Cafe Reviews

Chauvinist Pig-Out

Harvard prez Larry Summers has been excoriated in the past few months by feminists, fellow academics, and the politically correct for suggesting that innate differences in guys and dolls might help explain why there aren't more ladies present in the upper echelons of science and math. You know, the old "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" argument, from which that dorkus John Gray has made a mint, though author Gray seems only slightly more masculine than diet guru Richard Simmons on a leotard-only shopping spree.

Since I pay someone to do my taxes, and since what I know of biology has largely been gleaned from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, I'm hardly qualified to hold forth on Summers' comments. However, I am intimately aware of the differences between the male and female brains when it comes to dining. And I can think of no better illustration than the culinary kingdom of Craig and Kris DeMarco, who bestride this divide with their decidedly effeminate Postino Wine Café and La Grande Orange Grocery/Pizzeria, and their newer, more masculine venture, Chelsea's Kitchen.

The precious, boutiquey ambiance of La Grande Orange and Postino seems designed to make a het male squirm, and squirm I have each time I've been forced to spend time at either. Don't get me wrong. If you want to pick up a jar of cornichons or a flowery-tasting pizza while sharing your enthusiasm for Nordstrom's latest nail polish, LGO is for you. Moreover, if you're an Arcadia yuppie with XY chromosomes ready to sniff out a mate in the same income bracket, you can't go wrong with Postino.

At one end of the spectrum are Postino and LGO, and at the other end is Durant's. Somewhere in the middle is Chelsea's Kitchen, which thankfully lacks the boutiquiness of the DeMarcos' other establishments. CK has a more rugged feel. And its peaked roof, wide front porch, and generous patio with huge fireplace are suggestive of a ranch house, albeit one with decidedly modern appointments. Inside this blond brick building is a high ceiling with exposed ventilation, a square black bar also accessible from the patio, and an open kitchen with a staff of six or more that operates with military-like efficiency while chef and partner Scott Newman barks orders.

The tables are thick, wooden and solid, and the booths are a comforting, dark brown leather. The restaurant's only decidedly feminine touches are immense bouquet-filled vases that populate the restaurant's low dividers. That, and there's a whimsical, almost childlike sculpture of a faceless dog staring at its bone in a gurgling pond, outside the entranceway. But I suppose this is meant to appeal to the kiddies, as CK has declared itself kid-friendly with a prominently featured children's menu.

Gladly, I didn't see many ankle-biters on my various visits, for I tend to agree with my fellow inebriate W. C. Fields, who stated that despite reports to the contrary, he did like children, as long as they were parboiled, fried, or otherwise properly cooked! Still, I'd brave an army of ill-bred adolescents for CK's comestibles, which are as comforting as the setting in which they're served.

Initially, CK's menu may not seem like any great shakes: tacos, burgers, steaks, and fried chicken. The popular foodstuffs of The Great Unwashed. Yet CK treats each with the sort of gourmet care usually assigned to more highfalutin fare. Exhibit A is the "Howie" burger, which I at first thought might be the namesake of a certain food critic for a certain daily. So I ordered it in the hope of taking a bite out of the competition. "Howie," I discovered later, refers to Chef Newman's late father. But what makes this burger one of the best I've had in town is the preparation, with the beef ground on the premises, cooked to order, then topped with Gruyère cheese, grilled red onion, mayo and Dijon mustard. As close a match for Roaring Fork's Big Ass Burger as I've come across.

I kept comparing CK's entrees to those of Robert McGrath's grub-shack because it's a similar sort of food for a similar sort of clientele, even if McGrath places more emphasis on the Southwestern theme. CK's green chile stew is tasty, with nice chunks of pork, and a griddled corn cake placed in the middle of the bowl, but it doesn't quite overtake maestro McGrath, whose own green chile pork stew is stick-to-your-ribs thick compared to CK's soupier version.

CK kicks some major hiney, though, on its roasted free-range chicken breast, served with sautéed mushrooms, asparagus chunks, and fingerling potatoes. I do my best to avoid the cliché "melt in your mouth," but it's unavoidable here. The "Dixie" pan-fried chicken might be better than the Colonel's, though the fried chicken at Stacy's and Mrs. White's is still superior. As for CK's mesquite-grilled steaks, they could tempt a Hindu to turn cow-chomper on smell alone. My 14-ounce prime rib was perfectly seasoned and tender, served with a little cup of horseradish, al dente asparagus, and a side of German spaetzle, at my request. Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you! In other words, loved the slightly greasy spaetzle, as I did all the other sides: the peppery mashed potatoes, the baked home fries, and so on.

There are three main appetizers: a shrimp ceviche, chicken nachitos, and tuna steak tartare with guacamole dip. I'm not a big guacamole fan, so the fact that I scarfed this terrine-like concoction of bluefin tuna with slab o' guac until the plate was clean should tell you something. The shrimp ceviche was so yummy I ordered two on one trip, even though I must admit a 16th-Street coctel de mariscos could run rings around it. (Also, saltines on the side? A little tacky, no?) My least fave? The chicken nachitos -- grilled fowl on tortilla chips with guacamole and melted cheese. But being my least fave, they still somehow managed to disappear from my plate. Hmmm.

CK's best dessert was the special when I went, apple pie à la mode. Almost as good as the pie at Bill Johnson's Big Apple. A he-manly dessert that deserves a permanent spot on the menu. Thus the DeMarcos court success by appealing to both sexes for a change, and whenever anyone I know wants to go to Postino, et al., I'll have an alternative that's right down the road.

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