House of Tricks, 114 East Seventh Street, Tempe, 968-1114. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m.
It's amazing what insights you can get when you're strapped into a dentist's chair.
For the past few weeks, I've been undergoing treatment for a condition illustrated in dental textbooks by grinning hockey players. The treatment consists of massive doses of pain and a large extraction from my wallet.
Each trip, I'm confined to the dentist's office for a couple of hours, about the same length of time I linger in a restaurant dining room. The experience has made me aware of how acutely sensitive I am to my surroundings. I've discovered that in my own way, I need environmental protection as much as the spotted owl.
For instance, after spending two hours in the same room with Muzak, gleaming, high-speed drills and explicit posters depicting the latter stages of periodontal distress, I invariably feel down.
I now realize that restaurants affect me in a similar way. Two hours numbly staring at celebrity photos on the wall or gazing out the window at cars pulling into a strip-mall parking lot inevitably take an unconscious toll, no matter how good the food. But the converse is also true. A visit to two absolutely charming Valley restaurants furnished plenty of evidence to back up my environmental theory.
Tempe's House of Tricks is a bucolic-looking cottage just far enough off Mill Avenue to make the setting plausible. Named after the owner-chefs, Robert and Robin Trick, it looks like the kind of place you wish your grandparents had lived in.
It's got lots of Victorian clutter. Corner crannies hold old pitchers and kitchen utensils, and tastefully framed small pictures adorn the walls. Lace curtains and old-fashioned Venetian blinds hang from the windows, while fresh carnations brighten the tables. Beyond the front dining room and its huge wooden hutch lies a friendly open kitchen and a collection of shiny copper pans.
The stone fireplace may also remind you of a cozy visit to Granny's, but only if she racked her wine bottles next to it.
There's no cavernous main dining room. Instead, the dozen or so inside tables (there's an outdoor patio, too) are wedged into a little nook, a narrow foyer and two small rooms. If you've come to House of Tricks looking for clatter, bustle and party-time atmosphere, you've been misinformed.
But you'll be rewarded if you've come searching for generous portions of inventive, reasonably priced fare.
House of Tricks offers one of the more interesting appetizer lists in town. There's not a wing, battered zucchini strip or shrimp cocktail anywhere on it.
Instead, look for ginger beef in phyllo pastry. Two small turnovers, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, shared a plate with grilled eggplant and a scoop of pungent hummus. It's a heady variety of distinctive flavors. Equally stunning was the grilled Portobello mushroom, layered with mild goat cheese and cilantro pesto. Big and thick as a pincushion, this fungus doesn't take much getting used to.
The warm saffron pasta is an exuberant way to glide into the meal. Delicately sprinkled with saffron, wide noodles came with chunks of chicken breast and marvelous wild mushrooms on a bed of wilted greens. Happily, the appetizers were substantial enough not to require bread. The sourdough rolls in the breadbasket somehow managed to be both soggy and chewy, not exactly a baker's daily double.
Topping out at $12.75, the main dishes seemed far too intriguing for the price. With one exception, they displayed a flair that belied the homey cottage setting. The lasagna doesn't look anything like the sheets of noodles you get at neighborhood Italian joints with red-checked tablecloths and candle-stuffed Chianti bottles. Here it's a gorgeous whole eggplant, roasted and pulpy, crammed with goat cheese, ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes. Not everyone is an eggplant fan like I am, but this dish should preach to more than the converted.
Once the pork tenderloin got passed around the table, conversation stopped. Crusted with peppercorns, the four juicy medallions, simmered in wine, required full attention to savor. Simple as it looked, this pork was one of the better meat dishes I've had in the Valley.
