Christopher's Bistro, 2398 East Camelback, Phoenix, 957-3214. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to close; Dinner, Sunday, 5 p.m. to close.
Phoenix is a casual restaurant town. Leave it to status-conscious Los Angeles matrons to wrap themselves in furs, even if it's 70 degrees outside. Let New York cosmopolites dine out in jacket and tie during sweltering Eastern summers. In the Valley, you can feel at ease eating just about anywhere wearing not much more than a pair of sandals and a loincloth. Except at Christopher's Bistro. It's a desert oasis of sophistication, both sartorial and culinary. Everything from its marble floor and deft recessed lighting to its lace curtains and Italian-suited maitre d' puts out the same message: big-city atmosphere, big-city service, big-city dress and big-city food.
The Bistro has a swanky, continental feel that somehow doesn't seem out of place in a town where men are measured by the size of their belt buckles and the horsepower of their pickups. Part of the secret is the off-the-street, office-building location, which insulates diners from the outside world. It's difficult sustaining the illusion of sophisticated dining from a room that overlooks a shopping-center parking lot, or that cohabits mall space next to Corn Dog on a Stick. But even housed inside a 7-Eleven, Christopher's Bistro would still be at the top of any it's-Saturday-night-let's-have-a-good-meal list. That's because it serves up a terrific mix of dishes: superior versions of familiar fare and surprising creations from unexpected sources. Take the grilled-chicken-and-couscous appetizer, for example. Served cold (which the menu ought to indicate), it showed up with two thin, wide slices of pleasantly charred chicken breast. Clumped alongside was a thick mound of couscous, studded with pine nuts and crispy bits of bacon. While even the thought of bacon mixed into couscous would send any North African Muslim screaming into the night, the attention-grabbing combination of ingredients worked beautifully.
The roasted-red-pepper soup, on the other hand, presented no unexpected flavors. But the pur‚ed roasted red peppers and cream packed a wonderfully sublime taste that had me smacking my lips with as much satisfaction on the 20th spoonful as it did on the first. And the large, oversize bowl made the $5.25 price tag easier to swallow. A simple pasta starter, penne laden with diced tomatoes and a sprinkling of olive oil, basil and Parmesan cheese, won't win too many points for originality. But it did furnish a pleasing, summery, Mediterranean note. Watch out for the generous portion, though. If you reach the bottom of this bowl, you won't just take the edge off your appetite, you'll come dangerously close to striking the core.
The main dishes feature hearty bistro staples, the kind that make diners pat their stomachs when they're done.
The shallot steak was nothing short of superb. A beefy, butter-soft, medium-rare hunk of meat came draped with a shovelful of aromatic minced shallots, complemented by a lusty, red-wine sauce more than able to hold its own.
But the friend who ordered the steak wasn't quite as pleased with it as I was. He prefers meat cooked north of medium, and that's how he requested it. His arrived pink as a blushing cheek and oozing red juices. A kitchen like this shouldn't need two shots to get it right, even if a diner wants his steak prepared just this side of arson.
The accompanying fried asparagus side dish, I thought at first, sounded just right. Reality proved otherwise. Its coating too closely resembled the batter of happy-hour mozzarella sticks and zucchini slices. And why gild asparagus lilies in the first place? The steak actually cried out for a heaping pile of fresh, hot fries. Veal chop is another bistro favorite, and the gorgeous chop bathed in a brash sauce brought out all our carnivorous instincts. And this time the side dish was right on the mark--a heady shallot risotto that will take care of any spare appetite.
Roasted chicken leg stuffed with wild-mushroom mousse turned out a lot tamer than it sounded. Neither the mild chicken nor the bland mousse was the real star of this plate, the menu's only poultry dish. Most of the oomph came from the lumberjack-size portion of thick mashed potatoes, perked up with chives.
The Bistro's desserts are so outstanding we felt like calling the pastry chef out for a bow. Despite the jillion-calorie intake, I couldn't work up any regret for having eaten them, even while perched for an hour on the health club's exercise bicycle the next day.
