Michael Lewis shakes his head politely as I boast where I'm heading for dinner. Owner of Drinkwater's Liquor and Cheese in north Scottsdale, he's wrapping up my purchase of a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, and hasn't heard of BYO Bistro, a new restaurant in Phoenix that capitalizes, appropriately enough, on a BYOB policy. I'm a bit surprised -- this guy knows everything about culinary happenings around town.
"It's Tom and Chrysa Kaufman's new place," I say, slipping the chilled bottle of dry, fruity white wine into my Hello Kitty satchel. "In their old Valencia Lane space."
He smiles in sudden recognition. "The Kaufmans. That means it should be really good."
5620 East Thomas
Steamed mussels: $9.50
Salmon cakes: $8.50
Summer tomato salad: $8.50
Rigatoni with sausage: $14.95
Double-cut pork chop: $16.95
Apple crisp: $6
Wine corkage fee: $8
480-945-5022. Hours: Dinner, Wednesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
And so it should, given the track record of the dynamic culinary duo behind Rancho Pinot in Scottsdale and Nonni's Kitchen in Phoenix. I won't repeat again (ad nauseam is enough) how much I, and virtually everyone else with taste buds, love Rancho's farm-fresh American and Nonni's rustic Italian cuisine. The Kaufmans have evolved over the years as sort of a cult of personality, with great food, and even greater passion for perfection. These folks aren't shy about pushing the envelope in broadening the Valley's culinary landscape.
Alas, however, BYOB is not to be of this league. Perhaps just five years ago the little cafe would have garnered more celebration. But today, it's got too many competitors that are more exciting, more personable, more courageous. After a few visits, I understand why Lewis hasn't heard any buzz on the joint. Unless I litter my car's dashboard with Post-it notes, in fact, I doubt I'll ever remember to come back.
Hey, it's not as easy to stand out in the Valley anymore. With gourmet markets everywhere, few of us are surprised these days by once exotic things like arugula, Stilton cheese or roasted red pepper aioli -- the few timid nods to creativity on BYO Bistro's menu. Who doesn't know fancy food now? Really, last week I was driving through Paradise Valley and saw a group of small children manning what looked like a lemonade stand by the side of the road. As I passed, the clutch of 6-year-olds tried to wave me down with a professionally lettered sign reading, "Fresh Herbs from our Garden, 50 cents." I sped up, unable to stomach the concept of being preached the virtues of organic basil and thyme by kindergartners.
If BYO Bistro isn't cutting edge, the Kaufmans aren't apologizing. Tom Kaufman himself has said that basic "profitable" American food is the goal at BYO Bistro, enhanced by the novelty -- and price advantage -- of carting in our own wine. I'd say he's accomplished that. Though BYO Bistro's answering machine touts the tiny cafe as "the new dining concept from the owners of Rancho Pinot and Nonni's Kitchen," the Kaufmans make it pretty clear they're simply the financial backers, with ex-Nonni's chefs Al and Lisa Pettijohn manning the menu and kitchen. It's the same idea as the short-lived Valencia Lane, where the Kaufmans provided the cash but let ex-Royal Palms chef Michael Hoobler run the show (he left Valencia after just a few months and is now in the resort business again).
Is it a good idea to capitalize on a strong name, then not deliver the flair that name is known for? I'm thinking no. I go to Drinkwater's for wine because I know Lewis is always there, with expert advice and recommendations. I buy my fresh herbs from our respected local farmers' markets, not from preschoolers on the street.
At BYO Bistro, I go in expecting something really special, and leave feeling let down. I get caesar salad. Jumbo shrimp cocktail. Fish, chicken, pasta and steak. It's all fine, but why bother making BYO Bistro a destination when we can get the same stuff at pretty much any hotel dining room in town? It seems a lot of us feel that way, too -- BYO Bistro is achingly empty even on weekend nights.
One night, my mom changes her mind three times just over appetizers. I struggle, too, straining between the printed offerings and the chalkboard specials offered each evening. Not because we're so wickedly torn by seductive selections, but because everything looks just so expected. Instead of being mesmerized by our dinners, we actually find ourselves poring over a book she's brought along, a photo compilation of weird buildings across America -- stores shaped like ducks, hats, artichokes, an embarrassed-looking elephant. The only thing that keeps us alert is the sweltering beauty of Sade music in the background. Certainly it's not a massive but undercooked double-cut pork chop bedded with ordinary sautéed spinach, a whisper of shallot-thyme demi and a side of bread pudding that's simply dried-out stuffing.
On another evening, my girl friend and I labor almost three hours over our meal, dragging out the ordering process simply because there's no sense of urgency to try anything fantastic. We're much more wrapped up in discussing the basics of boys (nutsos), office life (even nuttier) and pets (beyond nutty) than selecting a pretty mainstream marinated and grilled boneless chicken-half sided with sautéed rice and vegetable in citrus garlic sauce. She immediately knows something is up -- I don't often babble except when I'm bored.
Then I discover the trick: Stick to the specials. From the regular menu, folks wanting a competently crafted but low-impact appetizer of mussels steamed in a white wine, tomato and fennel broth will have a pleasant time. The same can be said for an acceptable rigatoni, the plump pasta sleeves tumbled with spicy Italian sausage slices, roasted peppers, fennel, garlic, tomatoes, herbs and Parmesan.
But for real spirit, the kitchen shines with one night's showcase of a fabulous grilled rainbow trout, moist and meaty and cute with its tail on, smothered in a luxurious juicy diced tomato-caper-bacon sauce, paired with grilled asparagus and over-the-top garlic mashed potatoes. My fish is fantastic, and that's the only reason I'm able to stop swiping forkfuls of my friend's Cheddar-topped flan, a full-flavored silky side to her evening special entree of grilled pork tenderloin, a juicy, massive cut moistened with a ghostly sweet tomato-based barbecue broth atop Swiss chard.
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I'm happy enough with my regular menu starter of summer tomato salad with feta, black olives, arugula and basil dressing. Yet it's too much on the ruby red, juicy fruit slices and not enough zing from meager sprinkles of chopped olive and crumbled cheese. A caesar is a caesar is a caesar, though BYO Bistro has a knack for light, almost pastry croutons and an ethereal lemony dressing. But it's a special-that-evening order of an autumn strudel that holds the table at bay, each of my dining partners hoping to snare another forkful of lacy crisp phyllo stuffed with a tangy fat pillow of butternut squash chunks, feta, baby artichoke, spinach and toasted pumpkin seeds alongside tart vinaigrette-slicked greens. The dish is flaky and firm, hot and refreshing, bitter and smooth -- this is the type of stuff I'd come back for.
There are daily offered ideas I admire about BYO Bistro, it's true. The thick, sesame-crusted bread is served with olive oil but also coarse salt -- mix them together and it's great. The appetizer of salmon cakes is spectacular, bringing three crisp-edged nubbins that are delicate, pop-in-the-mouth seafood candies. But linguini with three "jumbo" shrimp (not -- they're midsize critters, though nicely firm), snap peas, shiitake mushrooms and tomato is a robbery of blandness at $17.95.
Most nights we pass on dessert -- the only contender is a satisfying apple crisp, much like warm granola capped with vanilla bean ice cream in crème anglaise.
For value, BYO Bistro is doing its job -- nice enough full meals for $22.95 and less. There's all that money we save by toting in our liquor in brown paper bags. For memorable dinnertime calories, though, I'd rather just stop in at Drinkwater's and get another bottle of wine.