Miro's, 4025 East Chandler Boulevard, Phoenix, 759-6088. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Out in the south Valley, beyond Ahwatukee and north of the Gila River Indian Reservation, the desert is particularly harsh.
It's not that the saguaros are thornier, the ravines drier or the massive housing tracts sprouting on Chandler Boulevard any uglier than elsewhere in the county.
But this area is pretty much a gastronomic wasteland. Residents whose dinnertime yearnings don't stop at Pizza Hut's Bigfoot, Burger King whoppers or a bucket of fried fowl can't get much local satisfaction. For the most part, they have to schlep into town to get a meal that isn't served on a tray by pimply adolescents who can't figure out the change from a twenty.
Things may change. A spanking-new restaurant, Miro's, has moved into the location formerly occupied by P.C.'s Cafe. It's trying to stop dinnertime flight with white-linen dining and a trained chef preparing familiar continental fare, with some twists. It seems geared to diners with a modest sense of adventure.
They should appreciate the spare furnishings and art-deco touches: fetching overhead light fixtures that look like they were snatched from auto headlamps of the 1930s; pale lavender walls and teal-cushioned black lacquer chairs; and mildly abstract, un-Mir¢like paintings that won't set off angry discussions about the fatuity of modern art.
Even before the appetizers arrive, the offbeat olive bread will probably steer the conversation toward food. It's served with a bowl of olive oil, zipped up with heat-packed jalape¤o pepper. The patrons at the next table, unadvised as to its fiery nature, dunked, gasped and gulped down water. More judicious dipping and frequent sips of beer, we found, made the experience a lot more pleasurable.
Appetizers have an inventive, if occasionally surrealistic, quality. Why order bruscchetta after a round of olive bread and olive oil? And who's going to order the 30 grams of caviar for $68, even if the house does throw in frozen Stolichnaya?
On the other hand, monkfish with fruit vinaigrette is a happy change of pace. Called the "poor man's lobster," monkfish sports a meaty taste, here enlivened with a citrusy kick from grapefruit and orange sections. It's different, and it works.
So does the buttery puff pastry covered with a delightful ladleful of wild mushrooms. Fungus fans have to shell out $6.75, but they won't have any trouble rooting them out.
But go easy on the blah house salad. You'll need room for the creative and substantial main dishes.
Cordero Madrile¤o, the most expensive entree at $19.95, doesn't shortchange you. Four tender lamb chops, of bone-gnawing quality, come perched on a potato pancake swabbed with melted blue cheese. The rich textures of lamb and blue cheese meld wonderfully, and the potato pancake fills in any remaining appetite cracks.
And a tray of colorful, butter-laden vegetables--yellow squash, snow peas, roasted potatoes and carrots--takes care of the nutritional holes.
Equally diverting is poulet Gruyäre, four hefty sections of rolled-up chicken breast, stuffed with radicchio, endive, pear and Gruyäre cheese in a savory sauce. The combination of sweet, bitter and tangy flavors gives the dish some oomph.
The kitchen went a bit berserk, though, on the veal Daniel. Nothing wrong with the concept, veal slices tinged with vermouth and garnished with mushrooms and slivered artichokes.
But the execution wasn't nearly as deft. The veal itself lacked quality, too thick and without the fork-tender softness of the best models.
And the vermouth was poured by a hand that obviously didn't know when to say "when." With the addition of some gin, I could have ended up sampling the world's first veal martini.
Along with beef, veal, lamb, chicken and seafood, the menu also boasts a pasta section with eight choices. If they're all as appealing as tortellini alla nocciolla, Miro's might turn into a neighborhood pasta stop.
It's a huge portion of pleasingly chewy tortellini in a heavy, heavy, cream sauce dotted with chopped walnuts and fresh basil. Don't order this and expect to go dancing afterward--you'll need a full night's sleep to handle its effects.
Graduates of culinary institutes, like the chef here, occasionally go off the deep end when it comes to desserts. Pineapple Madagascar is a thick slice of rum-soaked pineapple, cooked with brown sugar--so far, so good--and capers! Not even the scoop of vanilla ice cream on top could wrench this wacky concoction out of the realm of the absurd. It was like putting a color-coordinated belt on a man wearing his pants backward.
