SURF ON TURF
Oyster Grill, 455 North Third Street (Arizona Center), Phoenix, 252-6767. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
Most people in the Valley have moved here from someplace else. And sometimes they have a hard time letting go of the past. Why else would they try to plant grassy lawns in the middle of the desert? Why else would they demand that the television weathercaster tell us the temperature in Chicago? And why else would they insist on ordering fragile, expensive fresh seafood in restaurants? Right now, in the middle of summer, it's just about impossible to delude yourself even momentarily that Phoenix is an oceanfront community. Folks who think they feel sea breezes on their cheek, hear waves crashing on the beach or see seagulls making lazy circles in the sky, are either in the Twilight Zone or San Diego. Well, Rod Serling must have been hiding in the kitchen at the Oyster Grill and Il Pescatore, two local ports where I recently dropped anchor looking for seafood dinners. Or maybe both places were pumping salt air through their air-conditioning vents, trying to work subliminally on my unconscious. All I know is, by the time I left, I was convinced that the pier was right outside the door. Over the past five years, Big Four Restaurants, at one time the operators of some of this town's trendiest eating places, has failed to keep pace with the Valley's growing dining-out sophistication. These days, Oscar Taylor, the American Grill and Aldo Baldo look pretty tame, compared, say, with rivals like Christopher's Bistro, Eddie's Grill and Franco's Trattoria. But if the Oyster Grill is any indication, the company is on the verge of turning its fortunes around. The fare here is as appealing as any seafood restaurant's in town, and has prices that won't drive customers into a life of piracy. The Arizona Center location isn't going to remind anyone of Fisherman's Wharf. But the designers have done what they could with the space. An oyster bar occupies one side of the airy room, a casual dining section the other. The wall is painted aquatic blue, and a large, indeterminate metallic sea sculpture hangs from the ceiling. ("An amoeba," opined one employee, when I asked what it was.) Booths are lined with tropical prints, and the tables are covered with oilcloth. I liked the touch of immediately bringing over to the table a whole baguette in a paper bag. I liked it even more when I discovered the bread was perfectly fresh. But even though it's cost-efficient, I recommend you don't fill up on the free loaf. The Oyster Grill's starters are worth spending money on. The soups are good enough to order in the middle of a desert summer. New England clam chowder is right on target, a rich, creamy, not-too-salty broth thickly stocked with clams. And the Sonoran Oyster Curry Stew is magnificent, one of the best dishes I've had in months. The big bowl features plump blue point oysters in a mildly spicy, curry-tinged cream broth that's also swimming with eggplant and onions. Everything's topped with crispy shreds of fried leeks. For some folks with smaller appetites, this filling stew could be a meal in itself, especially if you work on the baguette at the same time. Personally, only a professional obligation to sample the rest of the menu kept me from ordering seconds. Another profitable way to start the meal is to munch on shrimp and cream cheese egg rolls, four crunchy specimens that are accompanied by a fruity dipping sauce. The menu lists some two dozen species of fresh fish that the restaurant carries at different times. Those that are available--seven the night we were there--have their prices filled in next to them. They cost substantially less than their counterparts at the Big Four's other seafood restaurant, Steamers, at the Biltmore Fashion Park. But they're just as effective. There's only one method of preparation, grilling over alder wood. Moist, reasonably sized slabs of ahi tuna, swordfish and thresher shark all arrived competently prepared. And each dish came with a side order of luscious, corn-flecked mashed potatoes and a heap of garlicky braised greens.
