Cafe Reviews

Razz'll Dazzle

Razz's Restaurant and Bar, 10321 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 905-1308. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

About six years ago, Erasmo "Razz" Kamnitzer came on board as chef at Different Pointe of View, the swanky dining room at the Pointe at Tapatio Cliffs. Soon after, the Hilton chain took over the hotel property.

The team turned a hit-and-miss restaurant into one of the Valley's fine-dining destination spots, a place where setting, service and food have produced some memorable meals and a number of Best of Phoenix accolades during the '90s.

But nothing lasts forever, particularly in the restaurant industry. Most chefs stay on the job about as long as an Elizabeth Taylor husband. So it was hardly surprising that a few months ago, Razz took the entrepreneurial plunge and opened his own place. His replacement, meanwhile, has just put the finishing touches on a new menu. And the overhaul hasn't stopped there. Different Pointe of View's interior has been redesigned as thoroughly as the menu, courtesy of a floor-to-ceiling Southwestern makeover.

I guess change is inevitable. But in these two instances, is change also progress? With Razz's, I'd shout an enthusiastic "yes"; with Different Pointe of View, I'd say a measured "not yet."

As Razz moved around the restaurant schmoozing with customers, I overheard him tell a group that this was his sixth try at operating his own restaurant. He can stop counting. Barring an outbreak of the Ebola virus, this place is going to pack them in. It's already on my short list of favorite Valley restaurants.

The location certainly doesn't account for my enthusiasm. Razz's occupies a storefront in an ugly, sprawling shopping strip at the southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard. But once I approached the doorway, my mood brightened: There's a little herb garden out front--chervil, basil, parsley, mint.

Inside, the place sports the same air of sophisticated casualness you find at some of the Valley's best restaurants, like Rancho Pinot Grill, RoxSand and Eddie's Grill. There's a mix of eye-catching art, including a sculpture of a metal fish bolted to a plate that's manacled to the pedestal, and a painting of aperplexed Freud torn between choosing fruit orpastries for dessert. Music is piped in so subliminally low, I couldn't tell if it was classical, jazz or rap. But you can identify one unmistakable sound: the buzz of happy people having a good time.

Like the setting, the food also has flair. Razz's eclectic cuisine ranges around the world for its bold flavors. But the dishes never go over the edge. They're inventively fashioned without crossing the line into cutesy or absurd.

For evidence, check out the appetizers. Baked cheese in phyllo dough is dazzling, a luscious blend of Gorgonzola, Camembert and mozzarella festooned with pears and cranberries. I remember enjoying the duck cakes at a Different Pointe of View brunch, and Razz showed good judgment putting them on his starter list here. You get three hearty croquettes plump with roast duck. They tend to be dry, so the chef wisely moistens them with a fruity sauce that doesn't bear any resemblance to the "hot, sweet & sour nopalito sauce" advertised on the menu. (As I recall, at Different Pointe of View, the duck cakes came with a cherry compote.)

A shrimp-and-escargot combo is another appealing first course that can wake up dormant taste buds. Three crustaceans and three out-of-the-shell mollusks arrive in an aromatic garlic-herb sauce, accompanied by a mound of tomato polenta.

The small entree list offers only about a dozen choices. Some platters are there, it seems to me, because no restaurateur can risk alienating this town's huge Midwestern-refugee population--folks whose tastes haven't changed since they packed up the Winnebago and bid adieu to their Nebraska silos. What else could a slab of steak, grilled lamb chops or chicken breast be doing on this menu?

Compare these snoozers with the chef's more creative efforts: black bean paella; South American-style bouillabaisse; bah mie goreng. It's clear that these dishes are closer to his heart.

Mine, too. Black bean paella is a tasty twist on a Spanish theme. You get saffron-accented rice, studded with black beans, topped with two kinds of mussels, clams, cockles, shrimp, chicken and a bit of sausage. One complaint: more rice, please.

The South American bouillabaisse is actually a fish stew, and a first-rate one. The zesty broth comes heavily stocked with shellfish and mahimahi, with root vegetables to keep them company.

Bah mie goreng sounds exotic, but most diners will find it easy to handle. This dish owes as much to the chef's imagination as it does to Indonesia: an ample bowl of noodles teamed with shrimp, pork, chicken and vegetables, zipped up with dried cranberries and almonds. A fried plantain wafer and shrimp cracker sit atop the pile--more decorative than edible.