European Bistro, 2530 West Camelback, Phoenix, 249-1123. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The conversation flagged at the table next to us, as the couple turned their full attention to polishing off dinner. At meal's end, the fellow put down his fork and delivered a grunt of pleasure. "That was real good," he commented, pointing to his clean plate, as his partner nodded in agreement. Then he surveyed the dining room. "You know," he told her, "New Times could really help this place."
Honestly, I wasn't eavesdropping. My wife and I simply couldn't avoid overhearing every word the pair uttered. That's because there wasn't any restaurant clatter to distract us--we four were European Bistro's only customers.
It shouldn't be that way. The German fare is delicious, as good as it gets in the Valley's relatively weak German league. The price is right, too, with lots of dishes going for 12 bucks or less. And the servers are friendly and eager to please.
But if an artist tried to capture the scene at European Bistro, no doubt he'd paint a still life. On each of my three visits, the place was dismally empty. If you listened carefully, I thought, you might hear the sound of the proprietor's investment going down the drain after just a few months.
So what's the problem? You can sum it up in three words: location, location, location.
For some reason, Eduard Stemerowitz, the new-to-America chef/owner who doesn't speak English, opted to exhibit his talents at an unpromising west-side address that last housed a Sizzler franchise. This bleak section of West Camelback Road, just off the Black Canyon Freeway, will never be mistaken for Restaurant Row. Maybe something got lost or misinterpreted in translation during lease negotiations. Or maybe he misjudged the potential impact of his kitchen skills. But even Julia Child would have a hard time operating a venture called "European Bistro" in this spot. If there's any pent-up demand for sauerbraten, schweinebraten or schnitzel in this part of town, I'm not aware of it.
Inside, the new owners have done a lot to overcome the sterile, utilitarian, chain-restaurant layout. The harsh, boxy interior is softened by white lace curtains and romantic lighting. An astonishing array of knickknacks, curios and collectibles rings the room on shelves running just below the ceiling: beer steins, copper molds, pitchers. Elsewhere, there's an old treadle sewing machine, a vintage stove, horseshoes, yokes and cuckoo clocks. Awards and certificates from the homeland, attesting to the chef's culinary prowess, are also on display.
I can attest to his prowess, too. Herring fans will savor the salted herring appetizer, two hefty filleted slabs bathed in a homemade sour-cream sauce, garnished with hard-boiled egg, tomato and onion, and served with boiled potatoes. (Remember, German cuisine is not for the appetite-challenged.) The appetizer plate for two will force most couples to loosen their belts. It's an undainty spread featuring silky marinated salmon, prosciutto, ham and shrimp in cream sauce, freshened with kiwi, cantaloupe, olives, Cornichons and sliced egg topped with a colorful dollop of red and yellow fish roe. If you're determined to save most of your belly room for the main dish, try taking the edge off your hunger with the excellent goulash soup, a hearty, beefy broth that sports homemade flair.
The Old Country entrees won't surprise you with their novelty, but familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt. Rinderroulade is deftly prepared: beef rolled around pickles, onions and bacon, moistened with a fragrant brown sauce. Spatzle--light, doughy homemade noodles--and a mix of fresh winter veggies (including Brussels sprouts) complete the platter. Sauerbraten is another tasty source of animal protein, tender braised beef in a pungent, lip-smacking sour dark gravy. Two massive bread dumplings provide heavy support. Diners who clean their plates won't need any midnight refrigerator or pantry raids to help them make it through the night. This dish will hold you until morning.
The scent of stuffed cabbage always transports me back to my childhood. On special winter Fridays, my mother would labor all day preparing this treat, my favorite dish. European Bistro's version is a respectable facsimile. You get two enormous rolls, each big enough to be mistaken for a doorstop, doused in a rich tomato gravy that's just begging to be soaked up with the rye bread sitting on the table. How the restaurant can make a profit charging $7 for this entree is a mystery I'm happy to leave unsolved.
The kitchen knows its way around Wiener schnitzel, two ample veal medallions breaded, then crisply fried. Tart, vinegary, German-style potato salad furnishes just the right accompaniment. And if you prefer your animal protein as pork, the kassler rippchen, an oversize slice of smoked pork loin teamed with a mound of sauerkraut, hits all the right buttons. If there were such a thing as German soul food, this would be it.
