The proprietors of year-old CREW modestly describe their restaurant as a "simple, stylish American bistro," a neighborhood kind of place.
Just keep in mind that the neighborhood they're talking about is the tony tip of north Scottsdale along the Carefree border, down the street from the deluxe Boulders Resort.
Set in the second story of upscale El Pedregal Marketplace, CREW has style to spare. It's cleverly designed, from the banquettes wrapped around the sleek curving walls to the multicolored, Fiestaware-style dinnerware. The rotisserie and pizza oven behind the bar send reassuringly casual signals. But I'm not quite sure what signals the piped-in music intends to send: On one visit, the audio entertainment alternated between Buddy Holly and what sounded like East European klezmer tunes.
At most Valley restaurants, patio dining means parking-lot views and, at this time of year, frostbite. This patio, though, is fetching enough to lure even folks without thermal underwear out of doors. That's because heaters and a pair of crackling fireplaces supply plenty of warmth. And the desert vista spread out below will make you remember why you moved to Arizona in the first place.
But while I can't quarrel with CREW's claim to be a "stylish American bistro," I have a much harder time understanding its claim to be a "simple" one.
I expect a "simple" American bistro to craft dishes the same way a Shaker studio crafts furniture -- basic and sturdy, with a minimum of fuss and adornment. At CREW, however, the kitchen flamboyantly disregards the virtues of simplicity. You won't find a commitment to subtlety or finesse, either. What this kitchen believes in are lots of bold, brassy flavors, the more the merrier. After making my way through most of the menu, I left here reeling, as if I'd been repeatedly whacked upside the head by a two-by-four.
But, like a two-by-four, the food does get your attention. And several dishes do suggest a guiding intelligence, as well as a genuine talent, behind them. At times, though, the chef seems bent on showing off his skills, rather than organizing and harnessing them to better effect.
There's nothing stylish about the spongy, past-its-prime bread, teamed with the inevitable plate of olive oil. First impressions count, and this initial encounter with CREW's kitchen doesn't make a good one.
Appetizers give you a pretty good idea that the operative word here isn't going to be "restraint." Take the manila clams, done up in a broth so garlicky and winey that your head may involuntarily swivel 180 degrees.
But throwing off restraint doesn't have to lead to excess. Sometimes, it can spur creativity. That's the case with smashingly good grilled chicken sausage, paired with a plump croquette fashioned from grits, which is draped with smoked mozzarella cheese and boosted by a terrific, spicy tomatillo sauce. If you're sharing this appetizer with a good friend or significant other, it may test the depth of your relationship. Next time, I'm ordering one just for myself.
The lettuce wrap is a somewhat fanciful concoction, but it simply tastes too darned good to criticize. Four lettuce pouches come thickly stuffed with cashew chicken, snow peas and fried cappellini, moistened with an appealing sesame vinaigrette. If you've got a case of the munchies, this is the cure.
And the crab-stuffed, jumbo battered prawn, accompanied by dill-scented sliced cucumber and a dollop of caper-flecked aioli, launches its own flavor assault. It, too, hits the target.
The main dishes exhibit lots of energy, lots of flavor and lots of intensity. But about half the time, I wished the chef had understood the wisdom of the phrase, "Less is more."
Take the hibiscus-smoked rainbow trout, as lovely a piece of fish as you might come across. But who could taste it after an overpowering drenching of "bourbon apple jus"? Smoke, bourbon and apples -- this is subtraction by addition. And the kitchen compounds the fish fussiness by serving it with a scooped-out onion filled with orzo and toasted walnuts. There's a first-rate platter lurking here somewhere, but the chef may need to take a deep breath and tie one hand behind his back before he can find it.
That same brash splashiness does in the salmon. I can only applaud the decision to try to do something different with this hackneyed fish -- if I see one more slab of teriyaki-glazed, horseradish-crusted or dill-scented salmon, I may jump in the Salt River and attempt to spawn.
But CREW's salmon isn't the solution. It comes in a bowl, served over spatzle, adorned with cockles, heaped with olives and moistened by a vigorous saffron-tomato broth. There are simply way too many big flavors inharmoniously competing for attention here, and the salmon gets lost. (Maybe, however, that's the point.)
The penchant to call in a strike force of flavor even affects an otherwise straightforward steak platter. The beef tenderloin itself is okay, if nothing special. But the mashed potatoes are mixed with big hunks of garlic, enough of them to keep north Scottsdale vampire-free until the next millennium. The dish also includes an incredibly potent mushroom ragout that left me more stunned than pleased. This kitchen reminds me of a boxer who refuses to feint, jab or hook his way to victory. Instead, he's always winding up his right, looking to land a knockout punch.
Fortunately, sometimes CREW connects.
Everything works with the blackened catfish platter, starting with the crusty-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside catfish itself. A griddled corn cake and spunky cucumber relish are excellent in their supporting roles.
Spit-roasted chicken soars. That's because the crackling skin on this juicy half-bird comes with a wonderful honey-pecan crust. Even my cat couldn't have done a more thorough job than I did on this poultry. And while the garlic-ridden side of mashed potatoes could have used a lighter hand, I have nothing but respect for the French green beans that also came along.
The chef skirts dangerously close to palate overload with the menu's lone pasta dish: cavatappi (a macaroni-type noodle) loaded with wild mushrooms, artichokes, sun-dried tomato and goat cheese. But the high-intensity flavors blend well together, and the dish is as tasty as it is hearty. The pizza is first-rate, too, armed with a perfect chewy, crispy crust and quality toppings. I could happily pass the winter sitting on CREW's patio, nourished by the piping-hot wild mushroom pizza, with roasted shallots and goat cheese, and a cold draft brew.
The chef didn't seem to have his heart in the barbecued ribs, possibly because he couldn't think of a useful way to gussy them up. What you get is a slab of undistinguished ribs with meat so mushy it can be gummed off the bone, accompanied by a surprisingly tasteless red cabbage slaw and thick, mealy, hand-cut fries that had been out of the fryer too long. I can't imagine anyone ordering this dish a second time.
As you might expect, CREW's heavy-hitting style carries over to desserts. Many adjectives come to mind to describe these sweets, and none of them is "understated" or "refreshing."
How about "creamy" and "velvety"? They describe the ultra-rich crème brûlée, sprinkled with chocolate-coated coffee beans. The molten chocolate cake, meanwhile, has an almost soufflé-like airiness. Good thing, too, because this is one intense piece of chocolate, resting in a superfluous puddle of caramel sauce. The thick apple pie is better than mom's, maybe because it's not too sweet. It's stacked with apples and sports an irresistible glazed crust. And this time, a puddle of caramel sauce is used to better effect.
But the best dessert here is clearly the pumpkin cheesecake, which roused my group into a round of dueling forks. Why? Because the flavor in this aromatic pumpkin cheesecake tasted like it actually came from pumpkin and cheese. Gee, what a good idea.
Given CREW's upscale location and culinary ambitions, you might expect to pay big-time for your dinner thrills. But, miraculously, CREW won't destroy your wallet. Except for the beef tenderloin, all the main dishes range between $12 and $16.50. These days, that's practically a bargain. You won't find any appetizers with two digits to the left of the decimal point, either.
If two people order right -- say, splitting the chicken sausage appetizer, getting the catfish and chicken entrees and sharing the pumpkin cheesecake dessert -- they can get a topnotch meal for 40 bucks, before beverages, tax and tip.
CREW's next task is to make sure folks get a topnotch dinner no matter what they order. Let's hope this CREW is up to it.