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My Brew Heaven

Special message to readers from Cap'n Dave:
This is the second installment of my special guest-review program, by which I goof off for several weeks and have my friends do all the work, at least until the new serious restaurant reviewer punches in on March 14.

This week it's Tom Hamilton's turn. Tom runs a liquor store, one of the best in town, located in Camelback Center at 16th Street and Camelback. The name of the store is, of course, Dave's Liquors.

If you are looking for a nice bottle of wine, perhaps to impress somebody enough to consider maybe becoming your love slave or the like, go see Tom. He knows his fluids. Also, Tom hosts the occasional wine tasting in the back room, and if you've ever considered learning more about wine, Tom is the man to learn it from. He is a Regular Guy. Finally, Dave's Liquors makes really excellent little sandwiches to go. What more could you want from a business?

Take it, Tom:

A couple of years ago the Arizona Legislature made it legal for micro-breweries to produce and sell beer in this state. By that time, the beer-boutique fad had been raging its way inland from both coasts, and beer fans here were primed.

Since the legislature's great leap forward, three brew houses have opened around town. For those of us who have been known to tip a few, the brews concocted at the Bandersnatch Pub, Hops, and Pendleton's are a pleasant diversion from the "Tastes great! Less filling!" crowd. Pendleton's Restaurant and Brewery, the newest of the three brew pubs opened so far, has set up in the old Guadalaharry's location, on the grounds of the La Posada resort. It's an ambitious undertaking. The concept is reportedly the brain child of several investors who've obviously sunk a ton of money into the enterprise. The Guadalaharry's shell was gutted and redecorated and a load of costly brewing equipment (visible behind the bar) has been hauled inside.

This is a high-overhead operation, set in a high-rent neighborhood. The money guys must be counting on a huge--and I mean huge--volume of business.

If Pendleton's first few batches of beers are any indication, the place is heading in the right direction. On the night of our visit (a Sunday) two fresh brews were offered on tap--a straight-ahead pilsner and a dark lager. The menu promises a larger variety in future months, even such "hand-crafted" styles as porters, mai bocks and dopplebocks. The inaugural drafts I sampled made me thirsty for future foam.

With my wife (and designated driver) and one other companion along for the fun, I ordered a glass of each new brew, and focused my concentration on the present. The amber-colored lager was rich, smooth and flavorful. I don't think there is a comparable taste experience in commercially available bottled beer--this stuff is complex and totally satisfying. The pilsner was lighter-bodied, crisp and clean, with a little of that sharp European finish which reminded me of the great Czechoslovakian pilsner Urquell.

Simply put, these are high-quality beverages. I've heard that Pendleton's has already had requests for its beer from other restaurants and bars, and I'm not surprised. I would carry it in my store if it were available. But I'm not completely sure if the beers would survive the trip to another setting, or even to a bottle. After all, part of the charm of visiting a brew pub is visiting the brew. Even if you're not a fanatic about beer, I think a trip to Pendleton's tap room would convince you of that.

While we sipped, the bartender told us that ales and stouts are to be the next styles to come from the Pendleton kettles, and that imported barleys and malts are used in the production of all of the home brews. Based on the beers I sampled, my impression of this operation is that the emphasis will be on fine product, not just showy production.

I could've easily spent the rest of the night in the bar, alternating quaffs. The lounge is spacious and lined with hunting trophies. It's my guess that the presence of dead animals on the walls is a direct appeal to latent hunter-gatherer instincts. An additional macho touch was provided by the bar's three television monitors, which were all tuned to a boxing match.

The dining room is not large, at least not in proportion to the bar, though the animal-head theme hangs around in there, too. As I entered the room my first thought was, "Is one of the investors Mutual of Omaha? Was Marlin Perkins a consultant?" Overall, the feel is Western-Southwestern. Our party was served very good food by a very able service staff. Business was slow, so we had our waiter's almost undivided attention. Some of the food surprised us, even overpowered us, but on the whole we had an enjoyable dining experience. Aside from the wonderful beers, the best thing Pendleton's has going for it is that, appetizer through entree, portions are gigantic.

Pendleton's appetizer selection is split into hot and cold choices, and our cold orders were Hunan lamb salad and shrimp with Pendleton's sauce. The salad was excellent, though not the spice blast its names suggests. The shrimp--served in a creamy, light-colored sauce that carried a distinctive Southwestern tang--is a "must" for shrimp lovers.

Our hot appetizers were baked oysters with spinach and goat cheese-- the ingredients fit together perfectly-- and a giant serving of smoked duck served with buckwheat blinis and curry chutney. The duck was a substantial dish, and it easily could stand alone as an entree. The bird's tender, rich meat didn't see more than one trip around our table.

Large, crisp salads--tossed with tomato wedges and fresh dressings-- followed the appetizers, causing us to wonder where we'd find room for the main course. The multiple big beers followed by the tasty, pass-around prelims followed by the greens caused a near-overload. We knew then that our order was twice as large as it needed to be.

(Which, in retrospect, leads me to this conclusion: I see nothing wrong with stopping by Pendleton's for a couple of cold ones and a plate or two from the appetizer menu, though the folks who've bet their fortunes on the place might. On the other hand, a meal at this restaurant that starts with custom-made brews and ends with mere appetizers could set you back $40, easy. That's a pretty healthy ticket for suds and starters.)

By the time the entrees arrived, we were close to doggy-bag time. Somehow we made room for more. The beef tenderloin was superb, served exactly medium rare and packed with rich, prime flavor. The portion, as (by now) expected, was huge. Grilled salmon was prepared with a grapefruit-ginger hollandaise that tasted too buttery. It was a slow night, and the hollandaise was probably held too long in the kitchen. Nonetheless, the fish had good texture and was flavorful. The big surprise of the evening was maple-leaf duck, which was served with wild-honey pancakes and choice of glazes. Our glaze option was a chili- based concoction that I can only describe as totally intense. An incredibly rich dish, the duck's skin was blackened under the broiler, and the result is very rich and very spicy. This is a duck you have to be prepared for. There's not a wine or a spirit made that would hold up next to this powerful dish--not even the superb house beers.

At the time of my visit, desserts were being shipped in from Oscar Taylor's Upper Crust Bakery, though our waiter said Pendleton's plans to debut its own sweets menu soon. No matter. Our party had run out of room long before the pastry tray came around, so we let it pass.

The wine list is typically Phoenix-- not very imaginative and way overpriced. Neither the price structure of the bottles on the list nor the by-the-glass charges make much sense. The bottle of Stag's Leap Hawk Crest Cabernet, which sells for $17 plus change at Pendleton's, retails for about half that. Meanwhile, Kendall Jackson Chardonnay is sold by the glass at $4.50, and servings are generous. That wine retails for about $10 a bottle. The way I see it, the by-the-glass deal is a much better buy, especially if you're only going to have a glass or two.

It's a very safe list, and I suppose that's okay, given the beer-based theme. Anyway, I won't be returning to Pendleton's for the vino.

What I will return for are the dazzling beers, as well as several of the dishes we tried. But when I think back on our visit, I wonder about the mixed signals coming from the decor. I mean, stuffed heads and boxing on the tube are fine with me, but with classical music playing in the background at the same time? And did I see a pool table in there, too?

I'll support any local restaurant that's trying something this, um, daring. I just wonder what they want to be when they grow up.

Pendleton's Restaurant and Brewery, 4949 East Lincoln, Scottsdale, 840-4650. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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Tom Hamilton