Somewhat less creative, and more alluring, was the chocolate decadence, furnished by a supplier. It's a fudgy treat with a caloric wallop.
Miro's deserves some applause on two counts: It brings higher-end (but not extravagantly priced) fare to a neglected part of the Valley, and features a chef who takes some chances. So what if not everything is wildly successful? Man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a restaurant for?
Chances Are, 7570 East Sixth Avenue, Scottsdale, 994-4338. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Some musicologists say the classical form reached its apogee during the reign of Joseph II. Some literary critics argue that the tragic dramas of Periclean Athens have never been surpassed.
The folks behind this nine-month-old establishment evidently believe the heights of gastronomy were reached during the Eisenhower administration. Even the name plays off the late-Fifties Johnny Mathis hit.
And judging from the large, older crowd here on a hot summer weeknight, those culinary sentiments still seem to have resonance. Come here if you want to give your taste buds a safe tour of Fifties fare. Because, unlike Miro's, Chances Are takes absolutely no chances.
A converted bank, Chances Are still has the brick solidity of its former life. The decorator seems to be a partisan of the covered-wagon school of art--oil paintings of cowboys, Indians and purple mountains' majesty above the fruited plain.
In the lounge, the musician pounded out "The Shadow of Your Smile" and "Misty" as couples swooped around the dance floor. An odd segue into Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" sent everyone scurrying back to the tables.
Conforming to the Fifties mentality, those of us dining in the nonsmoking section were tucked away in a corner, away from the lounge action. This is a place that cries out to start the meal with a smoke and a cocktail.
We did--with a shrimp cocktail. It looked just like the one I always begged my parents to get me whenever we ate out: four decent-size shrimp in a tub of red cocktail sauce. Somehow, it tasted better in 1957, maybe because this time I was shelling out $5.75.
But I had no problem springing for the house version of oysters Rockefeller, a half-dozen tender oysters surrounded by lots of spinach slathered with baked cheese. Sure, it's a venerable starter, but it still holds up.
Chances Are offers an impressive list of entrees, more than 30 choices. It's the kind of high-sounding fare that Ozzie and Harriet would have gone out for on a special occasion, without the little Nelsons. As you might expect, dishes arrive covered by metal domes, dramatically whisked off tableside.
Veal Oscar, a traditional staple of ancient, fine dining menus, features veal nestled with Alaskan King crab and asparagus, topped with b‚arnaise sauce. Food trendies, of course, would naturally turn up their noses at such a stodgy dish. But eating isn't like ice skating--originality and artistic creativity aren't the primary considerations.
But unfortunately, the veal Oscar also lacked technical merit. The veal was too tough, the crab microscopic and the b‚arnaise sauce dull.
Beef Wellington is another main dish that has been around so long that it could have been part of this menu even if Chances Are featured the fare of the 1850s.
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The kitchen employs a first-rate hunk of filet, lusciously tender and cooked to medium-rare specifications. It's surrounded by pƒt‚ and enclosed in pastry dough. At least, that's my best guess, because the chef simply drowned it in Bordelaise sauce, creating a soggy bog. Once I pumped out the sauce, though, the superior qualities shone through. And after all, how many places in this town still serve Beef Wellington, and at $14.95?
Chicken cordon bleu, surf and turf, trout amandine, stuffed pork chops, prime rib, Polynesian chicken--reading this menu puts you in quite a time warp. For some inexplicable reason, I started mulling about the breakup of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.
Shrimp scampi hoisted us back to the present. This was clearly the Midwestern version. Four measly shrimp with barely a hint of garlic or wine faced off against a scoop of cafeteria-style rice. The Fifties, evidently, suffered from more than cultural blandness.
Chances Are is a jaunt down memory lane, aimed at folks who remember Dobie Gillis before Nick at Night, James Dean movies before video and John Foster Dulles before History 101. As Yogi Berra said, it's d‚j… vu all over again.