Cafe Reviews

Blast From Repast

Durant's, 2611 North Central, Phoenix, 602-264-5967. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday 4:30 to 10 p.m.

When I first ate at Durant's about 15 years ago, it looked old and a bit frayed. It looks exactly the same today. It's a bit eerie. Even Dick Clark shows signs of wear.

Durant's 1950s aesthetic seems even further from reality now that we've left the 1900s behind. Is Durant's the restaurant where time stood still, or is it the restaurant that time forgot? Either way, it's about time for someone to use the place as a set for a good B movie.

Although the front door faces Central Avenue, almost everyone enters through the real main entrance: a door in the back of the kitchen. My first view of Durant's, like most customers', was the hot, frenetically paced kitchen. Hectic, but under control.

If you've never been to Durant's, your first peek at the dining room will be a surprise. Red flocked wallpaper, dark wood paneling and burgundy vinyl booths are so kitsch they're cool. The wallpaper, paneling and vinyl look too good to be original, so maintaining the '50s look is apparently an ongoing process.

About five years ago, Durant's underwent a face-lift. The kitchen was remodeled. Carpets and wallpaper were replaced, apparently with look-alikes. Bus stations look the same to me -- large, not too pretty and open to view.

Time has definitely stood still in the rest rooms. They're tiny, with narrow doors that prevent handicap accessibility. My guest who checked out the ladies' room said it was so small that more than two women in there at a time would probably get into a "bitch fight." The mirrors are covered with a narcissistic listing of the restaurant's accomplishments.

In fact, a staff member told us there are no handicap-accessible rest rooms. This is one bit of nostalgia that's not worthy of its grandfather clause.

Durant's cigar-friendly environment means that you'll smell smoke, even at the non-smoking tables in the room behind the bar. The separate room on the south side of the restaurant is actually smoke-free.

The most obvious aspects of Durant's touch-up are on the menu. You'll see more fish, more vegetables and more appetizers. Best of all, meat lovers won't miss a thing.

One nod in the right direction is the bottled Sole' water. This is now the house water, not a pricey extra. Durant's tap water used to have a mildly chlorinated flavor, so this change is in good taste.

A caesar salad also is available with your entree (for $1.95 extra) in lieu of the house salad. Durant's caesar has always been good, but in days past it was available only as a large separate course. Their version has a bold, flavorful dressing and a generous portion of crisp romaine lettuce. Despite its ersatz grainy Parmesan, the caesar is worth ordering.

When the server asks if you want anchovies on your caesar, say no -- unless you really love the salty little fish and are willing to pay for it. At Durant's a "yes" adds four anchovies to your plate and 95 cents to your bill. If either the menu or the server had mentioned this, I wouldn't quibble. But hidden costs, even small ones, leave me feeling a bit like I was set up.

The importance of a sale isn't limited to tinned fish or rest-room mirrors. There's a definite push to sell expensive items. One night, I overheard a server give a nearby table the hard sell for the Florida stone crabs. When the customers declined, the server actually excused himself and came back with a plate of the crab so he could show them what they were missing. The customers looked uncomfortable, but I give them points for not being coerced into spending $35 for six crab claws they didn't want.

In the old days, Durant's was a steak-and-potatoes kind of place. Fish meant a frozen swordfish steak. But the current menu offers a varied selection of fresh seafood. Entrees include salmon, scallops, trout and swordfish. Appetizers include oysters, both raw and Rockefeller. Shrimp cocktail and crab cakes are also available.

Seriously consider starting with the plump, sweet and juicy oysters Rockefeller. Cooked just long enough to bubble the creamy spinach and heat the delicate oysters, the Rockefellers are a perfect starter. Bits of bacon are a nice touch. The oysters come in the half-shell on a hot metal oyster plate. It keeps them warm and upright and obviates the messy rock salt typically used to keep the oysters from tipping.

The salmon was as fresh and perfectly cooked as the oysters. The portion was generous. No need to say more.

