Cafe Reviews

BEAUTY AND THE BISTRO

For someone who doesn't live in Scottsdale, I spend a lot of time eating there. This is not due to some covert community preference on my part. It is simply because new restaurants of note continue to pop up in that affluent area of the Valley.

Some, including the two under consideration today, are transplants from older, colder cities. The owners of these restaurants, like many Scottsdale residents, settled there hoping some of the city's good life would rub off on them.

I hope it does.
Benny and Debbie Chan's Vagara Bistro, an offshoot of a 7-year-old restaurant of the same name in Toronto, is a charming, warm, intimate, lovely and romantic place to dine. The food, prepared under the skilled supervision of Swiss chef Roland Oberholzer, is very good. The service is attentive, professional and disarmingly sincere. Having given you this glowing overview, I will now dish out the palatable particulars. For those of you who haven't yet discovered it, the 2-month-old Vagara Bistro is located in Hilton Village across from the Borgata shopperia on Scottsdale Road. The restaurant consists of two small, well-appointed rooms and a tiny, built-in bar. On a busy night, the accommodations can seem close. My dining accomplice, for instance, complains of having waiting customers staring at his plate. This premium on space can also blur the distinction between smoking and nonsmoking areas. If you're adamant about tobacco smoke, let the staffers know. They will do their best to separate you from it.

The atmosphere is an engaging balance of casual and elegant. A tapestry upholstered banquette contrasts nicely with Adirondack-style bamboo chairs. A roughhewn standing candelabrum is offset by swirled-glass table votive lamps. Formally framed impressionist prints hang on the wainscoted walls while jazz skitters from the sound system. One of the most welcome design aspects of the bistro is that its lighting flatters both decor and patrons alike.

The menu is pleasing. Adventurous, but not outrageous. Traditional, but not stodgy. Chef Oberholzer begins with the familiar--calf liver, poached salmon, skewered shrimp and scallops--then adds his own special touches. Though Vagara's menu choices are limited in number, they are varied enough to make decisions tough. Everything here sounds good. To make it even harder, tempting specials are also offered each day.

My dining accomplice and I begin our meal with two delicious starters. The calamari salad, a Vagara Bistro specialty, is bliss on a plate. Consisting of deep-fried squid on a bed of Boston lettuce, this dish may be ordered mild, medium or spicy hot. We go for spicy hot and don't regret it. The calamari are a crunchy, fiery delight. These squid succeed in being simultaneously crispy and tender, thanks to three days of marinating prior to their introduction to the fry vat. Accessorized with slivers of red and green bell pepper and oyster mushroom, this salad makes a wonderful shared appetizer.

Our second starter, a half-order of leek ravioli with grilled chicken, pales--both literally and figuratively--in comparison. I like the delicate ricotta-stuffed pasta pockets, but the dish's subtle flavors have a hard time competing with our bold calamari. Still, I'll tell you this much: I wouldn't be unhappy ordering it for a main course.

In typical bistro fashion, salad must be ordered a la carte. Our selections are most satisfying. A caesar consists of finely cut romaine lettuce liberally annointed with a traditional caesar sauce--neither too heavy on the raw egg nor the anchovies. I like it a lot.

Vagara's version of a spinach salad is equally successful. Composed of clean young spinach leaves, orange sections, red pepper, Bermuda onion, cherry tomato and roasted pine nuts, the toss is dressed with what tastes to me like a nice, tart vinaigrette--though the menu calls it honey-mustard dressing. No matter. Whatever it is, it works.

As for the entrees, veal Vagara, touted as one of the bistro's famed dishes, is vaguely disappointing. Yes, the veal scaloppine is tender, the Bristol Cream-artichoke sauce creamy and rich--but it just doesn't have enough oomph, enough zest, to win me over. What I surprise myself by loving is the pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon. Glazed with a port wine sauce, the pork roulade is succulent and moist, the bacon maple-sugar sweet. (Oh, Canada!) It is so good that I'm not even vaguely disconcerted that the pork is slightly pink. By now, I trust chef Oberholzer completely. Both plates are handsomely accompanied by potato croquettes, broccoli flowerets and the best red cabbage I've ever tasted. Italian parsley is the garnish of choice. Portions are neither too little nor too large, but, in the words of Goldilocks, just right.

Don't ignore dessert. Cream puff lovers will adore the chocolate-covered profiteroles, filled with vanilla ice cream and served on a plate of raspberry sauce. Another treat is the solid chocolate cups filled with creamy, champagne-flavored sabayon.

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Penelope Corcoran