Cafe Reviews

Elegance Graveyard

Mancuso's, 6166 North Scottsdale Road (The Borgata), Scottsdale, 948-9988. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Arizona has its share of ancient wonders: the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater. I suppose you could add Mancuso's to the list.

After all, it's nearly as old. When Mancuso's first opened its doors almost 30 years ago, the world was a vastly different place. No, dinosaurs weren't still roaming the Earth. But, measured in restaurant years, 1969 is practically the Jurassic Period.

Try to remember what times were like back then. In 1969, a guy could get beaten up for wearing an earring; the only women with tattoos traveled with the circus; gasoline was 23 cents a gallon; O.J. Simpson made headlines in the sports pages; and Ted Kennedy discovered that cars couldn't float. In those days, the Woodstock Generation was on acid. Today, it's on antacid.

Restaurants were another species altogether. Nouvelle cuisine, fusion cooking and Pacific Rim fare didn't exist. No one wondered if the chickens were free-range or the veal humanely raised. Organic produce? That was for mantra-chanting weirdos outfitted in turbans and sandals. No one demanded salad dressing on the side. And chefs didn't think it part of their professional duty to furnish health-obsessed diners with the calorie, sodium and fat-gram count of every dish on the menu.

No one has had the moxie to start up a restaurant like Mancuso's for decades. Walking in here is like entering a time warp. The place aims for old-fashioned elegance. The waiters wear tuxedos, and a talented pianist tinkles out the sophisticated standards of the Tin Pan Alley masters. The interior takes up the Borgata's Italian palazzo theme. There are brick walls and archways, flickering electric candles in ornate holders, urns, statuary and tapestries. A mammoth crystal chandelier is the focal point of the room, doubled by the wall of mirrors behind it.

But the elegance has started to fray around the edges. The "Mancuso's" logo on the dinnerware is fading. The silverware is mismatched. And service can be too casual, from bantering waiters to busboys who replace cutlery by cannibalizing nearby tables.

Mancuso's Borgata location means it relies more heavily on the tourist trade than locals to fill the booths. The menu, which reads like a 19th-century "Greatest Culinary Hits" list, seems to target exactly the kind of vacationer likely to shop at the Borgata and stay at a nearby upscale Scottsdale resort: financially comfortable, status-conscious and not terribly adventurous. (Arrangements with local concierges to steer out-of-towners here help maintain a steady stream of business, I'm told.)

Mancuso's "continental" fare is in as much danger of extinction as the snail darter or spotted owl. It's certainly not for trendoids. Who orders starters like frogs' legs or oysters Rockefeller anymore? Who goes out for veal Oscar, tournedos Dijonaise or duck a l'orange? And dinner is no bargain, either. A three-course dinner for two with a glass of wine will set you back about a hundred bucks.

Is it worth it? That depends.
The frogs' legs certainly are. Think of them as wings for the disposable-income set. The tiny, meaty limbs are bathed in olive oil, butter, garlic and chives. And yes, they do taste like chicken.

Oysters Rockefeller also merit consideration. This is an oyster preparation for folks who really don't like oysters, a half-dozen bivalve mollusks baked with a spinach and cheese topping. Mancuso's version is competently crafted.

I'm less impressed by the octopus and seafood salad, arranged in a radicchio leaf, all so finely minced and blandly seasoned that you can't tell what you're eating. This is the kind of dish that reminds you that the Valley is 400 miles from the ocean.

The carpaccio fails the value test. $8.50 delivers just three tiny, precious bites of translucently thin, sliced raw beef, garnished with capers and tomato. This is one expensive nosh.

You could forgo appetizers entirely and make do with the house salad, which comes with dinner. But it's unremarkable, as is the basket of herbed focaccia that tags along.

Next up? Get ready for the palate-cleansing sorbet, an outdated bit of pretension that will impress only those tourists who still dwell in a silo.

Mancuso's kitchen hasn't spent the last three decades exploring uncharted culinary territory. Every main dish here would have looked familiar in 1898. But familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt.

When the kitchen is on, entrees show flair and energy. Occasionally, though, the kitchen just appears to be going through the motions.

The best thing here was one evening's special, a veal chop, perfectly grilled and boosted with a cognac-tinged bordelaise sauce. It was teamed with a lusty shiitake ragout, roasted potatoes, steamed broccoli and three big, crab-stuffed shrimp, vigorously drenched in Mornay sauce. What's not to like?

Well, actually, there was a drawback--the price. For some reason (management orders, I expect), the servers don't give the cost when they describe the special. At $35.95, this dish is considerably more expensive than anything else on the menu. Maybe Mancuso's counts on diners being too embarrassed to ask. But that's absurd--do you ever buy anything else without asking the price?

Frenched lamb chops are also superb, two meaty, double-thick ribs done up with garlic, herbs and olive oil. Paired with mashed potatoes and asparagus, this platter delivers the kind of timeless satisfaction that will never go out of style.

Lobster Fra Diavolo comes with a breathtaking pile of seafood: lobster, shrimp, scallops, calamari steak, clams and mussels, all heaped over a mound of linguini. But the dish doesn't live up to its name--the marinara sauce lacks the "devilishly" spicy bite it ought to have. The kitchen is probably afraid that the heat would turn off the tourists. That's okay--just rename the dish so the rest of us aren't deceived.

Mancuso's is not the place to try to pinch pennies. But you may be genuinely drawn to the straw and grass fettuccine, pasta tossed with sausage and mushrooms in a heavy, creamy cheese sauce. At $17.50, it's just about the least expensive entree here, and it's both tasty and filling.

I'm less excited about tournedos Dijonaise, three tenderloin medallions in a very weak mustard sauce, and filet of sole Oscar, Mancuso's variation on veal Oscar. The fish is topped with crabmeat and asparagus, then smoothed with a bearnaise sauce in which the chef seemed to forget the tarragon. The dish is rich, but too dull to work up any enthusiasm over.

Desserts aren't what they should be. Creme brulee is thin, and the rum cake and cheesecake make no impression. However, the overpriced espresso sure does. At $4, even the decaf model will give you the jitters.

Mancuso's is a throwback to a lost age, an age when employers rewarded workers for loyal service, musicians could read music and politicians caught with a floozie resigned in disgrace. If that's the age you long for, Mancuso's should put you at ease.

Frogs' legs
Tournedos Dijonaise
Frenched lamb chops
Creme brulee

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Howard Seftel