Cafe Reviews

Bistro Bland

Allow me to address a theme that runs through a number of missives I've received from my detractors, most of whom have this ass-backwards notion that restaurant reviews should be as chipper as the banter of those coifed nimrods over at Good Morning Arizona. That is, when somebody deigns to diss the chow at one of this town's beaneries, they're as indignant as a pack of church ladies at a wet tee-shirt contest.

After I criticize some eatery or other, as in the case of my mild reproach of Wild Thaiger on Central a couple of weeks back, I invariably get a passel of peeved letters informing me that we live in a cosmopolitan metropolis rivaling even Paris and New York when it comes to the variety and quality of our cuisine. The writers insist that I have an absolute duty to be encouraging in this space.

Please. There's nothing wrong with granting garlands when praise is due -- as in the case of my new favorite sushi eatery outside of Japan, north Scottsdale's Blue Wasabi. But mere boosterism is born of a small-town mindset, which Phoenicians would do well to shun. Better to be brutally honest and cut no slack for those found wanting. I'll leave the Junior League jingoism to those who do it best, specifically the hacks over at the hometown daily.

This brings me to my visit to Uptown 713, which calls itself, broadly, "an American Bistro," and which has garnered bewilderingly positive notices in the local press. Indeed, Uptown 713 has been so lauded by some that I was genuinely anticipating a glorious meal when I made reservations there recently for myself and five others. The restaurant is tucked away unobtrusively in a little courtyard on Palo Verde, just off Seventh Street. And when I espied its gurgling fountain, its patio set with black-clothed tables, the greenery all about decorated with lights, and a jazz quartet belting out standards, I had high hopes. High hopes that would soon be dashed on the jagged rocks of U-713's horrid service and unforgivably mediocre grub.

My party was put at a table outside, which is preferable since the interior of the establishment could double as a large closet, or an apartment in New York, take your pick. My problems with the place began to surface after we had been seated for 15 or 20 minutes with no attention from the waiters on duty. Finally, I had to approach the manager to ask that someone bring us water and at least take our drink orders. I'll grant that it was Saturday, and relatively busy, but not all of the tables were full, which made me wonder how the restaurant would handle a real rush.

Things did not improve much from there, even as the number of other customers dwindled. We received no bread at all -- one waiter later told me you have to ask for it, an interesting approach for an eatery that charges on average $16 per entree with no salad. Apparently, this policy applies to the silverware as well. A couple of people in my party were without utensils until well after the appetizers were served. Again, I had to request that a basic restaurant service be performed, something I've never had to do at, say, a chain establishment like California Pizza Kitchen. Uptown 713's sluggish wait staff could learn a thing or two by paying a visit to a CPK and observing.

You know, I dropped a nice chunk of change at Uptown 713 that night. And for that kind of cashola, I want everything short of the waitress giving me a foot massage while I await my vittles. Shabby or indifferent service can sometimes be overlooked if your tummy and taste buds are happy. But the menu is so uninspired at U-713, both in conception and execution, that it leaves little wiggle room for such generosity.

The bill of fare is pretty small, which again wouldn't be a concern if all were done well. For appetizers, my party and I tried the seared ahi tuna, chicken pot stickers, fried calamari, and drunken clams -- steamed littleneck clams covered in a basil-tomato-white wine sauce. Portions were on the small side and eminently forgettable. The clams were tough, and the calamari chewy. As for the chicken pot stickers, they were crispy yet flavorless. You could easily do better at a third-rate Asian joint. The seared ahi tuna medallions soared above the other starters by being simply adequate. Still, they failed to melt in my mouth the way I'd wanted.

This nearly uniform ordinariness extended to the entrees, which were disappointing not only to myself but to my entire party. One companion had the ahi tuna steak, blackened and seared, but it just wasn't as appetizing as we'd had elsewhere on countless occasions. It lacked that silky savoriness I have come to expect from the dish, but whether it was the preparation or the quality of the fish itself is a mystery. I selected the Billy burger, which the menu touts as "the best ass burger in town." Ronald McDonald might beg to differ. The 10-ounce hamburger patty was good but not great, and once more, bland. A dollar an ounce for the Billy raises the bar on this staple of the American table. Uptown 713 should be a little embarrassed when Harvey's Wineburger, for instance, can kick its hiney for far less dolo.

The salmon over wilted spinach was somewhat better. I liked the crusty exterior of the fish, rather than the salmon itself, which was a bit drab. But I really must knock the mashed potatoes, which were so dry that they could have passed for instant. At first, I thought this may have had something to do with the fact that Uptown 713 is run by the same folks who operate Living Fit Gourmet, a meal prep and delivery service that promises a healthful alternative to diet food. But when I spoke to Uptown 713 owner Phil Guana, he assured me that these were two entirely different entities and that Uptown 713 was not intended to showcase some sort of diet cuisine. Which eliminates the only excuse I can come up with for the lack of butter, cream, or anything that might have made those mashed potatoes taste less like uncooked Bisquick.

I could sit here and flay every item we tried that night as mercilessly as Jim Caviezel's Jesus character gets whipped in The Passion of the Christ, but it's enough to point out that nothing was out-and-out rank, only that you could eat better and often for less at other spots. Whether it was the chicken Napoleon -- sliced fowl sandwiched between spinach with red peppers and buffalo mozzarella -- or the special of pasta with clams and marinara, the restaurant invariably made me yearn for tastier renditions I've had.

Regarding the desserts, I would say the place had the worst flan I've ever had in my life, which it must have really had to try hard at, because even the flan you can purchase pre-made and prepackaged is superior to U-713's moistless excuse for a custard. However, the bananas Foster crepe was one of the few exceptional items on the menu, the only thing I'd order again for certain if I were kidnapped and my captors forced me to return. The combination of bananas, rum and brown sugar, wrapped in a crepe and topped with vanilla ice cream, was exquisite.

This might have ended the outing on an up note, had I not made the mistake of asking if the restaurant had any after-dinner liqueurs, an inquiry that left our waitress befuddled until she asked someone else and discovered it had two or three. More exotic concepts for U-713 include such alien terms as originality, excellence and good service.

One entertaining side show was the presence of a big-haired psychic named Debby who read my palm and told me a lovely tale of how enviable my life is and would continue to be in the future. I was tempted to ask Debby if she could read the cards and tell me why Uptown 713 couldn't get its act together with regard to the care and feeding of its customers. But I figured that wasn't quite fair. Miss Cleo couldn't even solve that conundrum!

I didn't tell Debby that I have my own otherworldly powers when it comes to bistros such as U-713. So allow me to consult my crystal ball and play oracle with this piece of psychic advice to my readers: The one sure way to avoid a disastrous dining experience at U-713, and save yourself some dead presidents in the process, is to make a U-turn before you ever arrive.

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