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Tuna Turner

Roy's, Scottsdale Seville, 7001 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 905-1155. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Looking for signs that the Valley has joined the urban big leagues? We've got teams in all four major professional sports. We can fly nonstop to Europe. The homicide rate is up. And we're attracting jet-setting, celebrity/entrepreneur chefs eager to forge new links in their high-end culinary empires.

The latest, high-profile chain entry on the scene is Roy's. Roy is Roy Yamaguchi, whose 12 other eponymous branches operate in chic Pacific Rim locations: Hawaii, Hong Kong, Seattle, Tokyo, Pebble Beach and Guam.

Last January, he brought his trademark Pacific Rim fare to the desert. Restaurant Number 13 won't be unlucky: Roy's corporate honchos know Pacific Rim cuisine is enormously popular, the trendiest fare in town. And Yamaguchi himself is no Johnny-come-lately, latching onto a trendy style. He's a pioneer who launched what was then called Euro-Asian cuisine to raves 15 years ago in Los Angeles. He's also got a shelf full of awards, including a James Beard Foundation Best Chef citation, attesting to his prowess.

Being a trailblazing culinary pioneer brings rewards. But success can lead to difficulties down the road. Once the path is carved out, others, sensing an opportunity, rush to imitate. So techniques and ingredients that once were novel can become cliched. Dishes that once seemed lively and inspired may soon seem tired and predictable.

In addition, the decision to go corporate makes more financial sense than gastronomic. Roy's trained surrogates, not Roy himself, run his kitchens. And, inevitably, going corporate dams up creative kitchen juices. The danger: What once was new, exciting and innovative can become old, boring and routine.

If Roy's had come to Phoenix just five years ago, it would have stood out from the restaurant crowd. These days, though, it has to compete with crowd-pleasers like Wolfgang Puck's ObaChine, Zen 32 and Restaurant Hapa.

Now that the novelty of Pacific Rim fare has worn off--even employee cafeterias these days are wrapping grilled salmon in a banana leaf and brushing on hoisin-mango sauce--Roy's has to compete on the basis of quality, price, service and setting. Mostly, it can. Occasionally, it can't.

Despite its corporate roots, Roy's doesn't make a cookie-cutter chain impression. The place aims for the bustling upscale casual look: light wood tables (without linen tablecloths); a striking metal bird-of-paradise arrangement at the entrance; subdued lighting; an open kitchen; and walls hung with colorful artwork for sale. The clientele dresses in every sort of style, from suits and evening outfits to shorts and tee shirts. If there was piped-in music, I couldn't hear it--Roy's is very noisy. This is not the place to propose to your sweetie.

The meal gets off to an odd start. Servers tote around a breadbasket, from which they ostentatiously pluck out one small sliver of ordinary French loaf and deliver it to the bread plate. What's the point? If you're going to put on a bread show, put something in the breadbasket worthy of our attention. Roy's way of doing it manages to look both pretentious and chintzy at the same time.

The appetizers are generally small, pricey and tasty. Chicken spring rolls bring four crispy nibbles, in an orange syrup the menu calls "spicy" and I call "sweet." Lobster pot stickers are utterly scrumptious, five delicate, bite-size pouches coated with a spoon-lickin' sesame ginger miso sauce. But the $10 tag--that's two bucks a bite--isn't quite as easy to swallow. There's nothing Pacific Rim about the wood-fired pizza. But it's a more substantial and cost-effective starter. It's also irresistible. One evening's special, topped with smoked salmon, capers and lemony creme fraiche, got our group's undivided attention.

Szechuan-style ribs aren't nearly as memorable. These bones are serviceable enough, but you can do as well, or better, at a dozen Chinese restaurants in town. And don't bother with the spinach salad. It's a snoozy pile of greenery, not-ready-for-prime-time tomato, onion and goat cheese, dressed with a surprisingly lackluster bacon balsamic vinaigrette.

The main dish list emphasizes fish, and for a good reason: It's far and away what Roy's does best.

Every restaurant in town serves ahi tuna. But no one does it better than Roy's. His blackened version starts with a gorgeously moist hunk of fish, rare in the center and lightly cooked around the edges. It's draped with a wonderful hot soy mustard butter that grabs you by the lapels and doesn't let go.

Ono is a very mild-flavored fish, so it benefits from Roy's ginger-scallion seasoning and raspberry mango sauce. This is what Pacific Rim style is all about--a vigorous blend of Asian and tropical flavors that works on every portion of your palate. Sticky rice and wok-stirred veggies complete this well-crafted platter.

Mahimahi further demonstrates the kitchen's seafood skills. It's lightly crusted with nori (dried Japanese seaweed) and paired with luscious mashed purple potatoes topped with a dreamy shiitake mushroom sauce. Moist Alaskan halibut gets a dusting of porcini powder and comes teamed with rock shrimp and mashed potatoes. Roy's even turns out a vibrant shrimp risotto, gilded with lobster essence and studded with corn, asparagus and sun-dried tomato.

Roy's steak, chicken and lamb dishes aren't all bad. But that's about as ringing an endorsement as I can muster. The best thing about the filet mignon is its shallot portabella mushroom sauce. The beef itself, however, isn't as good as you'd find in a prime steak house. The quality of the rack of lamb is more disturbing. It's done up Asian-style, lined with a punchy hoisin-chile glaze. But this meat is way too fatty. Someone needs to keep tabs on the supplier.

The blame for the lemongrass tempura chicken, however, rests squarely with Roy. It's nothing more than a slab of breast, encased in a thick batter that owes more to Colonel Sanders than to the art of tempura. Even the mango cashew sauce it sits in is weak. How did this dish ever pass muster at corporate headquarters?

There's nothing remotely creative about any of the four desserts. But they're so beautifully prepared that I didn't care. Someone should let this pastry chef stretch her wings. The heart-stopping chocolate souffle is as good as it gets, filled with intense molten chocolate. The mango cheesecake is a triumph, rich, heavy and creamy. The creme brulee is the ideal sprung to life. And the silky white chocolate mousse cake manages to keep pace with this powerful group.

But if Roy's ever expects to be a great restaurant, it's going to have to alter its wham-bam, turn-the-tables philosophy. The only way we stretched our three-course meals here to an hour was to linger over coffee for 15 minutes. Appetizers appear in two minutes. Entrees show up 30 seconds after appetizers are cleared. Desserts arrive with the same alacrity. And a pesky busser is ready to whisk plates away if you stop chewing for an instant. I tried to chase ours away a half-dozen times, but the indefatigable fellow acted as if he were under orders never to be empty-handed.

Memo to Roy's: If I want to be in and out in about an hour, I'll eat at LensCrafters. Give folks time to stop and smell the ahi tuna.

Roy's:
Chicken spring rolls
$7.50
Mahimahi
18.25
Blackened ahi tuna
19.50
Chocolate souffle
6.50


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