Cafe Reviews

Ernest to Goodness

It takes some time but, on the way back from the powder room, my guest finally notices it. On a little shelf behind the hostess stand is a single biographical volume. As far as we can tell, it is the restaurant's only thematic reference to its own name, Hemingway's, and the presence of the book at least corroborates that we are talking about Ernest.

When a restaurant gives itself an allusive name, and then makes no allusions, I get uncomfortable. I look at this particular menu and see that only the names of certain dishes are placed in quotes--"The Villager," "Knob Hill," "Devil on Horseback"--and start racking my memory. Is it possible that the author who gave us The Old Man and the Sea has elaborated upon the themes of courage and natural mortality in the little-known work "Scottsdale Burger"?

You might think I'm making an inconsequential point, but Hemingway's also calls itself a "steak & oyster house," and that's not exactly helpful either. There are only a few steaks on this basically bistro-style menu, and these are buried far down in the entree listings. Oysters (more about them later) are not even mentioned on the menu.

In all, it's just hard to figure out what this place is and who it is meant to serve. For example, here is a restaurant that has spent lavishly to create a sophisticated cosmopolitan dining and drinking environment and yet lists an elaborate children's menu right on the regular menu. All of this is praiseworthy in its own right, but restaurants that try to be all things to all people generally end up confusing and then closing.

I belabor the point because Hemingway's is ultimately worth keeping around.

This is, incidentally, already the second restaurant to have inhabited the anchor site in this architecturally ambitious but largely untenanted Chandler shopping plaza. Formerly Steven's Chicago Chop House, an expensive and ambitious venture itself, the new Hemingway's has still invested in significant alterations. Major physical modifications to the dining areas and lounge, a new paint job, new carpeting throughout and an elaborate risk-taking devotion to fresh foliage are some of the immediately apparent changes.

Having settled amidst the glass, marble and brass decor, my guest and I are enjoying the restaurant's high-ceilinged spaciousness and high-polish cleanliness when we are presented with a tray of carrots and celery and, shortly after that, with some marvelously moist and crisp-crusted "almost sourdough" bread. When the waitress informs us that Anchor Steam beer is available on tap, the restaurant immediately starts reminding me of Star's, a well-known San Francisco gourmet emporium. If you've not had that particular pleasure, Hemingway's is also a kissing cousin, ambiance-wise, of the Valley's American Grill restaurants.

As it develops, the Hemingway's menu is not quite so gastronomically ambitious as either of the aforementioned. The emphasis here is on nicely done versions of familiar cafe fare such as fried appetizers, entree salads, stacked sandwiches, burgers and grilled meats. In each menu category there are some attractive signature items, however, such as Garlic Chicken (chicken breasts baked in fresh garlic and topped with fried onions); "The Villager" (a grilled sandwich of marinated pork slices served on toasted rye and topped with beurre blanc sauce and cheddar cheese); and Prime Rib Pu Pu (the "house specialty," an appetizer of cubed prime rib served with horseradish sauce and French fries, assigned a name that certainly conjures up the literary legacy of Ernest Hemingway--maybe it should be called Prime Rib Pa Pa).

Fortunately, we ask our waitress if there are any specials this evening and this jogs her memory about oysters. It turns out that Hemingway's is quite sincere about presenting fresh fish and seafood--on days when good product is not available, none is offered. This is commendable, but it's not a policy that works well if it seems an afterthought to the waitress.

We are in luck this evening and are able to place an order for Oysters Rockefeller. Although the finished dish contains too much spinach and lacks a good shot of Pernod, the oysters themselves are fabulous, very plump and juicy. Our other appetizer, Cajun Chicken Wings, is a typical version of this hot sauce-tossed treat, and is nicely rendered here.

As we eat our dinner salads, whose typical ingredients are chopped and arranged in a nice mosaic-like pattern, my guest and I confront our only entirely negative impression of the evening. Music will always be among the most personal of tastes, but we both just hate the lounge singer, whose every weird falsetto trick is unnecessarily amplified over a fuzzy sound system. The resulting noise sets off a squall of baby crying in the dining room, and the combined aural barrage is a perfect example of how this restaurant confounds its own sense of identity.