If you were born after 1950, you probably rebelled against your parents' musical tastes. Baby boomers like me sneered when the Old Fogies turned the car-radio dial to stations playing Gershwin and Berlin standards sung by Ella Fitzgerald. No doubt Gen Xers rolled their eyes when Mom and Dad yanked their Nirvana album off the stereo so they could spin scratchy Everly Brothers and Pat Boone 45s. All it takes to make my own teenagers cringe is to load the CD player with Melanie's Greatest Hits, cue up "I've Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates, You've Got a Brand New Key" and lend vigorous vocal support.
So how do you explain the rising popularity of the old-fashioned, live-music supper club with the young and the hip? The 1930s-to-early-1960s music surely can't account for it. After all, when's the last time the music of Count Basie, Cole Porter and the Righteous Brothers cracked the charts?
Our perception of how an ideal supper club should function derives mostly from old movies. In these 1930s and 1940s films, a smartly dressed party crowd drinks endless cocktails, smokes in happy ignorance of the surgeon general's future warnings and, in between musical sets, dines on continental specialties served by deferential waiters. The revelers are always charming, witty, sophisticated, as sparkling as the ever-present champagne. The unmistakable impression: The intoxicating mix of alcohol, music and food is fueling an enormously good time.
That's just the kind of magical impression the proprietors of the Famous Door and Denali's, two new Valley supper clubs, hope to create. In one case, the operators have more or less pulled it off. In the other, however, management hasn't been able to jump-start the place to life.
If you're bothered by crowds, noise and secondhand smoke, the Famous Door on a weekend night is not where you want to be. Set in what used to be Daa's Thai restaurant, it's a happening joint, and the big, buzzing bar that dominates the room is the center of most of the activity. If you just want to kick back with a drink or stogie and listen to the music, plant yourself in a chair or sofa up front, near the musicians. If you've come here to eat, you'll be seated at a booth nestled against the far brick wall.
Your server will encourage you to start off with a $7 "martini." These aren't the gin-and-vermouth cocktails your father drank. Instead, you'll choose from about 25 concoctions, and they're not exactly aimed at the purist. For example, there's La Jolla, a blend of cognac, creme de banane, orange juice and lemon juice; the Down Beat, a potent brew put together with gin and Southern Comfort; and one evening's featured creation, the Appletini, a kicky mix of apple schnapps, vodka and sweet and sour, with a slice of Granny Smith apple.
However, I'd draw the line at the Chocolatini, an unholy combination of creme de cacao, vodka, Kahlua and chocolate chips. "One Chocolatini, shaken, not stirred" isn't likely to turn the heads of the ladies in the next booth, even if your name is Bond.
The Famous Door isn't quite as serious about its food as it is about its bar scene. But even though the menu isn't nearly as inventive as the martini list, it has some basic charms.
A huge bowl of black mussels, a Friday-night special, was one of them. We got a couple dozen tender critters, swimming in a lovely white wine and garlic broth. Terrific bread from the Arizona Bread Company made sopping up the liquid a joy.
The portabella-mushroom appetizer also puts the bread to good use. The mushroom is lined with a bit of shrimp and spinach, coated with a creamy cheese sauce and baked. This is one mopping-up operation that won't have any trouble finding volunteers. Potato pancakes also make for pleasant nibbling, three crunchy specimens laced with a touch of nutmeg and teamed with applesauce.
The soups aren't nearly as successful. The "classic" French onion soup tasted more like French onion gravy, and it lacked the essential raft of real Gruyere cheese. The bland chicken-dumpling model arrived lukewarm, but even a stint in the microwave wouldn't have brought significant improvement.
The main dishes are a mixed lot. You'll get your money's worth from the cioppino, a hearty seafood stew generously stocked with tuna, salmon, shrimp, scallops, squid and mussels, all served over linguini and bathed in a light, innocuous tomato sauce.
Beef stroganoff fajitas also work: lots of very tender beef, red pepper and onions piled on an oversize flour tortilla and moistened by a mild sour cream sauce. Pasta is competently done, if the grilled chicken fettuccine is any indication. This dish brings together chunks of chicken breast tossed with noodles, peas and scallions in a basil-tinged cream sauce.
