Cafe Reviews

'burb Feeders

Desert Moon Grill and Saloon, 15415 North 65th Place, Scottsdale, 607-1811. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," wrote the poet. As far as I know, Rudyard Kipling didn't develop this insight after visiting the Valley of the Sun. But he could have.

Two restaurants, one in Scottsdale, the other in Glendale, illustrate Kipling's point. Each is only a few months old. Each has set up camp in restaurant-scarce neighborhoods exploding with pricey new homes. Neither Desert Moon nor Javelina Springs targets tourists, trendoids or splurging diners celebrating a special occasion. Their core customers are neighborhood folks, on the lookout for a casual, tasty and affordable meal not too far from the house.

But Scottsdale isn't Glendale, and Glendale isn't Scottsdale. Another poet once asked, "What's in a name?" Quite a bit, actually. Scottsdale's Desert Moon bills itself as a "Grill and Saloon." Glendale's Javelina Springs calls itself a "Restaurant & Bar." Semantically, it's a distinction without a difference. But from a marketing standpoint, it's critical. "Grill and Saloon" suggests an up-to-date edge, a hip energy. "Restaurant & Bar," on the other hand, sounds a lot more old-fashioned. Scottsdalians won't go to a Restaurant & Bar. West-siders won't go to a Grill and Saloon.

The restaurants offer remarkably similar fare--seafood, beef, chicken, pasta--at almost identical prices. But the two kitchens have widely different culinary philosophies, which have been carefully tuned and calibrated to their zip code's tastes. At Desert Moon, for instance, the chicken is roasted with herbs; at Javelina Springs, the poultry is battered and fried. Javelina Springs serves pork ribs with barbecue sauce; Desert Moon serves "Chinese style" pork ribs rubbed with tamarind, ginger and honey. Each restaurant makes a strawberry dessert. But Desert Moon soaks its berries in liqueur.

Our tale of two cities begins in Scottsdale. Desert Moon is set on the fringes of Kierland, a golf course and master-planned community. By day, through its big picture windows, diners can watch guys in plaid pants conceding themselves 10-foot putts on the seventh green. By night, they can admire the moonlight pouring over the McDowell Mountains. The room is sleekly designed and dimly lit, with a semiopen kitchen, abstract art on the walls and jazzy, bongo-inflected music spilling out of the music system. I hear there's a vase of fresh flowers in the women's room, a nice touch that demonstrates a commendable attention to detail.

The menu is as craftily designed as the setting. It seems perfectly pitched to the neighborhood, and the kitchen knows how to bring it to life.

Desert Moon's clientele enjoys nibbling on appetizers, but this isn't a chicken-wing, potato-skin, mozzarella-stick crowd. These patrons prefer munching on garlic crostini that they can plunge into a dip fashioned from crab, artichokes and cheese, broiled up to a crusty sheen. Who can blame them? It's luscious. So is the oven-roasted portabello, a huge pile of sliced fungi heaped over wedges of grilled polenta draped with gorgonzola, then punched up with a bit of balsamic vinegar. Don't order this on your own--there's enough here for three appetites.

Potstickers are also skillfully prepared, a half-dozen plump dumplings filled with chicken and shiitake mushrooms, slickly moistened in a fruity, spicy sauce. In contrast, the appetizer pizza is nothing special, prepared with a light, lahvosh-type crust and heavily coated with four unremarkable cheeses.

Of course, you can skip appetizers entirely and fill up on the addictive molasses rye bread. "It's the only thing here we don't make ourselves," said our waiter. But who cares where the bread is made, when it's this good?

The chef realizes this neighborhood expects a kitchen with a bit of style. So he's always looking to give his main dishes an extra boost. Take the wonderfully juicy herb-roasted chicken, which he pairs with wilted spinach enlivened with bacon and garlic. This 10-dollar platter gives you 10 bucks' worth of pleasure.

Lovely grilled mahimahi gets the same sort of treatment. It's teamed with a papaya-mango salsa and a mound of couscous. This is hardly a revolutionary trio, but a less creative kitchen would have slapped down mashed potatoes or rice and steamed veggies. Desert Moon isn't just going through the culinary motions.

That's clear from the "Crispy Fried Alaskan Halibut," Desert Moon's upscale take on fish and chips. It's a good idea, and the moist, battered fish is irresistible. But the freezer-bag-quality fries are a mistake. This dish really deserves fresh, bubbling-hot, thick-cut spuds.

Desert Moon takes care of red-meat fans. Pan-seared pork loin is a gorgeous hunk of meat, pure animal-protein heaven, and it's accompanied by an earthy mix of sweet corn and wild rice that I could have eaten by the bowl. Asian-style spare ribs are another intriguing pork option, lined with a thick, sweet and pungent glaze of tamarind, ginger and honey. (Spring for an extra three bucks and order the side of Szechuan-style green beans, crisply sauteed in a hoisin-type sauce.) And beef eaters will appreciate the simple charms of the beef tenderloin with peppercorns and scalloped potatoes, at $17.50 the most expensive menu option.

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Howard Seftel