SWISS BOOM BAH
The Swiss and Dutch have a centuries-old reputation for precision work, sharp business sense and a passion for order. The burghers' stolid, middle-class virtues of frugality, sobriety and diligence have brought them international leadership in banking and commerce. Their governments run as smoothly as handcrafted Swiss watches.
Much of the world envies their clean-swept streets and high per capita incomes. But in one area, Switzerland and Holland struggle to compete with the rest of Europe, Asia, and even the poverty-wracked Third World: tasty national cuisine.
So it's surprising that two new restaurants, trumpeting the arrival of Swiss and Dutch specialties, have recently opened in the Valley to battle for our dining-out dollars.
Don't look for yodelers, fondue or waiters garbed in lederhosen at Tre Portate. Instead you'll find the dishes of Ticino, Switzerland's small, Italian-speaking region. You get three courses: a pasta main dish sandwiched between soup or salad and dessert. No more, no less. That's Tre Portate's "hook": you must select one of four appetizers, an entree from 16 pasta offerings, and dessert from a quintet of choices. It's an Occidental variant of the "one from column A, one from column B" Chinese dinner.
The dinner price depends on the cost of the entree, which ranges from about 10 to 15 dollars.
Although the food's basically Italian, there's a tidiness and calculation here that reflects the Swiss personality. The front room, where we sat, has seven comfortably spaced tables and an appealing oak bar. Oak-trimmed windows run the length of the room. Instead of Alpine peaks, however, we had a terrific view of the parking lot. Soothing shades of pastel blue and peach color the walls, matching our dinnerware. Nonthreatening Muzaky music, ranging from an energyless "Rhapsody in Blue" to a tepid "Un Bel Di," doesn't interfere with conversation. The first course got dinner off to an uneven start. The insalata Calypso should be cast into limbo. Some mealy shrimp topped a plateful of greens drenched with a ketchupy Thousand Island dressing. It revived long-suppressed memories of my wife's "homemade" dressings of years past, when, like a fearful alcoholic, I'd smuggle in bottles of Kraft dressing for private consumption.
The vegetable-spiked house salad was no better than palatable. Best was the slightly bizarre insalata Casimir, greens garnished with curried chicken and fruit. I usually don't have a sweet tooth for salads, but this dish showed the virtues of keeping an open mind. Unfortunately, in some menu fine-tuning over the past few weeks, this was the appetizer chosen for deletion.
Soup lovers will like the flavor of roasted semolina soup with fresh leek, but don't expect to dredge up too many solids from this broth. Happily, the first courses come with warm, thick Italian bread.
With one exception, the culinary level shifted several notches northward with our main dishes.
The pastas are divided into three groups: tagliolini (thin egg noodles); pappardelle (broad egg noodles); and various stuffed pastas, like ravioli and cannelloni. We sampled each variety.
Pappardelle with four grilled baby lamb chops is the restaurant's only concession to determined carnivores. The lamb was extremely moist and fragrant, and the demi-glace sauce, made from long-simmered meat stock, was tasty enough to spoon up on its own. Just as good was the ravioli al salmone, filled with smoked salmon, covered with a creamy fish velout, and topped with more strips of smoked salmon. If you thought smoked salmon had to be accompanied by cream cheese and bagels, this hearty dish will open up new vistas.
For the chronically indecisive, the combination plate is a stress-buster. Tre Portate's combo comes with a serviceable cannelloni with mushroom and tomato filling, and two excellent ravioli concoctions: spinach ravioli with Gorgonzola cheese, and egg ravioli with vegetable stuffing. The only main-dish misstep again involved the shrimp. A bed of tagliolini supported the same small, tasteless shrimp that sabotaged the salad. I found no hint of the promised herbs. But there was enough garlic to warrant a statewide vampire Environmental Impact Statement. The homemade desserts were by far the weakest of the three courses. The fact that they were so beautiful compounded the disappointment.
The Swiss carrot cake was a vision of loveliness, topped by powdered sugar and a sugar carrot, with a ribbon of whipped cream trailing along the edge. But it was inexplicably devoid of flavor.
The same was true of the vanilla custard in raspberry sauce. Colorfully appealing, it was as bland as Swiss politics.
I like Woody Allen, Jessica Tandy and Sylvester Stallone, but I don't want to see them all in the same movie. That's how I felt about the vermicelli al kirsch, angel-hair pasta smothered in chestnut pure flavored with cherry liqueur. This mnage trois ought to bring out the dessert police.
Only the bittersweet chocolate mousse, creamy and intense, came close to ending the meal with a bang instead of a whimper.
Incredibly, Tre Portate has banished this dessert from the menu, too, replacing it with fresh fruit. Tre Portate's worth keeping an eye on. It's reasonably priced and has a compelling second act. But it needs to punch up the first act and rewrite the third if it hopes to become a smash. The people behind Keuken Dutch should rush to appear on Family Feud and pray they get asked to guess "something that 100 people associate with Holland."
It's clear they've spent a long time thinking about it.
Have they missed anything? Diners gaze at windmills etched in glass, cases and shelves filled with delft china and waitresses in cute little caps and flowing skirts. It's a wonder that the management of this small chain expanding into Scottsdale doesn't have them clopping around in wooden shoes.
Gorgeous Vermeer and Rembrandt reproductions line the walls everywhere, even in the rest rooms, riveting your attention. Starched lace hangs along the curtain tops. Flowered wallpaper covers almost every square inch of flat surface, including the wooden beams supporting the sloped wood ceiling. Everything is neat, cheerful and spotless.
I guess the restaurant's name and visual cues are supposed to persuade you that burgers, salads, omelets, pizza and fried chicken are staples of Dutch cooking, because these items make up about 95 percent of the menu. Keuken Dutch is mostly a Dutch-themed American diner. But there are a few starred house specialties that suggest something more ethnically challenging than the chicken-fried-steak dinner. And those, of course, were what we ordered. Huis pot soup comes without a bowl. It's served in a round, hollowed-out loaf of bread. This thick split-pea soup, dotted with sausage, has a rich, soothing and smoky taste. The top of the loaf, meanwhile, is sliced off and grilled in butter before it recaps the soup. Needless to say, the dish is as filling as it is good.
In fact, Keuken Dutch seems to have a way with soups. The evening's other offering, potato-cheese soup, was smooth and very creamy, with chunks of potatoes and a strong cheese kick.
The "Dutch Burger Steak," on the other hand, is about as Dutch as the Liberty Bell. It's just a glorified hamburger seasoned with tons of ground onion and green pepper.
Much more interesting were the dishes that came with it: tart, pickled red cabbage and three potato pancakes. These aren't the potato pancakes I grew up with--a fried mix of grated potatoes and onions--but regular breakfast-type pancakes, studded with spuds.
The other Dutch dinner features metworst, a mild, bratwurst-type sausage. Two of them came sliced lengthwise and crisply grilled, along with more pickled cabbage and a warm, vinegary, German-style potato salad.
Forget about the house cakes, pies and ice cream. You can get these waist busters at any diner in the land. Unfortunately, you can't ignore or tune out as easily the obnoxious, piped-in Top 40 tape, played significantly above subliminal levels. How could this shrine to Dutch kitsch forget itself and assault patrons with Vanessa Williams and Paula Abdul? The subsequent shift to Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash seemed just as out of place. The best solution to dessert requires a little ingenuity. Ignore the menu's dessert section and flip to the choices under "Oven Keuken." Here you'll find a list of mouth-watering oven-baked pancakes. They're buttery, eggy, chewy and flat, with upturned sides to dam in the fillings. We especially liked one with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a large portion of sweetened blueberries. And when the waitress heard my daughter complain about splitting the ice cream three ways, she brought over an extra dish of ice cream gratis. Keuken Dutch is a friendly, comfortable spot, an inexpensive choice for food if you're in the neighborhood, an undemanding mood and not planning the night's entertainment around it. Just don't expect a Dutch treat.
O'CONNOR'S COURAGE... v7-08-92
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