Recently, I got an e-mail from a regular New Times reader who was looking for some good restaurants in the far East Valley. I mean really far — somewhere closer to Apache Junction than Tempe's Apache Drive.
"It's not all chains on this side of town," he wrote, urging me to head to his 'hood for an upcoming review.
Why not? A mini-road trip always sounds exciting to me, and I've logged thousands of miles in search of decent meals, especially at independently owned restaurants.
D'Vine Bistro 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
3990 South Alma School Road, Chandler
Hours: Same as Mesa location
Prosciutto pizza: $9
Pork chop: $24
Sure, a lot of the high-profile players in the local dining scene are concentrated in Phoenix and Scottsdale, but noteworthy food clearly isn't exclusive to the central metro area. Just look at Joe Johnston's three cool dining concepts in Gilbert (Joe's Real BBQ, Joe's Farm Grill, and Liberty Market), the artful contemporary American cuisine at Cork in South Chandler, or the mouthwatering barbecue at Bryan's Black Mountain BBQ in Cave Creek. Eating at any one of those restaurants always gives me neighborhood envy.
I had similar hopes for D'Vine Bistro & Wine Bar, a northeast Mesa place I'd heard good things about. (There is also a second D'Vine in Chandler). It's about 35 miles from Central Phoenix, in The Village at Las Sendas at Power and McDowell Roads — the same plaza where Tempe's Caffe Boa opened a new location a few weeks ago. The area is quiet, family-oriented, and full of gated communities, with limited dining options beyond chains and fast-food joints.
D'Vine has garnered a Wine Spectator Award as well as numerous accolades from local media, although the hype seems only partly justified. Though I enjoyed the ambiance and the wines, the food here struck me as "good for east Mesa" — which, given the dearth of happening wine bars or any other upscale dining in the vicinity, isn't saying much. It's definitely unique for this sleepy area, but in the scheme of things, I'd call it acceptable at best. Service, too, was cursory and slow.
As an inviting neighborhood hangout, D'Vine certainly fits the bill for an area where young families and well-to-do snowbirds need a place to spend their disposable income. When it's packed, there could easily be an hour-long wait for a table.
The setting is urbane but accessible, with a smooth wooden bar, racks of wine bottles, a shadowy dining room punctuated by bright, eclectic paintings covering the walls, and friendly, good-looking staffers clad in black. There's often live music as well. And out on the patio, heat lamps make al fresco dining doable even this time of year.
D'Vine's wine list didn't disappoint, especially in the way of reds. There were at least a dozen or so choices for each varietal (a few dozen under Cabernet Sauvignon alone), and some great by-the-bottle picks under blends and miscellaneous reds, with prices ranging from $20-something to $300-plus. About 40 selections by the glass, along with some interesting wine flights, made sampling different wines a treat. There's also a list of $5-a-glass happy hour specials.
But as far as the food was concerned, things were all over the map — a few hits, a few misses, and plenty of ehh.
The bruschetta, for example, was just passable. Here, they make it on toasted, thinly sliced focaccia, and serve it on a plate drizzled with balsamic reduction. Each order comes with two pieces each of three different toppings. I sampled a run-of-the-mill Caprese, with mozzarella, sliced tomatoes that weren't very ripe, and basil; Brie with apple and almond; and marinated artichoke with chèvre and roasted red pepper pesto. The last one had the most interesting flavor combination.
Lightly browned Southwest salmon cakes, served on a salad of mixed greens and baby spinach with tomato, cucumber, red onion, and crumbled blue cheese, amounted to a pretty humdrum dish, although it was somewhat salvaged by habanero vinaigrette that brought me to attention. Meanwhile, prosciutto and fresh figs were not enough to redeem my grilled pizza. Topped with marinara, red onion, mozzarella, and greens, the ultra-thin crust was insubstantial yet somehow inedibly chewy.
There's a lengthy list of sharable tapas dishes, including a scrumptious grilled shrimp tamale filled with spicy roasted Anaheim chile polenta, and unctuous skewers of pan-seared pork, glazed with sweet wasabi soy sauce and nestled in a bed of baby greens. I'd eat that tamale again as an entrée.
But I would pass on the calamari, which were so heavily breaded and fried that it was hard to taste the squid inside. To look at them, you would've assumed they were big French fries. The stuffed mushroom, too, was covered in so much melted cheese that the flavor of portobello was diminished and it was hard to detect any of the garlic, onion, and bacon promised on the menu.
Although I liked the taste of D'Vine's beef and Gouda melt, again it was really heavy on the cheese. The soft focaccia was warm and crispy, and the braised beef was tender, but proportions were off. On the side was a fragrant pile of irresistible Parmesan truffle fries.
Handmade cannelloni was the most outstanding entrée I tried here, delicate sheets of fresh pasta rolled around shredded beef and ricotta. Wild mushroom sherry cream sauce added even more savory dimension, its mushroom earthiness complementing the rich meat flavor.
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A juicy, perfectly cooked Kurobuta pork chop, smothered in caramelized apple and onion jam, came in a close second. If only its accompanying roasted fingerling potatoes had been thoroughly cooked instead of nearly raw inside, it might have been my favorite.
My number one letdown, on the other hand, was undoubtedly the almost-burnt wild boar meatloaf, teamed with depressingly bland Guinness mashed potatoes (I couldn't even taste butter in them, let alone beer) and soggy roasted Brussels sprouts that disintegrated in my mouth. What sounded like an ambitious dish turned out to be a drag.
And nothing made me swoon at the end of the meal. There was satisfactory crème brûlée, moist Granny Smith apple cake with vanilla ice cream, dry-ish pumpkin cranberry cheesecake, and warm peach cobbler made with canned peaches. Yawn.
Honestly, even "good for east Mesa" should be better than this.