The Best of Booth Worlds

Dammit, but after all these years Durant's is once again trendy!

Talk to dinner-house owners these days and they will report that among the current deities of the dining crowd are the familiar, the simple and any food subjected to the culinary process of hardwood cooking. As one New York restaurateur recently told the New York Times: "Cerebral culinary combinations are giving way to food from the heart." With its redoubtable relish tray, baking powder biscuits, baked potatoes, classic charbroiled entrees (a little fish and chicken are offered, but beef is king) and blueberry cheesecake for dessert, Durant's has simply been there all along.

Now, frankly, Durant's food is not unqualifiedly great. Simple is sometimes a cousin of boring and, depending on your own need for stimulation and sophistication, you may find Durant's food a little old-fogeyish and flat. But by the same token, in eschewing the frou-frou for the earnest, Durant offers dinners that are prepared with a gratifying degree of consistency and small classic touches: the cracked ice used as a base for fresh oysters, the fresh chives mixed in with the sour cream for a baked potato, the sharpness of the horseradish sauce served with prime rib, the tanginess of the French garlic dressing ladled over iceberg.

A personal favorite on Durant's menu is the Calf Liver Steak. This classic pan-fried preparation is cooked perfectly so that the exterior has a nice crispy charred quality while the inside is tender and mild. Although the menu speaks of an accompaniment of "fried" onions, these seem appropriately "sweated"; that is, cooked slowly over very low heat so they develop sweetness and translucency without a bitter burned taste.

While there are a few unpleasant moments in a recent meal--a baked potato is gummy rather than mealy, shrimps in a shrimp cocktail are slightly overcooked--there are no gross failings. My only sincere criticism has to do with the glassware used to serve mixed drinks. Considering Durant's rough and "tumbler" reputation as a watering hole, a call Scotch and soda portion tends toward the microscopic, like the glass of juice you get at a breakfast buffet. Clearly, though, the allure of Durant's is not entirely vested in the food and beverage performance. Although in some circles--this is a place to be seen--what makes Durant's so appealing to the newcomer is the lack of overt preening and stage posturing that goes on here. With a mellowed look and style right out of the Eisenhower era, Durant's is built for comfort and a certain amount of intimacy, for warming the heart rather than lighting the ego.

There are some other factors whose mention is requisite in any review of Durant's: the mature waiters and waitresses who so skillfully blend speed with civility; the reasonable prices; the fact that one enters the restaurant from the back by walking through the kitchen (a custom so tied into the tradition of this place that the staff no longer seems to notice how unappetizingly disheveled the place becomes during peak production hours). Through it all, though, the keynote is a sort of formalized fun rather than frenetic fashion. It is particularly interesting to note how many young families are in Durant's early on a Saturday night, with children learning how to behave and (hopefully) enjoy themselves in a traditional restaurant setting.

Ultimately, it's also necessary to mention Jack Durant, who passed away just two short years ago. While his family and friends certainly miss him, and while an entrepreneurial business frequently suffers when its guiding spirit departs, let it be noted that Jack's partners and staff are carrying on in his name in as fresh as manner as ever. Jack Durant's legacy is an enduring restaurant institution worthy of pride and the city's continued patronage.

"The Pony is the best baseball restaurant in the land." The observation comes from no less a source than peerless penman of the national pastime Roger Angell, writing in the New Yorker during the spring training season of 1985. The reference is to the Pink Pony restaurant in Scottsdale. The notion that such a thing as a baseball restaurant exists--much less that the best one in the land is right here in the Valley--has to thrill any local fan of the game.

Since it's highly unlikely that Billy Martin is going to invite you over to his table the next time he is in town, here's what Mr. Average Baseball Fan can enjoy about this restaurant: First, there's the bar (you certainly want to avoid Billy here), which is visible from every table in the restaurant. I'm acknowledging the relevance of this feature on lots of levels, including generosity of the pour. Beyond major league libational liberality, there's also a remarkable Hillerich & Bradsby bat shrine along the back bar, as well as a wall-to-wall collection of caricatures of many of the greats of the game (although from where I'm sitting, I'm willing to wager that there's also a portrait of Captain Kangaroo).

Second, there's the collection of framed baseball jerseys mounted along one of the dining room's pine walls. Just reading those names--Mays, McCovey, Jackson, et al.--is a trip into the golden-glow zone. In such an environment a hot dog and a brew might easily suffice. But players can afford better, so you're expected to indulge as well.

To be honest, all of the baseball stuff is actually pretty subtle, and the design of this place seems to pay as much homage to ponies and cowboy boots as to horsehide and cleats. If you're actually thinking of dining here, just imagine this 38-year-old establishment as simply Scottsdale's version of Durant's. Like the latter, Pink Pony manages to combine a sense of old-line formality with a multigenerational sense of fun, resulting in a restaurant where you can educate the rookies about the finer points of the dining-out game without brushing back anyone's enthusiasm at the plate.

Pink Pony's specific strong point may well be the generosity of its portions, although the tender prime rib is a little bland and the flavorful sirloin is a little tough. Likewise, Pink Pony's horseradish sauce is a little too mild, its steak sauce a little too sweet, its dinner rolls a little too doughy, its French garlic dressing a little too sharp and its signature chocolate mousse cake a little too dominated by an aftertaste that's a lot like freezer burn. On the plus side, items that are produced in the Pink Pony fryer, including zucchini, onion ring and French fry garnishes, are excellent.

The best item on the Pink Pony menu is the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail. Although the $9 price is obviously a bit on the jumbo side itself, this is a creation fit for the connoisseur. It consists of an all-star team of four huge ocean-sweet and perfectly handled shrimp presented in an old-fashioned supreme dish filled with cracked ice and garnished with sharp cocktail sauce, oyster crackers and wedges of fresh lemon.

Despite some of its culinary shortcomings, the Pink Pony is clearly a veteran major league establishment. The big portions, the shrimp cocktail, the generous drinks and Willie Mays' uniform still give this place more than enough panache to be a pennant contender. Some evening, when you're feeling a bit old-fashioned and festive, go out and catch it.


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