Cafe Reviews

Slash City

I've always been amused by the way overachieving types tack together their job titles and hobbies with a bunch of slash marks. It's never good enough to be one thing — you need to be at least two or three. Models want to be actors, actors want to be musicians, musicians want to be DJs, and some folks want to be all of the above. Might as well throw in author and fashion designer for good measure.

Now, the phenomenon's trickling into the restaurant world, and it's more irritating than entertaining. What's in a name, you ask? Expectation, pure and simple. Tell diners you're more than just an ordinary restaurant, and they'll look forward to something unusual.

Such is the case with two new local eateries, Essence Bakery Cafe, in Tempe, and caféBistro Bar + Grill, in Scottsdale. I appreciate their owners' ambition, and, really, the food at these places isn't bad. But they're trying too hard, and that sets people up for a letdown.

A couple of months ago, a friend sent me an e-mail with her first impressions of the former:

"essence, the bakery that opened at university and hardy (near starbucks) is annoying in that it's not open in the morning(?!) but i did go in there finally and while i couldn't find bread for a dinner party(?!?!) they sold me some rolls that were really good. and the place looks really promising."

It was a tiny red flag, but I chalked it up to the place being new and decided to wait a while before checking it out. When I eventually visited Essence, I still somehow thought it would smell like a bakery and look like a bakery, with an abundance of fresh loaves and pastries and muffins. In reality, it didn't feel drastically different from Sabuddy, the Israeli restaurant that used to be there. One lone pastry case didn't make it a bakery, in my book. And that's fine — I have to give it props for remodeling the space with environmentally friendly materials — but why not just call it a cafe and leave it at that?

That said, the baked goods we tried were great. My friends and I gobbled up an awesome fudgy brownie with chocolate icing, some chewy chocolate macaroons filled with dark chocolate cream, a killer piece of lemon curd cake, and a huge white chocolate and macadamia nut cookie.

And we enjoyed the cafe-style fare on the lunch menu, which included sandwiches and salads, quiche, and some Greek dishes. On the lighter end of the spectrum, the organic spinach and cranberry salad was a filling portion, with apples, celery, jicama, toasted pecans, feta, and sherry vinaigrette. And the springy, light lemon and basil free-range chicken salad came on a soft, golden brioche roll. There were a couple of naughty items we liked too: a single-serving quiche Lorraine in a flaky crust, and a warm, open-faced sandwich with NY strip loin, Maytag blue cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and Cabernet butter. The side salad that came with most dishes was a pile of tender organic greens with Zinfandel vinaigrette.

At dinner, Essence was downright confusing. I noticed a big BYOB sign, but aside from dim lighting and three dinner entrees (stuffed chicken breast, beef tenderloin tips, and a Greek platter), there was nothing about the vibe that would make me want to crack open a bottle and hang out. The restaurant was nearly deserted on a night I visited, and it was awkward to order a $14 entree, be asked what amount I'd like to tip, and pay up-front. Essence should either commit to sit-down dinner service, or stick to sandwiches and casual counter service.

caféBistro Bar + Grill, located in the building on Scottsdale Road that used to house Leo Restaurant & Bar, is having an even bigger identity crisis. Only a handful of grilled meat entrees — listed as "the grill menu" — fits that part of the name. There is a fully stocked bar just inside the entrance, but it doesn't seem like much of a hangout, and there's no bar food. As for the cafe/bistro dichotomy, what gives? Besides the grilled stuff and a half-dozen dishes for kids, the menu breaks courses down under two subheadings. For example, you have cafe sandwiches and bistro sandwiches, a cafe soup of the day and a bistro soup of the day.

It's a novel approach — I'll give 'em that — but the concept is defined too loosely, if at all. Why, exactly, is an organic Caesar salad under "bistro"? Or why is the charbroiled bistro burger a dollar more than the cafe burger, which is double meat and double cheese? I was hoping to detect a pattern, like when I noticed several Asian-influenced dishes under "bistro," but then noticed the spicy don don street noodles, listed under "cafe." The only thing that's not confusing about the menu is the option of ordering things in different sizes. That was quite welcome.

If I could give caféBistro Bar + Grill just one designation, I'd go with cafe. The sunny dining room, with roomy booth seating and colorful, quirky pop art on the walls, has that kind of relaxed vibe. The food, too, is straightforward. Run-of-the-mill edamame and some bland, too-tough Sichuan dumplings were definite misses, while light, crispy onion rings, a tangy Thai-style beef noodle salad, and Japanese pumpkin-filled ravioli, with sage butter and a heap of bitter greens, were delights. Though not exceptional, the grilled fish sandwich, spaghetti and meatballs, and bistro burger were well-prepared and flavorful. And there's a lengthy breakfast menu, which fits my cafe definition to a T.

caféBistro Bar + Grill doesn't seem to advertise that it essentially is the in-house restaurant at Hotel Scottsdale, but that would go a long way in explaining the snowbird-esque clientele and something-for-everyone approach to food. As for its self-appointed slogan — "a neighborhood foodie place" — maybe they're giving themselves a little too much credit.

It's always better when restaurants show, not tell.