Cafe Reviews

Browne's New Bag

I'd been sitting on the fence for the past week about Rokerij, Richardson Browne's classy new chop shop, when I happened to take a look at the fine print on the menu of this stone-and-wood surf-and-turf joint, which reads: "Sorry, we do not provide highchairs or booster seats." In other words, good people, this is a restaurant for adults, so keep the friggin' kiddies at home! If you want to go out, get a baby sitter. After all, if you're eating at a spot where the entrees can run anywhere from $22 to $29 a plate, you can afford to leave the ankle-biters with some teenybopper for the evening.

I know there are a lot of yuppies out there who are damn proud they've reproduced, but those of us who've not taken that hellish route in life would just as soon avoid the Chuck E. Cheese's experience while dining. So Rokerij's honesty (sans putting up a baby-carriage-with-a-line-drawn-through-it sign) is refreshing. To be candid, my philosophy on rug rats is drawn from W.C. Fields, who was known for asserting that any man who hates children and animals can't be all bad.

But back to why I was on the fence with Rokerij, which apparently is Dutch for "smokehouse." See, ever since I hit town late last year, people have been extolling the culinary wizardry of Richardson Browne, because of Richardson's and Dick's Hideaway, both just down 16th Street from Rokerij. All the same, I've never been inclined, like other food scribblers in this town, to kiss the great man's kahuna. Don't get me wrong. I think the fella's a genius when it comes to creating atmosphere. Seated in Richardson's, surrounded by the New Mexico-style design of the place, you really can pretend you're in a bar in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. But save for the flan, which is so rich I could eat it until I collapse in a diabetic coma, I've never been wowed by the grub. Sure, the portions are huge, and none of it is by any means bad, but the menu never quite lives up to all the effort put into the surroundings.

The same, pretty much, can be said of Rokerij. When it comes to ambiance, there are not many establishments in Phoenix that can compete. In the space where Timothy's restaurant and jazz club used to be located, it's most definitely the sort of place where you can take the boss to dine, or even that supermodel wanna-be you've been dying to bed. Either party is sure to be impressed by the Disneyland faux stone exterior with roughhewn wooden shutters, all crafted so the structure looks vaguely like a cottage right out of Grimm's Fairy Tales. You can enter through the immense, eight-foot oak door, or you can take the side stairs through a stone tunnel down to the cellar bar. The latter is softly lighted and filled with the smell of piñon wood burning in the open fireplace. Year-round you can sit in one of the dark leather chairs and enjoy the fire, as the room is always kept comfortable with air conditioning.

The 30-foot bar is gleaming copper with small indentations made by a ball-peen hammer, and there are a couple of tables in the far back where you can take a meal if so inclined. Though the bar at Richardson's is chummy and crowded, the kind of place where you rub elbows with an eclectic mix of cowboys, con artists and coeds, the Rokerij cellar bar is a subdued, almost Old World affair, where you can sip a single malt Scotch and forget there's a war on. That is, as long as they don't have the TV tuned to CNN.

Upstairs it's a candle-illuminated, white-linen affair, with yellowish walls busily hung with numerous reproductions of European artists, most Dutch like van Gogh and Vermeer. There's an intimate, private dining room where you're surrounded by wine bottles, but mostly, folks take their meals in one of the big, comfortable charcoal-gray booths you must step up and into to be seated. No piñon wood fireplaces up here, but the apple and pecan wood they cook with back in the kitchen imbues the air with an incense-like fragrance. The stereo pipes in Steely Dan, Van Morrison and Bryan Ferry, and the food comes to you on pewter platters emblazoned with the restaurant's name.

The black-tee-shirt-clad wait staff offers some of the most attentive and genuinely friendly service I've received in the Valley. Water glasses are refilled without asking, and advice is given in a chipper manner.

Alas, this fine service doesn't alleviate the agony of discovering that the vittles are not exactly on a par with the environs. I'm reminded of my visits to Roaring Fork in this regard. On leaving that south Scottsdale eatery, I know that I have enjoyed outstanding Southwestern cuisine in an atmosphere that approaches that of Browne's new establishment. But on leaving Rokerij, I only retain the impression of having supped in an A+ environment on food that merits at best a solid B.

Despite the Dutch moniker, Rokerij's menu is not much more inventive than that at Ruth's Chris or even Black Angus. The salads are pretty standard: romaine and iceberg with tomatoes, peppers and Russian dressing; iceberg with tomatoes, bacon, onions and Roquefort, topped with blue cheese dressing; and so on. There's only one soup on the menu, French onion, and the rest of the bill of fare seems equally unoriginal: burgers, steaks, sea bass, prime rib, a couple of pastas. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the design of the restaurant alone leaves you expecting something more.

The ahi tuna was okay, but seemed slightly on the thin side and didn't dissolve effortlessly in my mouth. And the accompanying white beans tasted like they might have come from the can. I'm not saying they were from a can, but that's how they tasted. The halibut seemed a little too fishy to me, and not as mild as I've had elsewhere. And the osso buco with pappardelle pasta was a big disappointment, as I had to work to get that uninspired meat off the bone. Traditionally it's supposed to be made of veal, but I'd like to check that calf's driver's license, as it tasted as tender as the pork in the carne adovada burritos over at Richardson's, which means it lasted longer in my stomach than it should have.

However, I'm a big fan of two items on the menu: the steak tartare and the Colorado lamb chops. I'm a sucker for a tender bit of lamb, and Rokerij really delivers with these two double-cut chops seated on a bed of sweet potatoes too generous for me to finish. What I really like about this item is the mint jelly sauce covering the chops. For some weird reason, mint jelly with lamb is a rarity these days, and Rokerij is right to bring it back because it's a smashing combo. As for the steak tartare, this was nearly a meal in itself, with eight ounces of ground, rare tenderloin served on a plate with sides of Dijon mustard, sliced cornichons, diced onion, and roasted peppers. You use little slices of toast to scoop up the raw meat with whatever you want to add, and I'm mortified to admit that I ate nearly an entire serving by myself (it was all I could do to keep from snorting like a wart hog in the process).

Dessert-wise, I wish Browne would import his flan over from Richardson's, because the crème brûlée was a little too much like pudding, and the bread pudding was a little too much like eating a bear claw. I adore bread pudding, but this was far too dry, and crusty. Crikey, even the bread pudding over at Miracle Mile Deli is better! So my advice on Rokerij is, go for the ambiance, lower your expectations, avoid the bread pudding like it's a dinner invite to Fear Factor, and you'll be fine.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons