Cafe Reviews

ATTA GRILL!

Page 2 of 3

Our waitress arrives with our salads. She deftly clears our appetizer plates before serving. Tart with lemon and crisp with romaine, the caesar is definitely the way to go here. I'm disappointed with the house salad. It looks tired and is soggy with balsamic vinegar dressing.

A large group of fortyish couples who look like prosperous attorneys and attorneys' wives enters our section of the restaurant. They exchange pleasantries and kisses on the cheek, then sit to study the menu.

When our entrees arrive, it's my turn to be in awe. The plates are Bunyanesque, the portions Herculean and the food looks, well, great. We've purposely ordered basic dishes to test the sincerity of the switchover. What I didn't expect was such lovely presentations or such great flavor from such mundane materials.

For example, ordering the crispy herb-roasted chicken would hardly make you feel you've hit hard times. The dark, herb-laden skin is crackly and crisp, the chicken moist and hot. Oven-roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes are the perfect accompaniment.

An ample square of grilled sea bass looks at least two inches high. It sits on a "pancake" of linguini in a cream sauce. Just so you don't get bored, a mound of guacamole, spiked with lemon zest, sits nearby. The combination is scrumptious.

Commonplace pork chops blossom under Chef Eddie Matney's care. My accomplices thought me a bit daffy for wanting to order them, but the last laugh's on them. Marinated in a teriyakilike sauce, the grilled chops are tender, fresh and flavorful. The accompanying "Arizona apple chutney" recalls baked apples. I save my biggest raves for the shoestring sweet potatoes that come with the pork chops. Noodle-thin, crisp and slightly salty, they are nothing less than fantastic. Note to Cohn and Matney: Market these as a snack food immediately. We manage to make a good dent in our plates before our waitress returns to tempt us with dessert. She doesn't have to try very hard. With her help we decide on the chocolate-pecan-Kahlua pie, the pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap crust and the apple-raspberry tart.

All three are satisfying, lovely and quite different. If decadence is your thing, go for the rich, chocolate-heavy pecan pie with a walnut crust. Pumpkin lovers will adore the cheesecake. The flavors hit in waves: pumpkin, sour cream, gingersnap. For a dessert so fruity it tastes "virtuous," as our visitor phrases it, try the apple-raspberry tart. The pinkened apples have a sensual, fleshy texture and the layer of frangipane adds an almond flavor.

The big-city restaurant looks like a different place on our way out. Full, alive, happening. I feel pampered, but not broke. "This," I think to myself, "is what it's like to experience value."

Grill is something of a misnomer when applied to Joe's American Grill and Bar. Yes, the Orange Tree Golf and Conference Resort's only restaurant is casual and informal, but it has the unmistakable feel of a hotel dining room. Decorated in striated Southwestern tones, the open, tiered room offers a view of the golf course, but little in the way of originality.

On the day this same out-of-towner and I stop in for lunch, luggage is piled high in the lobby. Inside Joe's, the dress is golf casual: Golf sweaters, golf pants, but of course, no golf shoes.

Menu prices are on the high side, and I get the strong feeling Joe's caters to a captive audience: people on vacation, people on business trips. The selections are obvious--burger, steak, salad, pizza--tinged with "Southwestern" flavors. From my perspective, the pickings are lean.

We start with the gulf shrimp and a Tokyo grilled chicken salad. Our waitress, who deserves high praise for her excellent service, brings two empty plates so we can share. Both dishes are edible, but mediocre. Five big but flavorless shrimp rest on leaves of butter lettuce. They are accompanied by an odd, cumin-flavored cucumber-onion relish and nondescript cilantro catsup. The Tokyo grilled chicken salad features cut (!) spinach and other greens, tomato, sliced water chestnuts and a lone scallion. A pile of fried noodles, the likes of which I haven't seen since before Nixon's trip to China, occupies one section of the plate. The sesame-oil dressing is pleasant, but I find the combination of ingredients strange and the cut greens disconcerting.

Our second course is worse. A shrimp pizza is inedible. The dough is gooey and uncooked. The shrimp are the dreaded bay variety. The whole thing is glopped down with canned and fresh tomatoes under a lid of melted cheese. To Joe's--and our waitress's--credit, when we explain why the pizza remains uneaten, the item is removed from our check.

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Penelope Corcoran