Cafe Reviews

Star Struck

This summer, I saw an amazing performance of the national anthem before a D-Backs game. The singer was a young boy with a graceful voice that made me think, "This kid's gonna be the next Luther Vandross." When he hit the highest note, I know I wasn't the only baseball fan wiping a tear from my cheek.

That night came to mind when I went to Star-Spangled Tavern, a new restaurant that opened in August on Market Street at DC Ranch. It's the joint effort of Jimmy Carlin, creator of the DC Ranch sushi hangout Blue Wasabi, and Peter Kasperski, the guy behind three downtown Scottsdale favorites: Cowboy Ciao, Sea Saw, and Kazimierz.

The restaurant's all-American concept is a patriotic roundup of hearty dishes, wines from across the country, and eclectic beer offerings. I'm not sure how many of Star-Spangled's well-heeled customers will order the two-dollar Schlitz in a can, but I appreciate the kitsch factor. And old-school cocktails and sodas offer pure nostalgia, from Moxie to mint juleps. A lot of the comfort food I ate here was craveable, but still, I don't think Star-Spangled Tavern could ever rival grandma's house — or Cowboy Ciao — as a dining destination. Like so many renditions of the national anthem that inspired it, it's neither breathtaking nor crash-and-burn, just somewhere in the middle, occasionally veering off-key.

Appetizers put me in a good mood. Gilroy garlic and artichoke custard arrived hot, with crisp wedges of Texas toast. And fried sage leaves, served with roasted pepper camembert dip, were golden fritters with fresh, whole herb leaves in the middle. The entree-size Fiftieth State salad made a sharable starter, combining fresh greens and tropical fruits, seared opakapaka (pink snapper), sweet crabmeat, candied almonds, goat cheese, and citrus dressing. My dining companions and I also gobbled up still-warm homemade Yukon Gold potato chips with crumbled Gorgonzola. My favorite appetizer, though, was the Big Kid mac 'n' cheese, a bowl of creamy macaroni spiked with Hatch chiles and smoky bacon. After several bites, I had to force myself to save room for my entree.

Star-Spangled Tavern made a fine first impression with these small dishes. Looking around at the decor, though, there wasn't much to see — brick walls and wood furniture, some candles, tables covered in brown butcher paper, and a wood-and-twine wall hanging that evoked a weaving loom. The bar area was standard, right down to college football highlights on TV, and there was an outdoor patio. I was relieved that American flags didn't figure into the equation, but still, considering how whimsically Cowboy Ciao is decorated, I expected something interesting in the looks department here. (One of Kasperski's other restaurants, Sea Saw, is also minimalist, but the star presence of chef Nobuo Fukuda, a James Beard Award nominee, fills the void.)

Kasperski tells me that they weren't going after a specific age group by opening Star-Spangled Tavern at DC Ranch — a luxury golf and private residential community — instead of closer to his other restaurants. "We saw the statistics, and we tend not to trust statistics, so we just spent some time there ourselves," he says. "The average person there has more money to spend." Each time I visited, thirtysomethings were scant, but there were retirees galore among the well-over-40 crowd.

While Kasperski admits his heart will always be in downtown Scottsdale, he says the "unique and interesting" deal with DC Ranch came about serendipitously. "We knew there were enough sophisticated diners there because we looked at how independent businesses like Blue Wasabi and Sol y Sombra were doing." In a metropolis where cookie-cutter chain restaurants are thriving, Kasperski's enthusiasm for creativity and an independent mentality is refreshing.

To be honest, though, I was heartbroken the first time I ate here. After falling in love with the starters, I was unimpressed with the main dishes. Duck and dumplings sounded awesome: duck with dried cherry sauce, spaetzle dumplings, and roasted root vegetables. Although the sauce was deliciously tangy, the meat wasn't very tender, and the dumplings were flat-out tough. My first bite of baby carrot was a bitter, raw crunch. Nothing comforting about that.

And with the Thanksgiving platter, Star-Spangled Tavern was already going out on a limb by trying to compete with my grandma's holiday dinner, but what I ate that night didn't even come close. Chunky cranberry-pecan relish and sweet potatoes just couldn't make up for startlingly dry turkey and seriously bland, mushy stuffing. This almost brought a tear to my eye, and not in a good way. Thankfully, the dish was much better on another visit — the meat was moist, actually enjoyable. The stuffing still didn't rock my world, but at least it was spicier.

Those were the biggest misses with the food. Service was friendly but flaky on a couple of visits (inattentiveness, a botched order), excellent on another. I'm not sure I bought the tavern part of the concept, either. The bar seemed like a token gesture to the idea of a public drinking establishment, and prices were special-occasion steep. Then again, in ritzy north Scottsdale, maybe this does qualify as a neighborhood joint.

To be sure, the menu had plenty of hits. I was impressed with the roast rabbit loin with cider glaze and white bean stew, and my thick, apple-brined pork chop was moist and perfectly seared, served with homey roasted sweet potatoes and creamed corn pudding flecked with green chile and sunflower seeds. Flat iron steak was so juicy it hardly needed its Zinfandel-mushroom sauce, and its side of Maytag Blue mashed potatoes had a mouthwatering aroma. Grilled Harris Ranch meat loaf, covered in savory ham hock sauce, had the chunky, meaty appeal of good Italian meatballs.

And as expected, given executive pastry chef Tracy Dempsey's hits at Cowboy Ciao, like the Red Hot Cuppa Chocolate, a number of desserts here were down-home good, like warm apple-cranberry crisp, with brown sugar ice cream and fresh cream. The Arizona Lottery pecan pie — with drizzles of chocolate and caramel, a scoop of peach-bourbon ice cream, and an actual scratch-and-win lottery ticket — was so thick and buttery it made me moan. And the thick chocolate malted pudding was blessedly straightforward.

Sure, Star-Spangled Tavern is new, but the people behind it aren't amateurs. I figured it'd be a cinch for these culinary heavy hitters to pull off a memorable dining experience, and maybe that'll be the case down the road. For now, they still need to work on those high notes.