Cafe Reviews

Chain Gang

Are all restaurant chains doomed to suck eggs like Old Yeller? Not necessarily. It's hard to find fault with a Chambord margarita from Z'Tejas, for instance. And I do occasionally get a craving for an In-N-Out burger or a roast beef sammy from Arby's. Don't even get me started on Buffalo wings from all manner of outlets, big and small.

In general, most readers of this column are sophisticated enough to know that chain grubaterias have satisfying the masses as their prime directive, like factory farms feeding cattle from the trough. The slop they sling is there to engorge your gut, not tickle your palate or cause any reaction more enlightened than a grunt or a belch. That old line from Seneca is applicable here: Vomunt ut edant, edunt ut vomant. Translated politely, "They purge that they may eat and they eat that they may purge." Granted, I have to believe the Romans ate better. After all, they were Italians! But the quote does sort of describe the mentality behind that brainless bovine grazing most Americans confuse with dining.

I certainly can't blame a place like Scottsdale's three-week-old White Chocolate Grill for existing, or for taking advantage of those hordes predisposed toward the bland and the banal. Everything about the White Chocolate Grill, from its asinine name to its warehouse-like, 7,300-square-foot structure and its wholly unchallenging menu, screams chain mediocrity. I mean, am I the only one who gags at the thought of white chocolate, much less grilled white chocolate? And yet, one glance at this soulless box of an eatery, and I know that no matter what I write here, it's going to draw a certain class of real-estate hawkers, desperate housewives and other Scottsdale yuppies piling out of the nearby Harkins Ciné Capri movie theater. Chances are also that these upper-middle-class folk will leave WCG feeling that they dined well and heartily.

Located in the Scottsdale 101 shopping center, the White Chocolate Grill was designed by a cadre of businessmen who've made their loot through a variety of successful corporate eateries. I must give credit where due: Their staff operates like a well-oiled machine, each server wearing a uniform of black shirt, blue jeans and a large steel WCG belt buckle. A few weeks into the venture, and everyone seems to know his or her role and performs it admirably.

Were the place not so immense, it might even qualify as handsome, with its butcher-block tables, polished wood fixtures, open kitchen with olive green tile, and tiered, backlit bar, illuminated like a Christmas display from the different colors of the liquor bottles exhibited. Ultimately, though, the size of the place and its long, repetitive main dining room play against any positive aesthetic qualities it may have.

The wine list was a joke: a short list of the usual suspects and standbys like B.V., Beringer and Echelon. In other words, nothing to distinguish itself from similarly uninspired lists. As for the menu itself, I nearly fell asleep looking at it, it was so boring. French dips and fish sandwiches, Caesar salads and rotisserie chicken. It doesn't get any duller.

That said, there were a few items I liked, most of them starters. The tomato gin soup, a creamy concoction with mushrooms, bacon and grilled tomatoes, is given a dash of originality with a dose of Tanqueray. And sesame-encrusted slices of ahi tuna over a bed of slaw with a citrus soy dressing were so fresh and appealing I had them on two occasions, enjoying them each time. The hot spinach artichoke dip wasn't half bad, either, though I mostly tasted just spinach and melted Jack, not artichoke.

However, the seafood ceviche was a real travesty, just a bunch of seafood chunks dumped into a chilled bowl of Clamato, or a close facsimile thereof. Someone should inform the brain trust responsible of the difference between a lime-drenched ceviche and a seafood cocktail in ketchup, and if they attempt to pass this gunk off as a "ceviche" again, they should be force-fed bowls of it until they yack. The rotisserie chicken tortilla soup also revealed a ham-fisted touch, with its broth tasting more like Brunswick stew straight from the can.

Observing what was brought to me, I often wondered, "Do they have any idea how dumb this looks?" When one orders Chilean sea bass, the fish itself is usually so delectable that it stands on its own. But WCG brings me a fillet topped with a layer of breading and portions of cocktail and tartar sauce. What is this, Long John Silver's? Still, I can see why they'd want to do everything possible to hide the quality of the sea bass, which was stringy, tasted like it had been pulled from the Frigidaire recently, and had a "market price" of $24.

Insult and injury continued with what my waiter referred to as a "center-cut fillet of beef infused with blue cheese." The word "infused" must be code for, "We're going to melt some blue cheese over the steak with our trusty gas flame!" Bottom line, it goes for $26 and is less savory than many a pork chop. For a side starch you can choose a couscous salad, fries, or a pile of "freshly mashed potatoes," which were in fact as dry and lumpy as former first battle-ax Barbara Bush.

I'll cut WCG some slack on its cold couscous salad. Anything with raisins, Israeli couscous and bits of pistachio earns a pass from me. It was so sweet, I should have stopped with it each time I was in house, rather than moving on to WCG's gross-out desserts: a "crème brûlée" that was actually a giant ramekin of vanilla pudding with fired strips of white chocolate over it; a banana cream pie that tasted a lot like the crème brûlée, but with some coconut and slices of banana; and a white-chocolate brownie covered in dark chocolate sauce and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which made me want to "purge" myself after the manner of the Roman emperors of yore. All I needed was a feather and a slave girl to hold my head, and the picture would have been complete. Edunt ut vomant, indeed.

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