chili's cuisine -- yes, a little nicer, yet also more expensive, topping out at $18.25 for an okay filet mignon served with mashed potatoes and vegetables but no soup or salad.
It's likely that Suroeste's owners are counting on jumping on the area's growth bandwagon, capturing the many thousands of drivers exiting the I-10 as they enter the world's largest cul-de-sac community. Elliot, Warner, Ray and Chandler roads provide the only ingress and egress to Ahwatukee, home to some 100,000 residents. Suroeste has landed a prime location, to be sure, directly next door to a Safeway on the corner of 48th Street and Elliot. Financial partners are Ken and Joy Karns, Ahwatukee residents for more than two decades. And they're supporting the dream of their daughter, Megan Haddad, and her husband, Suroeste executive chef and menu designer Nicholas Haddad.
On looks alone, Suroeste should wow the crowds. A bar welcomes diners, flanked by a row of full-service tables. No noise concerns, here though -- soft jazz plays in the background and all but disappears when guests venture through a doorway into the private, adjacent dining room. An extensive collection of original art selected by Phoenix's Quantum Art is set among taupe walls and soft glowing lights. (See a piece you like? It can be added to your bill.)
Keep your eyes focused on the walls, though -- that's the only real creativity you'll discover. Tried-and-true visual tricks are in evidence otherwise: Plates uniformly come rim-dusted with teeny chops of bell peppers, red cabbage and herbs. On a single plate, the look is fine -- when it shows up on all appetizers and entrees, it's tired.
A few menu items are notable, including Suroeste's terrific homemade desserts. Our party of four has its hands -- and mouths -- full with two selections, a cake called sweet dreams, and tiramisu. Sweet dreams is a monument to chocolate, moistening an enormous brownie with espresso and fudge, baking it to an expertly intermittent crust on the edges, topping it with a lavish scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and more fudge. Tiramisu comes in a slab the size of a paperback romance novel and offers similar escapist delights with mascarpone and fluffy ladyfingers and -- this is nice -- a barely-there level of rum. Sure, we're twitching as we leave, great gasps of sugar spasming our limbs, but we love it.
Southwestern chicken's another good choice, due to careful pan searing of the juicy, nine-ounce breast and opaque veil of breading and seasoning. Yet zesty peach salsa is just chunks of fruit with nothing to break it up, white rice is only an airy distraction on the fork, and chopped zucchini is utterly bland until ample salt and pepper are added. Then, the veggies taste of -- salt and pepper.
The quality of the fish in Suroeste's halibut entree is acceptable -- the white, flaky fillet is properly firm and fresh. But any supposed "jalapeño flair" isn't there, and more wallflower rice and vegetables make this dish strictly dull Carnival cruise cuisine. The ample cut of salmon plated and plunked on our snow-white tablecloth is fine, too, even under its bagel-like crust of white and black sesame seeds. No one's gone nuts with the mild honey glaze, and a bed of sautéed spinach adds much-appreciated life to our here-it-comes-again zucchini and (this time) salty wild rice.
From there, dinner at Suroeste is downhill, collapsed by too much been there, done that, and too little follow-through on menu promises. Doing restaurant reviews can be fun as foodies get absorbed in the boisterous character of the food, but here, we're forced to rely on our own personalities. As delightful as my tablemates and I are, it's difficult to find much thrill in an evening out featuring such average fare.
One evening's chicken special is anything but. Chicken breast has been stuffed with a few stalks of asparagus and a ribbon of gouda, then finished with those exaggerated char stripes that shout, "This bird's been grilled, see?" The best thing on the plate are mashed potatoes, smooth and studded with garlic. The potatoes are much improved, in fact, over a previous evening's dry, dusty version served with peppercorn rib eye. The 14-ounce boneless cut, meanwhile, also sports those thick char stripes, but this time, all the good, burnt flavor is in force. Too bad that's the only taste to be found -- a few green peppercorns dotting innocuous brown gravy can't hide ordinary beef.
We're greatly looking forward to an appetizer of eggplant roulade, but even our wittiest conversation can't add spark to a half-dozen slivers of ordinary grilled fruit dropped on a bed of lettuce. It sounds magical, stuffed with gouda and marinated tomatoes under mango salsa, but the cheese is odd-textured, more like ricotta, and the mango is so heavily chunked it squashes the subtle eggplant flavor. The dish is a great idea, but start over.
Details count, and Suroeste seems to be missing that route, with such a creamy base to its penne pesto with roasted red pepper entree that the pesto -- which certainly could carry the dish on its own -- is lost. This comes across as chain-restaurant pesto sauce, tagged more for its green color and whole pine nuts than its distinctive taste. Few diners will be satisfied by the meager wads of artichoke hearts mixed in, the bulbs shamed as they are with tough leaves that should have been tossed.
Mardi Gras pasta, meanwhile, befuddles me with its ability to appeal when served hot, but to completely offend when it's cooled. We can expect cream sauce with tri-colored peppers, onions and a touch of garlic, the menu oozes, and upon initial presentation, the sauce sways with a spicy charge (watch out, there's little warning of packed heat on the printed description). After a few minutes at the table, however, the sauce has glued into that gritty, floury blend that constitutes boxed mac-'n'-cheese, and extinguishes the Cajun-spiced shrimp's flames.
Other dishes have spent a bit too much time with the heat. Two hefty crab cakes are a doomed duo because of their very dry, overcooked and salty edges. I'm satisfied by the cake's hot peppery finish; my dining companions hate it because they're not expecting any chili, and really, the spice should be in the orange-colored cream sauce served along with it. A portabella appetizer has been overcooked as well, thin mushroom triangles grilled to a blackened edge and doused with cubed tomato and sliced tomato in a ho-hum white wine-tomato reduction. It's not even poor enough to be interesting.
Ensalada Greco, meanwhile, has us nodding off after a few bites. The components are there: romaine tossed with black olives and a generous amount of feta cheese plus celery stalks and tomato slices. But the feta lacks tang, and the house vinaigrette is simply too mild. It's a curious quietness -- there's a whole lot of punch in the bread presentation, after all, with a hard-hitting dressing blending balsamic, olive oil, fresh grated parmesan and black pepper.
The people behind Suroeste care, it's apparent. It's obvious in the friendly, warm service and the consideration behind menu descriptions. Folks wanting a comfortable, chain-cuisine experience in a much quieter, more sophisticated atmosphere will find Suroeste to their liking. But until the kitchen kicks it up a few notches, and gives us food that tastes as spunky as it reads, there's no need for the rest of us to make a special trip.
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