The carbohydrate nestled alongside enhanced our appraisal. Instead of the usual potato or rice, the Tricks spooned up an offbeat helping of couscous and raisins. This kitchen cooks like it doesn't want to get caught in a rut. The shrimp entree, too, avoided the hackneyed. Firm and meaty medium-size critters arrived in an oblong chafing dish, crusted over with puff pastry. Bubbling next to them were quartered artichoke hearts in a light, Parmesan-and-basil-tinged tomato sauce. The lamb chops, though, were a disappointment. This platter was so routine I couldn't believe it exited the same stovetop. Two dull lamb chops relied on lemon chutney to perk them up, but the condiment wasn't up to the task. It didn't help that the advertised orzo was replaced, unannounced, by the most ordinary heap of rice this side of an Uncle Ben's box.
Desserts are brought in, rather than homemade, but two of the supplier's offerings were first-rate. Baklava cheesecake, a blend of nuts, honey, cheese and phyllo dough, quickly disappeared among several dueling forks. So did the overpowering chocolate truffle cake, which required lots of coffee to wash it down.
House of Tricks has nothing up its sleeve but an alluring setting and imaginative fare. No mirrors, no sleight of hand--it's a winner.
Goldie's 1895 House, 362 North Second Avenue, Phoenix, 254-0338. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Friday, 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Goldie's 1895 House provides more evidence that environment decisively influences the appeal of food. When I learned this lovely old Victorian house used to be a bordello, my appetite immediately kicked into high gear.
This place has so many nifty knickknacks, it makes House of Tricks look like a shrine to monastic self-denial. You can play Name That Tune with the short classical selections piped in, or play Name That Object in the decor.
What do you call the tile work around the edge of a fireplace? What's that double-wheeled contraption by the window with an American flag twined through it? There are so many conversation starters here that this is an ideal place to bring a first date or a spouse to whom you haven't said anything new since the Cardinals moved to Phoenix.
In the inviting front parlor, photos of turn-of-the-century Phoenix line the pink walls. Pink lace curtains and a cozily burning fire impart an air of comfortable, warm domesticity to the room.
But in the final analysis, environment can't be the most important element of dining. If it were, people would starve to death in Mesa.
No matter how tempting the view or how attractive the furnishings, the kitchen has to deliver. And this place does, particularly with the main dishes.
It's not that the appetizers didn't lift off, but they never really got into orbit. Escargots didn't come in the traditional snail dish. Instead, they arrived accompanied by some button mushrooms on a crusty slice of croissant, with an unattractive little bowl of garlic butter alongside. Novelty doesn't always pay off.
It helped, though, with the sesame noodles, thick bits of cold pasta tossed with hearts of palm and a pleasing seafood mixture. The same seafood mix also appeared in the misleadingly named stuffed artichokes. Expecting to work our way through a whole artichoke, we encountered only a bunch of quartered artichoke hearts.
But the main dishes we sampled all soared. One even went into a different galaxy: the roast duck drenched in a cinnamon-touched pomegranate walnut sauce. The chef here must have been leafing through some old Persian cookbooks, because this is a traditional Iranian specialty. A generous half of meaty duck, expertly prepared and virtually grease-free, was bathed in a divinely rich pomegranate paste that was thickened with ground walnuts. A little of this filling dish goes a long way, but my companions were glad the kitchen didn't stint.
The superb medallions of beef in a creamy caper sauce suffered only in comparison. It was a large platter with lots of thin, tender slices of meat with a bit of a caper zing to it.
Stuffed cod in phyllo didn't sound particularly exciting, but the moist portion of cod was perfectly cooked. The transparently light and flaky pouch of phyllo dough added just the right touch.
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By the time the waiter cleared off the dishes, we had demolished everything in front of us, including the rice and carrots that came with each meal. The duck bones provided the only clue as to what entree had rested on which plate.
We had room for two homemade desserts: a pedestrian blueberry cheesecake and the inspired walnut cloud. The latter had addicting layers of walnuts, sweet Karo syrup goo and cream in a fresh-tasting crust.
Goldie's 1895 House may no longer serve up delights of the flesh, but modern patrons will still walk away satisfied.