Not least on the seafood roster are the crab cakes. Available as an appetizer or an entree, they come on a plate spruced up with flakes of fried spinach, topped with a small dollop of a creamy sauce that's somewhere between tartar and cocktail.

The generous crab cakes are peppered, literally, with bits of crunchy green and yellow bell pepper. Sweet crab flavor comes out on top, with just enough seasoning to enhance the overall effect.

If you order a seafood entree, consider a beef appetizer. "Durant's Debris" gets you two skewers of meat. I'm talking about nice, lean bits of steak separated and seasoned by pieces of scallion. A pleasant garlic aioli comes for dipping. The Debris is cooked to order, and is large enough to be an entree for those with small appetites.

The Debris is proof that the kitchen can cook meat to order. On separate visits, the filet mignon and double cut lamb chops I ordered medium came medium rare. Although not cooked to the temperature I ordered, each was a beautiful, tasty cut of meat. They were thick and tender, and had been trimmed of all excess fat.

I understand a restaurant's hesitation to overcook expensive cuts of meat. Undercooked meat can always be sent back and cooked a little more. In light of Durant's reputation for good steak and chops, though, customers shouldn't have to send meat back.

Lamb chops are $29.50. At that price, perfection is the only option.

One dish the kitchen always cooks to perfection is sautéed chicken livers. Lightly breaded and fried to a deep tasty brown, they have a surprisingly pleasant smoky flavor. The chicken livers come as an appetizer or entree. If you've never tried chicken livers, Durant's is the place to expand this vista on your culinary horizon.

Durant's is definitely a place for liver lovers. Sautéed calf's liver with bacon and onions has been a menu staple for years. The calf's liver isn't as good as the chickens' because the flour coating can be a bit starchy. This problem might be avoided if the kitchen would shake off the excess flour before sautéing.

Side dishes and salads are among the improved menu offerings. Dinner still comes with soup or salad and choice of potato.

For years, the house salad was nothing but iceberg lettuce topped with a cherry tomato. The new and much improved side salad is a decent portion of mixed fresh greens with a few tomato wedges. The house dressing is still tomato vinaigrette (a.k.a. "French" a.k.a. "Catalina"). It's time for something new -- and better.

Soups are more hit and miss than the salads. The clam and shrimp chowder is excellent. Big bits of clam and lots of shrimp take up a good deal of space in the bowl. Luckily, there's room for the perfectly textured, sherry-laced cream soup that makes the chowder a winner. The onion and cheese soup isn't as good. It's like onion soup with Velveeta cheese mixed in.

Another improvement is the wine list, although in perusing it I considered the prices a bit steep. But at least there's something worth drinking besides martinis.

The updated lunch menu has been pleasantly expanded. Now you can opt for several main course salads in addition to an ample selection of tasty, well-made burgers and sandwiches.

Desserts have never been Durant's strong point. In the old days, lunchtime dessert was a little tub of vanilla ice cream that came with a flat wooden tongue-depressor-like spoon. At night dessert was something you ordered at another restaurant.

Now you can have Ben & Jerry's ice cream, but for $4.95 I expect a server to deliver more than ice cream.

I also expect a house specialty dessert to deliver. Durant's is the "Trey" of crème brûlée. For $8.95 you get three miniature ramekins, one of which is filled with a creamy-textured, rich vanilla-flavored crème brûlée. The other two aren't worthy of superlatives. The chocolate had a skin on the top and tasted like pudding that comes in a cup. The raspberry was overcooked; the custard looked and tasted more like scrambled eggs.

Why order the "Trey" when you can order a pretty good Key lime pie? You might also consider the better-than-average chocolate fudge brownie pie topped with a very large scoop of vanilla ice cream. If the brownie had been warm, this dessert would have gone from good to memorable.

The saying "you can't go home again" isn't true. Even though it's a bit expensive, a trip to Durant's is like a trip back home. If nostalgia isn't for you, the food tastes pretty good even when it's not seasoned with sentiment.

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Andy Broder