Cafe Reviews

Cursed . . .

Such is my cross, that I must often let fly a long-winded raspberry in the face of those I wish were doing a better job of feeding me. Call it culinary tough-love. As my pappy was wont to declare before caning my hide raw for mooning a schoolmarm or some such monkeyshines, "This'll hurt me more than it's gonna hurt you." Not sure I ever bought that line, but it resonates with me now, here on the other end of the belt.

So it goes in the case of the Hotel San Carlos' new restaurant The Steakhouse on Central, just three months old and still struggling to get its act together. Chances are most of you are familiar with the San Carlos, the 76-year-old downtown Phoenix grande dame that once played hostess to such luminaries as Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant and Jean Harlow. The Italian Renaissance-style structure is even encircled by its own little Walk of Fame, with stars boasting the names of the San Carlos' celebrity clientele of yore.

The building is a tad creaky and musty in corners, but its worn, marble flooring, crystal chandeliers and antique decor all testify to a lost grandeur that modern hostelries cannot replicate. Moreover, there are tales that the San Carlos is haunted by the ghost of a lovelorn suicide who threw herself from the building in 1928, as well as by the restless spirits of children who've returned to hopscotch about the site of what was the city's first schoolhouse in 1874.

There may be another touch of the Overlook Hotel to the San Carlos, if you recall the inn featured in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. You see, the San Carlos has been jinxed when it comes to restaurants, The Steakhouse on Central being the fourth in nine years, according to manager Gino Leonel, formerly of Franco's Italian Caffe. Leonel recently confided that he hoped to break the curse with this restaurant owned jointly by investor Dr. Walter Tilford and San Carlos proprietor Gregory Melikian.

"The space has been bad luck," he remarked. "But I think we'll change that."

It took the previous tenant, a bounder by the name of Stephen D'Amico, three months to run his restaurant/club Privé into the ground before he stripped the place clean on New Year's Eve 2002 and hightailed it back to his native Beantown. Leonel was hired on by Melikian, and he seems a well-intentioned chap. But judging strictly from the two visits I've paid to the wanna-be chophouse, the eatery suffers from a number of fatal flaws that, if not addressed, will sink it as surely as the Kursk submarine was sunk by its own torpedoes.

First off, it calls itself a steak house, but there are only three steaks on the menu: a rib eye, a hanger steak, and a filet mignon. By that yardstick, the Rainforest Cafe is a steak house. Crikey, even Coco's has more flayed steer on its menu! And I'd venture to say Coco's is better prepared, too, but more on that later.

The second unpardonable sin is the wine list, or lack thereof. I mean, every steak house worthy of the name should have several primo reds by the glass. The Steakhouse on Central has four, none of them any great shakes. With so little to choose from on my first visit, I ended up gagging through a glass of Estancia Paso Robles Cabernet, which even a Robert Mondavi could rival. Afterward, I had a goblet of Carmenet Merlot, which I liked better, but not by much. Why not just unscrew a jug of Gallo, if you're going to put so little effort into your vino selections?

Finally, there's the decor, which is vintage flea market. Other than the wine-colored drapes and the carpeting with burgundy and gold fleurs-de-lis, the interior is so execrable that Mariah Carey and Betsy Johnson could do lunch here and literally blend into their surroundings. The wall paint is mismatched, one part olive green, one part a sickening brownish yellow -- or so it seemed in the poor light. The wall art also clashes: Over here is a pathetic attempt at Impressionism; over there is an inexplicable painting of a horse; and in the center is a uniquely hideous piece made of mirrored shards.

Funny story. On my second visit, a couple of fellows were replacing the garage-sale art with a series of neo-African artworks of gold, green and ebony. I remarked to my companion that at least the art was improving even if the food wasn't, thinking the change to be permanent. Then, quite unsolicited, Leonel approached me, offering apologies for the aesthetic switcheroo, explaining that the African-themed art was up for a one-night event.

Believe me, leaving the African masks up would have been an improvement. But if The Steakhouse on Central wanted to keep with the San Carlos' Sunset Boulevard feel, this could be done fairly easily. The hotel's sunken taproom achieves this simply by relying on the original, inlaid wooden bar and photos of the San Carlos in the '30s.

Service is also a problem. On my initial trip one Saturday evening with my mooching amigos Mikey and Brad, no one was present to greet us. Eventually, a busboy told us we could sit wherever we wanted, which we did, and he then gave us bar menus. A nice blond lady later replaced these with dinner menus. We had to beg for bread, which, when brought to us, was little better than Wonder bread, and we were given a dish of sculpted butter, hard from being left too long in the refrigerator. Some bartender came by, and we ordered drinks, with Mikey getting his beloved Gibson, Brad a greyhound, and me, the Estancia. By the time our Jessica Simpson-esque waitress delivered our firewater, we were dang parched. Though, when I tasted the swill she brought me, I wished I had stuck with the H2O.

The starters provided a much-needed respite from what was turning into a truly disastrous outing. The crispy polenta with mushroom and bacon ragout was quite savory, as was the beef tartare with capers, red onions and mustard dressing. The three of us nearly got into fisticuffs over the shrimp and sausage cheesecake -- easily the best cheesecake I've enjoyed since purchasing my first book of Vargas pinups. It served as an intriguing reminder that cheesecake is not just for dessert, and can be somewhat like quiche instead.

I was almost ready to sing a hearty three cheers for the chef, but then reality hit harder than a Mars rover landing with our entrees. Mikey chose the double-cut pork chops with pancetta sauce. But we were taken aback when our blond server-siren asked him how he wanted them cooked. I mean, what better way to court trichinosis than by eating undercooked pork? "Very well done," Mikey replied, but when said pork chops came, they were still pink on the inside! Mikey ate them and lived, though the pork chops tasted like they'd been dipped in a barrel of brine: probably the pancetta, though it was akin to French-kissing a salt lick.

Brad's filet mignon with béarnaise was equally salt-laden, but that suited Brad fine, as the boy has an unnatural predilection for sodium chloride. My own choice of duck two ways continued the saline theme. Though the seared duck breast was tender and delicious, the confit leg and thigh seemed too salty, even for confit. I'm not sure what to make of all this, as on my return trip, the items I ate also seemed as if someone went crazy with the salt cellar. By Donald Trump's hairpiece, could the chef be on commission from Morton?

Dessert was extraordinarily disconcerting. On my first visit, there were none available. Not even a Milky Way bar. On the second, I had two choices: cheesecake or some vanilla or chocolate ice cream. I chose the former, hoping against hope for a big fat piece of New York-style cheesecake. Guess again, polenta breath! What I received was a small, cylindrical, crustless bit of confection topped with one stinkin' blackberry.

My advice to the management of the regal San Carlos is to put a call in to Father Merrin from The Exorcist, slap a copy of "Tubular Bells" on the CD player, and stock up on Holy Water and crucifixes. Because, unfortunately, their curse de cuisine seems more powerful than ever.

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