You can eat lighter, if you prefer. Puff pastry stuffed with vegetables in cream sauce is a tasty meat alternative. So is the cheese-covered spatzle, a kid-friendly option. Naturally, you can wash down everything with several German brews on tap.
Desserts suggest that the chef is as comfortable with sweets as he is with everything else. Apple strudel is neither too heavy nor too sweet. And though there's nothing very Teutonic about tiramisu, the scrumptiously creamy, espresso-laden model here makes it effortlessly past the Italian frontier.
Is location everything? Shouldn't good food and good value count for something? The Stemerowitz family has built it. Now the question is: Will Phoenix have the good sense to come?
Mike's Grill, 8215 West Bell, Peoria, 979-0900. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Remember Mike's Golden Crust? This successful west-side eatery, featuring excellent, inexpensive Greek/Italian fare, had a large following for several years on 35th Avenue. Last summer, following heart surgery, proprietor Mike Korvessis sold it. I guess he figured, who needed the stress?
Well, Mike's back, sort of, and so, too, in another form, is the stress. His sister opened Mike's Grill a couple of months ago, in the old Italian Oven spot on Bell Road off 83rd Avenue. The restaurant's menu is almost identical to the one Mike had at his former place. And that got the attention of the new owners of Mike's Golden Crust.
That's because, according to their attorney, among the terms of sale was a clause forbidding Mike to run a competing restaurant. They sued and just reached a settlement. According to Mike, he's now free to work in the kitchen. (Right now, the telephone message at Mike's Golden Crust tells callers the restaurant is temporarily closed "due to circumstances beyond our control.")
Now that the court has passed judgment on the lawsuit's merits, I'm ready to rule on the merits of Mike's Grill's cuisine. My verdict: guilty of mediocrity in the first degree. The fresh, vibrant ethnic flavors that punched up the dishes at the old Mike's Golden Crust somehow seem to have gotten lost on the journey west. Has the kitchen been using the Italian Oven's recipes by mistake?
The first sign? The bread. It's called focaccia, just like at the old place. But at the old place, it was focaccia, and it was great. Here it's just garlic bread.
Appetizers have gone from irresistible to lackluster. Spanaki rolls sound wonderful--"fresh spinach, feta, dill, ricotta, pignoli cooked in a very thin pastry and topped with fresh tomato basil." Instead, what we got was a sodden pile of indistinguishable ingredients with no flavor snap. In most Greek restaurants, saganaki is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser--kefalograviera cheese flamed tableside with ouzo and extinguished with a squirt of lemon. Here, though, there are no fireworks, either in presentation or in taste.
The soup or salad that accompanies most dinners doesn't do much more than fill up belly space. Neither the avgolemono nor the pasta and bean soup has the zest it ought to. The salad is just as bland.
Except for the manicotti marinara, two lovely pasta crepes filled with five cheeses and coated with a light tomato sauce, most main dishes don't measure up to Mike's Golden Crust's old standards. Rigatoni alla carbonara is done in by a thin, watery Alfredo sauce. Even Jacques Cousteau would have a hard time locating the aquatic life in the cheese-stuffed seafood shells. Someone should rethink the sausage layered in the lasagna--it may be "homemade," as the menu says, but its taste and texture are all wrong. And what happened to the moussaka? If this pile of pasta, sausage and cheese, without any hint of eggplant, is moussaka, then I'm Zorba the Greek.
Chicken and seafood entrees also fell short of my expectations. The zuppa di pesce somehow extracts almost all ethnic vigor from shrimp, scallops and calamari scented with garlic, shallots, olive oil and basil. It's a snooze. Chicken with artichokes, though more pungent, still wasn't as good as it once was.
The one unqualified success? It's the pizza, and it's terrific. The wood-burning oven fires up a crust that's chewy but not too heavy. The toppings are marvelous, too. The tarantella pizza came loaded with porcini mushrooms, grilled eggplant, roma tomatoes and garlic, along with ricotta and mozzarella cheese. Why couldn't everything else taste as invigorating as this?
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The calzone certainly didn't. While I couldn't fault the inner ingredients--three kinds of cheese, chicken, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil--the over-the-hill crust suggested that this calzone had spent quite a lot of time sitting around, waiting for someone to order it.
The stretch of Bell Road in the northwest Valley is home to every chain restaurant on the planet. This area is desperately short of ethnic restaurants that remember what ethnic food is supposed to taste like. Let's hope, with Mike now at the helm, Mike's Grill can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Rigatoni alla carbonara
Zuppa di pesce