You Go, Grill

Gregory Casale sabers a bottle of champagne to christen his new bistro.
Erik Guzowski

When Gregory's Grill opened in early 1997, it generated great excitement because of its bold approach to a new dining experience known as global cuisine. While foodies unanimously raved over its eclectic menu (the Valley hadn't yet seen such things as black pepper-crusted mahi mahi over crawfish spoon bread with roasted corn and snap-pea succotash) the same question kept popping up: What's a nice grill like you doing in a place like this?

For all its highbrow culinary leanings, Gregory's occupied less-than-desirable digs. Forlorn in a dingy strip mall at Scottsdale and McDowell roads, the restaurant struggled to rise above its characterless neighbors: raucous bars, discount furniture stores, and just across the way, the soon-to-be Beirut-style remains of Los Arcos Mall. Inside wasn't much more inspired, the decor relying on a few paintings here and there, lit partially by a parking lot light outside its tall glass windows.

This spring, chef-owner Gregory Casale heard opportunity knocking. The legendary Franco's Trattoria was closing, as owner Franco Fazzuoli decided he'd had enough of the high-pressure restaurant business. The location was prime, right in the heart of gourmet demographics, and the facility was perfect, tricked out in the kitchen but intimate and cozy in the dining room.

In its new incarnation, Gregory's has lost none of the spark that made it so fresh and exciting almost five years ago. If anything, the cushier crib has encouraged Casale to fly higher, introducing a new menu that's as memorable for what's on it as for how it's presented. The emphasis remains on Asian, Indian and Middle-Eastern dishes, but borrowing from an increasingly popular trend toward tasting menus, Casale has crafted a two-page celebration of small, impact-studded dishes that are meant to savored in two- to five-course progressions. Prices are appropriately downscaled to their portion sizes; one gustatory three-course feast for two recently came in at just $100, including an excellent bottle-plus-a-glass of Pinot Grigio, coffee and dessert.

Which is not to say that dining at Gregory's is a bargain. It's easy to go nuts when ordering, and the staff certainly doesn't assist in restraint. While it's not a "fries with that?" mentality, servers are masters of the sales pitch. There's bottled water or (ugh is implied) "plain tap," with the liter of imported Pana liquid setting us back $5.50. It's recommended that diners order a minimum of three courses, and advised that most guests find satisfaction in five. Excess sounds appealing from the server's pitch, yet, after experiencing the meal, even my most ravenous dining companion admits he'd be awestruck by anyone who could comfortably down quintuplet plates.

While petite (fish, meat and chicken dishes average three to four ounces of protein), these dishes are so complex and electrically constructed that just a few bites bring more satisfaction than an entire platter of other chefs' finest foods.

In fact, I've got to admit that it's more than professional duty that keeps me crawling back to Gregory's, until I'm intimate with every item on the menu. Though many items are carryovers from the first restaurant, if the original Gregory's was great, this new one is even better.

Not that anybody's surprised. Casale was the chef behind the Scottsdale Princess' award-winning Marquesa Sunday brunch in the early '90s. That elaborate display still causes even the most jaded gourmets to sit up and take notice with its adventurous jaunts into European cuisine. Casale's a master of balance, deftly controlling levels of salt, sweet, mild and bitter for delightful contrast and sneak-up flavor explosions.

Gregory's new menu is divided into five courses, with each layer progressively heavier. Within their categories, individual items progress in flavor, too, from delicate citrus-toned dishes to assertive peppery character. Wine pairings are recommended -- Casale has compiled an intriguing list of rarely seen labels. Regardless of how we order, though, it's clear that this kitchen is guided by a hand that isn't afraid to take chances.

"Lighter flavors" to start out are a hedonist's fantasy, with familiar dishes done up in unexpected, fashion-forward dress. Salmon ceviche isn't so new, but when the glistening fresh fish dice is towered over creamy white-bean hummus, drizzled with parsley scallion oil and capped with salty salmon roe, it's pure heaven. And while simple, an elegant beef tartare gets an impressive Asian accent from a subtly spicy soy-sesame vinaigrette and a nest of cold sesame noodles. Fettuccini, too, is punched up with an intense garlic and truffle oil, the homemade noodles crested with a seasonal chop of roasted red bell peppers and broccoli rabe, a leafy green with a pungent bite.

Foie gras is another welcome classic, served in a silver-dollar-sized circle, and it harks back to the 1950s here, plated with tiny cubes of aspic. But this is not the elastic gelatin we remember -- today's dainty jewels have just enough substance to take form on the plate, then dissolve instantly in the mouth for a sudden release of Chenin Blanc charm. Dotted with elfin mounds of sel gris (salt) and pepper, drops of thickish, reduced port wine, and salty greens, the dish is so decadent it's dangerous.  

On certain dishes, Casale surely is showing off, marrying unlikely partners for a shockingly effective union. Caramelized zucchini and fresh thyme, for example, are blended into a mild, creamy soup, then elevated with dabs of buttery rabbit confit, a thimbleful of slightly tart, oven-dried tomatoes and a crown of bright, sharp, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pure bliss in a bowl.

And who else would take sweetbreads, dust them in silica-fine hazelnut, then mound them on sweet-pea risotto with corn broth? Both delicate and firm, the thymus glands are creamy-smooth, barely crisped, with the pale-green rice moistened in just a touch of broth.

Who else would risk upstaging an exquisite nubbin of pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras, partnering it with a sweet-potato tart, strawberry and rhubarb compote and 20-year-old balsamic vinegar? Yet it works, alternating textures and tartness with just a hint of innocent sweetness.

Salads make up the second course, with a quartet of plates interesting enough to stand as entrees. The five-spice crispy quail is a beautiful breast and leg, expertly moist and heaped with locally grown greens and a thimbleful of vibrant scallion-ginger chutney. Field greens are the foundation for succulent duck confit, too, tumbled with smooth, roasted beets, a side of miniature buckwheat blinis and dollops of sour cream-dill dressing.

Another salad stands high on its plate, assembled in a tower-like tian of diced, roasted vegetables cut with tangy goat cheese, drizzled in basil oil and roasted-tomato vinaigrette and skewered with skinny parsnip chips. For an absolute bargain, the spring-mix salad brings a generous toss of greens scattered with grilled poached pears, walnuts, English Stilton cheese and balsamic vinaigrette for just $5.

A third course showcases boutique cheeses with refreshing sidekicks -- Brillat Savarin with pickled beets, beet reduction and microgreens; Tellagio with roasted bell peppers, micro arugula and truffle oil; or shaft-blue vein with red-onion marmalade and sliced apples.

Fish stars in course No. 4, ranging from a rustic, cornmeal-encrusted trout flanked with peppery arugula and red onion salad, sweet melon salsa and tart Creole mustard vinaigrette; to an opulent poached lobster in miso blanc butter with sparkling sides of fennel relish and champagne-poached pear. Grilled shrimp is a must-try, piling two perfect crustaceans on a savory herb bread pudding in fennel-saffron sauce. And mussels vindaloo is almost supernatural, steamed in a gripping, spicy, Indian red-mustard curry alongside homemade naan (pillowy bread).

An excellent chunk of halibut perches atop black Thai rice, the smoky grains reminiscent of black beans, encircled with haricot verts on a dainty pool of fiery red curry broth. Equally intriguing is Chilean sea bass, steamed and served simply with sweet rice and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), although the side of Chinese braised pork is more similar to fatty bacon than diners might expect. A quick dance with the chef brings salmon cooked to still-juicy medium-rare, the silky fish encrusted in sesame seeds, lounging on a crispy white-bean falafel round, moistened with vibrant black pepper-cumin broth and teamed with cucumber tahini salad. Stunning.

A fifth course herds in the meats -- seared chicken breast with deconstructed mole and chipotle-mashed potatoes, or ginger and cardamom-marinated veal tenderloin in asparagus emulsion with a bouquet of summer vegetables. Our server is raving about the grilled Wagyu Kobe beef, a remarkable value at just $27, she says, since the famous Japanese cows command hundreds of dollars per pound elsewhere. Okay, so this meat isn't from Kobe (Australia, actually, she says), but it's still a bargain, she insists. And the meat, while not magical, is marvelous, the few precious ounces tucked alongside nori-wrapped risotto and Kobe-stuffed crispy wonton.

Ten bucks less delivers a just-as-compelling chunk of beef tenderloin, rosy red and rubbed with punchy chile, sided with a juicy pulled-beef "salad" and a South American salsa. It competes head-on with a spectacular medallion of lamb dish, massaged with gutsy Indian spices and accompanied by palak panir (spinach and unripened Indian cheese), plus potato-and-cauliflower samosa (fried, stuffed pastry). Boneless beef short rib, meanwhile, is another bargain, priced at $14 for a generous hunk of meat sided with horseradish mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables glistened in sherry broth.

The most exciting entree, though, has to be the roasted duck breast, the bird mild, meaty and moist, and dramatized with assertive Armenian spices in a chunky walnut-plum glaze. The slim poultry slices are topped with baby carrots and served with an eggplant-spike potato cake, torn and grilled like hash browns.  

If we were still standing, a sixth course would include dessert, but we'll pass -- Gregory's offerings don't break any new ground. It's the only disappointing aspect of the experience.

Not that everything is perfect. The new Gregory's still doesn't do much with decor -- a few unframed, oversized photographs of exotic-looking villagers dot the caramel-colored walls, warm sconces and chandeliers throw toffee tones over white tablecloths, and sheer tan drapes cuddle the central dining area like a four poster bed. Inviting, but not exciting. The fish in our ginger and lemongrass-cured tuna is four slabs of thick, bland stuff. Our waiter forgets to bring the toasted brioche with our torchon of foie gras, ultimately dumping the flavorless, dried-out slice on a bread plate. Bread, too, is boring, verging on stale and virtually tasteless.

Still, in its new digs, Gregory's World Bistro hardly needs any room for improvement.

Note: Gregory's is closed for vacation until September 10.

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