The chocolate tower is Christopher's signature dessert, an overpowering white-and-dark-chocolate cylinder stuffed with rich chocolate mousse, topped with berries and bittersweet chocolate. The kitchen will whip up any kind of souffl‚ you want. The Frangelica-spiked version we requested was ethereal, accompanied by a thin, crunchy almond cookie the French call a tuile. And profiteroles, chocolate cream puffs crammed with intensely flavorful, homemade vanilla and chocolate ice cream, were heavy enough to be listed as a main dish, especially once we poured on the lava-thick vanilla cream sauce.
A bonus for diners is the wine list, which the Bistro shares with Christopher's gourmet palace next door. There must be a thousand bottles to choose from, as well as scores offered by the glass. I can't afford a Lexus, or take the Concorde to Paris. But for nine bucks, I sipped a glorious, postprandial Sauternes from Chƒteau Suduiraut that had me rethinking my position on marrying for love instead of money.
Dinner at Christopher's Bistro may not subvert everyone's value system. But it's almost guaranteed to get Saturday night off to a rousing start.
Vagara Bistro, 6137 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-9928. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Vagara Bistro emphasizes casual fine dining. No Euro-accented maitre d', like at Christopher's, just a friendly manager in Dockers and an expensive polo shirt.
In theory, this concept sounds wonderful, conjuring up visions of a restaurant full of women in pretty summer dresses and men in slacks and sport shirts, convivially clinking glasses and animatedly talking over tournedos of beef.
On a recent Saturday night, though, the concept meant looking out at a roomful of too many hairy guys in shorts. When you pay $35 for a night-on-the-town meal, you shouldn't need protection from the human scenery. The fixed scenery is much more appealing. Lovely, framed prints of French and Dutch masterpieces and globe-shaped lights march across the walls. The banquettes sport a colorful fabric festooned with pomegranates and grapes. Edith Piaf and Vivaldi spill from the music system.
Our good-time eating vibes got an immediate jump-start with the basket of fresh dinner rolls and raspberry bread. And our motors were kept revving over the next few hours.
It's not hard to see why the veal-and-mushroom-strudel appetizer copped an award at the Scottsdale Culinary Festival. It's a deep, rich dish so luscious that I was tempted to order it as a main dish and dessert, too.
The calamari starter is somewhat deceptively listed under salads. Don't look for too many greens, though. It's a huge platter, big enough to share, of tender, lightly fried calamari, adorned with oyster mushrooms and peppers. This dish easily fulfills the government-recommended annual squid allowance. Like Christopher's, this place also offers pasta as a first course. The angel hair with shrimp in a vodka cream sauce is smooth, heavy and slumber-inducing, perhaps not the wisest choice on hot summer nights. Scallops on a crispy, won-ton wafer, buoyed by a mild pineapple, soy and ginger sauce, may be a better option.
Some of the entrees are exceptional, especially if you enjoy rousing hunks of meat. Tournedos featured a mouth-watering slab of tenderloin encrusted with pink peppercorns in a hard-hitting wine sauce. The lucky companion who chose it contributed little to the table talk, preferring instead to emit little groans of pleasure at each forkful.
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Just as powerful was a man-size cut of prime pork tenderloin wrapped in thyme and crisp bacon, in a thick puddle of two-fisted port wine sauce. The memory of this dish should suppress any stray vegetarian impulses for about six months.
Our server touted the house specialty, veal Vagara. It's good, particularly the high-quality veal, but not quite in the same league as the beef or pork. The marsala wine sauce was a bit heavy-handed, while the button mushrooms adorning the veal summoned up little interest. It's hard to believe the chef can't give this veal just a little more pizzazz. A somewhat lighter entree was grilled fillet of escalar, a mild, white-fleshed fish that's popping up on more and more menus. It came inventively topped with a crayfish bisque, next to a refreshing, briny risotto. A crunchy and colorful array of vegetables--sugar snap peas, carrots and parsnips--accompanied all the main dishes.
Desserts are no comedown, although they do suffer measured next to Christopher's. A crepe filled with fruit and vanilla custard was best, and the profiteroles weren't far behind. The flourless, black-and-white-chocolate cake, though, was too dry, wasting the delightful champagne sabayon scooped alongside. A better bet: a glass of 1982 Chƒteau Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes, a bargain at $6.95.
Vagara Bistro is clearly big-time eating. It just needs central casting to send over diners who look the part.