The tasty seafood stew called cioppino (invented in San Francisco) is also an appealing option. It looked like it was put together by Noah: two scallops, two shrimp, two mussels, two clams, two calamari, as well as pieces of salmon in a robust tomato-garlic broth. It's surprisingly wallet-friendly, too. When's the last time you saw a $12 cioppino, in this or any other town? The Oyster Grill has also come up with a wine list that won't send anyone to the poorhouse. The wines are all from California, and all 20 are available by the glass. If wine's not for you, maybe the microbrew sampler is. For $3.50, you get three small tastes from the six microbrews on tap. Desserts end the meal on the same high note on which it began. Chocolate tower features flourless chocolate cake in raspberry sauce, lined with white chocolate mousse and enclosed by sugar cookies. The Snickers cheesecake, a heavy treat that requires several cups of coffee to wash it down, is gilded with peanut brittle and caramel sauce. The restaurants at the Arizona Center tend to be places you go to because you've got something else planned in the area--a game at America West, a play at Herberger, a concert at Symphony Hall. The Oyster Grill, though, is worth a stop on its own dining merits. Il Pescatore, 13802 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 951-8450. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Before you can really concentrate on the first-rate seafood, you have to get past the contrast between Il Pescatore's look and its location. The restaurant recently moved to expanded digs. Now it's installed at the back end of a less-than-glitzy Scottsdale shopping center, in what used to be a furniture store. So it's startling to find a formal-looking Italian room: a gurgling fountain, dim lighting, tuxedoed waiters, subdued peach tones, linen-lined tables. I felt underdressed in my jeans, but my embarrassment diminished once I saw my fellow diners. Not a single customer, including several in shorts, looked like they had made any effort to match their attire to the surroundings. Il Pescatore's proprietors might consider scaling back the elegance level to achieve a better balance with the clientele. But there's no reason to fiddle with anything that comes out of the kitchen. A basket of garlic bread takes care of immediate hunger pangs, but the starters do a more rewarding job. In particular, the cold seafood salad is wonderful--scungilli, squid, mussels, shrimp, capers, red pepper and onions lightly dressed with olive oil. The plate smells like the Italian coast on a summer's day. Fried calamari is also an effective way to slide into dinner. Rings and tentacles come in a fresh, light batter, without the usual jaw-breaking toughness that makes this dish such a chancy appetizer proposition. You could pass up appetizers altogether and wait for the soup that comes with dinner. The hearty, aromatic tomato soup lined with mozzarella cheese, our evening's broth, won't remind anyone of what comes out of a Campbell's soup can. It's certainly preferable to the dinner salad you can choose in its stead, a routine pile of greenery. Although Il Pescatore offers the usual assortment of Italian veal and chicken preparations--piccata, marsala, parmigiana--we stuck to seafood. After all, the place is called The Fisherman, not The Butcher or The Chicken Plucker. We didn't regret the choice. The kitchen's not afraid of garlic, lemon or Italian seasonings. And it doesn't shy away from filling up your plate with seafood. That's certainly the case with the cioppino, an evening special that turned out to be one of the more amazing versions of this dish I've run across. It's enormous, overflowing with mussels, clams, scallops, shrimp, salmon, snapper, squid and scungilli, served over linguini in a fragrant tomato broth. For the first time since about, oh, 1960, I found myself unable to finish something I liked. Maybe the house ought to advertise it for two. Shrimp scampi is somewhat more manageable. It comes with six meaty shrimp, drenched in garlic and olive oil, with an eye-catching polenta flan studded with red peppers, as well as a side of penne pasta in a light tomato sauce. Il Pescatore also features fresh fish. Halibut, one of three fresh offerings available that evening, came simply and effectively prepared with a squeeze of lemon, accompanied by polenta, pasta and buttered cauliflower. Meanwhile, fans of linguini with clam sauce definitely get their money's worth from Il Pescatore's model. It's filled with a bucket of garlic and minced clams, as well as three beauties still in their shell. Except for the tartufo, a chocolate-covered ice cream ball, Il Pescatore makes its own desserts. The spumoni, Italian ice cream dotted with candied fruit, took me right back to the old neighborhood. Intense chocolate mousse and a light tiramisu also bring dinner to a pleasant conclusion. Except for a small band of Chinese and Mexican seafood houses, ethnic seafood hasn't made much of a splash in the Valley. With Il Pescatore, the pool just got a little deeper.
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