You'd think steak would be a good supper-club bet, but the marinated, sliced New York strip here is too chewy and too fatty to arouse serious carnivores. I expected better for my $22. I wouldn't do any cartwheels over the Ventura grilled shrimp, either. The six jumbo shrimp are perfectly satisfactory, but they're done in by a sweet, one-dimensional barbecue sauce that has no character. The accompanying garlic mashed potatoes and vegetable medley, good as they are, can't redeem this platter.
With one exception, desserts are fashioned elsewhere, and don't give you much reason to linger. That's certainly the case with the lackluster creme brulee, the lone in-house sweet. However, its $8 tag is anything but lackluster--it's outrageous. The Tuscanella, an eclairlike confection, furnishes only the most basic sweet-tooth satisfaction. If you want to stay for another set, you're best off doing it over the first-rate espresso.
I hear the Famous Door's proprietors are thinking of setting up a string of clubs nationwide. It looks like they've got the bar and music scene figured out. With some kitchen tuning, they could put the "supper" back in supper club.
Denali's Manhattan Club, 2110 East Highland, Phoenix, 667-9246. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
When it started up a few months ago, Denali's was promising a unique supper-club experience: a bar room, with all-day appetizers and deli-style sandwiches; a cheese room, with fruit, cheese and wine; a fine-dining room, with gourmet specialties; a coffee bar, with fresh-brewed roasts, cordials and candies; a cyber cafe, with a computer instructor and Internet connections; and big-time entertainment, with dinner theater and high-profile acts.
Right. And a few months ago, Fife Symington assured us he'd be acquitted, and the Cardinals vowed to make the playoffs.
Operating out of what used to be the Roxy club, Denali's bubbles with all the sprightly effervescence of a mortuary. On two weekend visits, we were just about the only paying customers here. It was embarrassing.
The club's troupe of entertainers does its best. But how much can they do when all they've got to work with is the prerecorded background music to "My Girl," a microphone and strobe lights flashing around an empty dance floor?
Actually, except for the lack of bodies, the place is rather neatly designed. The likenesses of well-known music stars--Ray Charles, Jim Morrison, Paul McCartney--are painted on the pillars. A stylized silhouette of the Manhattan skyline runs across the wall. On the lower level, the stage and dance floor are ringed on three sides by white-linen-lined tables. You can also watch the show from the upstairs bar area.
But, there's no bar room. No cheese room. No cyber cafe. No coffee room. And there's certainly not much in the way of fine dining.
The appetizer list seems to have wandered in from a sports bar. How much supper-club sophistication is there in deep-fried zucchini, deep-fried mushrooms, Buffalo wings, green chile poppers and pita pizza? Our deep-fried artichoke hearts tasted like they'd just been poured from a warehouse freezer bag. The grilled shrimp cocktail brought six undersize creatures served with cocktail sauce in a metal container. The chicken-and-cheese quesadilla seemed to be the only nibble the kitchen spent any time on at all.
Don't expect to tamp down hunger pangs by plunging into the breadbasket. No doubt this French loaf had once been fresh, but that moment had long since passed by the time it was set down before us.
Evaluating the quality of the entrees seems almost beside the point. After all, who cares how good or bad the food is, when it's dished out in such a forlorn spot?
Still, my professional obligations require me to render judgment. The prosciutto-wrapped filet mignon is the single best item to come out of Denali's kitchen. The meat, beefy and tender, is studded with roasted garlic and paired with outstanding mashed potatoes. Grilled salmon is routinely serviceable, enhanced by a scoop of sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms. Veal medallions also indicate a bit of culinary skill, aided by a garlic wine sauce and a seasoning boost from basil and capers.
In contrast, shrimp scampi, prepared with the same small crustaceans that appeared in the shrimp cocktail, is a punchless snooze. A dull rice pilaf and veggie medley provide no back-up support. And the grilled chicken and pasta platter is done in by an off-putting mango-jicama salsa that simply doesn't mesh with the other flavors.
By the time we had finished with the main dishes, I was so anxious to leave--we more or less had the place to ourselves--that I was hoping Denali's didn't serve dessert. No such luck. Fortunately, the only sweet it did have, a third-rate tiramisu, didn't detain us long.
At this point, it's impossible to imagine Fred and Ginger ever floating into Denali's for cocktails, food and dancing. It's impossible to imagine me ever wandering in again, either.
Beef stroganoff fajitas
Denali's Manhattan Club: