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West Stops

Bistro Panino, 4139 West Bell, Phoenix, 978-8500. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Not too many years ago, there were only two plausible explanations for venturing west of Central Avenue in search of dinner: You enjoyed chain-restaurant fare, or you wanted to eat dinner at 4:30 p.m. That way, you could still fit in tomorrow's breakfast before bed, so you could be ready for lunch the following morning.

You can still find every chain restaurant in the Milky Way lining the west-side boulevards. And most restaurants still regard the few diners who come in after 7 p.m. as hopeless night owls.

The situation, however, may be changing. No, Christopher, Vincent and RoxSand aren't rushing to open west-side branches just yet. But at least one brave soul believes west-siders are ready for the kind of fare that the rest of the Valley now takes for granted.

He's Roland Ulrich, the Swiss chef/proprietor of Bistro Panino. I sure hope his entrepreneurial instincts are right. (On both my midweek visits, the room was distressingly empty.) I don't have any doubts, though, about his kitchen instincts. Bistro Panino offers both outstanding Italian/continental fare and excellent value. If this place were east of 24th Street, bargain-hunting foodies would be lined up outside, cheerfully waiting for a table.

Ulrich came here from Le Rhone, a Sun City establishment that dishes out vaguely European fare to an older crowd. It's not exactly the kind of outlet that offers scope for an ambitious man's creative energies. So it's no surprise that Ulrich decided to strike out on his own. The surprise is, he's chosen to showcase his talent on West Bell Road, in a drab shopping-strip setting.

The restaurant makes a good initial impression. That's because the first thing patrons see when they enter is a tempting display of fresh, house-baked breads. (You can buy them retail--a good idea in this bakery-challenged part of town.) The loaves are even better to eat than to look at. The olive bread, rosemary bread and country wheat bread served with dinner give immediate notice that Bistro Panino won't just be going through the culinary motions.

The storefront is brightened by several colorful murals, fake greenery, wood lattice with artificial flowing vines and an intriguing pasta collage. But someone needs to rethink the migraine-inducing, piped-in pan-flute music. I think Amnesty International should crack down on this kind of aural torture. After a couple of minutes, I wanted to take out a contract on Zamfir and his annoying disciples.

Fortunately, Bistro Panino's charming edibles eventually soothed my savage breast. But it took a while, because starters are not the chef's strong suit. The minestrone soup is routinely serviceable. There's also a seafood salad put together with tiny, tasteless shrimp and a Thousand Island-type sauce. Your best appetizer bet is the escargots, whose puddle of garlic-herb butter furnishes a wonderful opportunity for bread-dipping.

Dinners come with a pleasant salad, which gives you yet another excuse to eat more bread. But at this point, you might consider saving some precious belly room. Bistro Panino's entrees and desserts are definitely worth being hungry for.

The main-dish price/quality ratio is hard to beat. Consider the veal saltimbocca. The name means "jump in the mouth," and that's exactly what these thin, tender, sauteed veal medallions do. They're teamed with sage and prosciutto, then moistened with a rich brown sauce. It's the most expensive platter here, at $14.95, but you get your money's worth.

One evening's seafood special showed flair. Homemade puff pastry, fresh, buttery and flaky, arrived filled with salmon, crab and scallops, all smoothed in a white-wine sauce. Mushroom risotto and mixed veggies provided genuine side-dish thrills. Again, too, the price was certainly right--a few miles farther east, and the tag for this $11.95 dish would have been 50 percent higher.

Pork loin Panino is called a "house specialty," and I can understand the chef's reasoning. Four slices of pork roast are simmered with apples and plums in a heady red-wine sauce. It's an extremely tasty combination of flavors that holds your interest from first bite to last.

Most main dishes are accompanied by a choice of rice, penne pasta or skillet-fried gnocchi. The latter are the clear winner, irresistible dumplings, doughy on the inside, crunchy on the outside.

Bistro Panino also whips up several superb pasta platters. I'd match the lovely homemade spinach ravioli, gilded with portabella mushrooms and Gorgonzola cheese, against almost any pasta dish in Scottsdale. Manicotti features two thin crepes stuffed with ricotta and smoothed with a light tomato sauce. Lasagna benefits from lots of cheese, lots of meat and an appealing white sauce.

 

Breads aren't the only thing the chef can bake. He has a way with desserts, too. On one visit, we ordered a single piece of French almond cake to split between us. The waiter brought two slices instead. "This is so good, one won't be enough," he said, "so I brought you a second on the house." He was right; this cake is out-and-out terrific. The Linzer torte and rich Swiss chocolate cake merit the same kind of praise.

Will west-siders recognize their good fortune in having Bistro Panino in the neighborhood? I hope so. If they don't, it's back to the chain gang for them.

North Valley Grill, Arrowhead Towne Center, 75th Avenue and Bell, Glendale, 479-3430. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

I have to confess I didn't go to North Valley Grill with a heightened sense of anticipation. In my experience, the food at mall-based restaurants is lucky to range from dull to bland. It's not hard to understand why: Like every retail outlet in every sprawling, cookie-cutter mall, these restaurants must cater to mass tastes. That means they must feed the same people who watch Friends, read self-help books and attend John Tesh concerts. Is it any wonder my expectations were low?

To my surprise, however, going to North Valley Grill was like going on a successful blind date. I was so happy that the place didn't turn out to be a dog that, in retrospect, I may have overestimated its actual charms. Still, I have to confess, if North Valley Grill were a woman, I'd definitely want to see her again.

The menu trumpets the homespun grub as "Real American Food." It's complemented by homespun decor touches: There's a hanging quilt, a green wood cupboard and large dried wreath. The room is dominated, though, by a wall-size painted flag overlaid with a huge copper map of the United States. Outside on the patio, the fireplace is flanked by two built-in televisions, so you won't miss a single moment of the NBA playoffs if you come on a game night.

One appetizer turned out to be quite a gem. That's the savory marinated portabella mushroom, grilled and topped with crumbled bleu cheese. (North Valley Grill ought to put up a sign for westbound Bell Road traffic: "Next portabella mushroom dish, 400 miles.") The spinach artichoke dip could have been cheesier and chunkier, but it still made a favorable impression. Less successful were the wildly misnamed "Chinatown" egg rolls, two filled with shrimp, two with cheese, paired with an off-putting trio of sauces. This is what happens when a kitchen forgets its mission and decides to get cutesy.

Here on the west side, diners insist on value. That means you can count on meals coming with either soup or salad. North Valley Grill does a first-rate job with the former. The creamy seafood chowder is well-stocked with salmon, corn and potatoes. The beef-vegetable broth, studded with black-eyed peas, tastes like someone has been in the kitchen watching over it for several hours. The cheese-draped onion soup ($1.50 extra) is just as commendable.

Several entrees had me rubbing my eyes in happy disbelief. I can't remember the last time I had a pork chop as good as North Valley Grill's. The thick, tender double chop, coated with a marvelous maple glaze, delivers you right to hog heaven. Outstanding sides of creamed spinach and skin-on, chive-laced mashed potatoes also got me cheering, as did the wallet-friendly $12.95 tag.

Meat loaf is probably the quintessential "Real American Food." Yet an astonishing number of Valley restaurants do it ineptly. Not here. In texture and taste, this meat loaf is just right, a blend of coarse-ground beef and veal, zipped up by wild mushrooms and a ketchupy crust. The menu boasts that "Mom never made it like this." You can say that again. If she had, I might not have had the courage to move away.

North Valley Grill even does a good job with ribs, a specialty that's almost always better left to rib houses. These bones are properly crunchy outside, soft and meaty within. A lively barbecue sauce, sweet and vinegary, furnishes an additional boost.

The kitchen also prepares a respectable jambalaya, a zesty mix of shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage served with spicy rice. The one entree misstep? It's the baked Boston scrod, a dry, rubbery fillet made even less appealing by a dry Ritz cracker crust. This is the first time I've ever had fish stick to the roof of my mouth.

I thought the restaurant might stumble at dessert time, taking the lazy way out with the usual supplier-provided suspects. But like all my preconceptions about North Valley Grill, this one was also off the mark. Aunt Martha's blueberry bread pudding is nothing short of scrumptious, somehow both rich and light, buttery and drenched with whiskey sauce. The apple pan dowdy, spiced apples and pastry topped with ice cream, is almost in the same class.

 

North Valley Grill seems like a perfect neighborhood fit. The menu is nonthreatening; the prices are very reasonable; and the food is skillfully prepared. West-siders, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Bistro Panino:
Escargots
$5.95
Pork loin Panino
12.50
French almond cake
2.75

North Valley Grill:
Portabella mushroom
$7.25
Meat loaf
9.50
Bread pudding
3.95


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