Cafe Reviews

Bonfire Grill and Bar: All That Is Good About What Happens When Meat Meets Flame

Somewhere along our evolutionary timeline, man discovered that he liked the taste of cooked meat. This revolution may have come about as an accident. Perhaps, before hungrily ripping into a chunk of raw animal flesh with his pointy canines, he accidentally dropped it into a fire, or left it next to a fire, or maybe just pulled it from the smoking remains of an unfortunate victim of a fire of the unplanned kind.

In any case: Man eat meat, meat meet fire, man like meat cooked by fire. A lot.

Eons later, in the 21st century (more specifically, March of this year), Bonfire Grill and Bar came along to remind us of how pleasing our primitive pairing of fire and flesh can be. There is, at this Scottsdale restaurant, an array of meaty dishes whose smoky aroma makes us moisten our lips in anticipation, whose outer coverings glisten in shades of brown, pierced with skewers or prepared with tools which themselves have been forged in flame, whose soft flesh easily falls away from the knife, releasing moisture and steam, the taste a mixture of meat and heat igniting instincts established millions of years ago to rip, chew, and devour with relish.

Such was the case with my bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin and pineapple skewers, which arrived as crossed metal rods — one pierced with meat, the other with chunks of sweet pineapple and cipollini onions. Alone, the plump pork duets were tender treats touched with mint, but along with bites of the sweet fruit and soft, sugary translucent onions came a harmony of tastes and textures that made my inner caveman, er, woman, ravenous for more.

Meat lovers can thank chef Matt Carter for Bonfire Grill's wood-fired cuisine. Between serving up French fare at Zinc Bistro and modern Latin cuisine at The Mission, his two Scottsdale establishments, Carter consulted on Bonfire's menu, creating a selection of American dishes with hints of the extravagant, heavy on the skewers and starches, and approachable enough, in ingredients and in price, to appeal to a wide range of diners.

Depending on your point of view, the lavish interior of Bonfire feels like a fiery, furnished oven or a vegetarian's version of Hell. The aroma of cooked meat stimulates the senses first, even before you enter, leading the way to a roomy space filled with dark wood and dim lighting, the sheen of rich, cloth-covered chairs no match for the large wall projection of orange, writhing flames. Televisions — too many of them — add to the glow and detract from slide shows of Valley scenery playing on several small screens over the bar.

If, inside this inferno of feasting, you desire an appetizer before dinner or a snack before Bonfire gets techno-fied and clubby late into the evening, there are several scrumptious choices. Skip the so-so pork ribs and try the pork meatballs instead. Handmade and lightly seasoned, they arrive post-skewer, nestled in an iron pan and slathered in a chipotle roasted tomato sauce with melted Parmesan cheese and fresh leaves of basil. Turn up the heat another notch (or two) with wood-fired jalapeño poppers, pierced on a steel rod, filled with a creamy mascarpone, and accented with bits of Tenderbelly bacon, or take your pig pork-belly-style, crunchy and melt-in-your mouth wonderful, between husky biscuits packed with crunchy slaw, bread and butter pickles, and a rust-colored slathering of cheddar pepper jam.

The din at Bonfire, though civil, is an excited one, with couples and groups of all ages discussing the day over skewers (in case you haven't guessed it, these are Bonfire's main attraction): the aforementioned bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin; a decadent surf-and-turf featuring mushroom-tinged, peppery filet pieces and shrimp; and chunks of tender, smoked chicken with mushrooms and marinated artichokes, touched with oregano and garlic.

Noise levels at your table may be raised with debates over who has the best side dish, for there are several, from woodsy grilled asparagus to variations of mashed potatoes (all delicious), charred onion bread pudding with a lightly browned crust of cheddar, and a stellar cast-iron cornbread with cheesy grits, whose sweet and savory flavor, with a heavenly heat, may require setting the fork down until the initial shock of its goodness fades away.

If put-it-together-yourself metal-through-meat dishes aren't your thing, there are plate- and bowl-focused entrées from which to choose.

You would be wise in skipping the grilled top sirloin, lost under too much peppery bourbon sauce that robs the meat of its natural flavor, but there is a half-chicken — and it is good. Like its beefy brethren, it's grilled over pecan wood, wonderfully tender and juicy, and served with house-made biscuits and a sweet sampling of pork and beans.

And a bowl of an aromatic concoction called Campfire Halibut is a unique treat on the swimmer side. Featuring chunks of the delicate, sweet fish in a light mustard broth along with grilled clams, broccoli, and whole fried peanuts (which I could have done without, given their jarring texture). Spoiler alert: A scrumptious surprise of white cheddar grits is at the bottom of this unique dish.

Along with salads and soups, Bonfire serves its meat in the form of sandwiches and sliders. Philly short ribs slide off the skewer moist and meaty and into a crusty bun filled with grilled peppers and caramelized onions, and three smoked chicken and artichoke sliders, a no-brainer as a crowd favorite, mix grilled perfection with juicy charred tomatoes, creamy avocado mayo, and a lemon-pepper vinaigrette between slightly sweet buns.

On the non-meat side (save for the few pieces of Tenderbelly bacon), take a pass on the Bonfire chopped salad. Overdressed, peppery, and crunch-less, it was one of the restaurant's few disappointments.

For the most part — save for super-busy nights, when a question about the menu goes unanswered or a dirty dish is left on the table for too long — service is solid and friendly. Undoubtedly, you'll be asked about dessert, and though the offerings are few and fairly forgettable (s'mores and cookies), there is one, your server will tell you, that towers above the others: the chocolate bread pudding and banana ice cream.

And while you and your party are delving into this decadent dish, you may feel a smile start to spread. Not only from the dessert's sweet goodness, but from the realization that you are ending your evening of cooked meat at Bonfire Grill and Bar with a scoop of cold ice cream.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld