Cafe Reviews

Elk Lodge

My initial experience dining at Flat Iron Rotisserie and Grill, the new, Southwestern-themed establishment on Indian School Road, can be compared to meeting a bewitchingly beautiful Monica Bellucci-esque femme fatale at a party. There's an instant, smoldering attraction. Your eyes lock in a flirtatious dance, and you find yourself saying something terribly witty despite her distractingly deep dècolletage. She tilts her head back to laugh at your bon mot, and parts her lips, thereby revealing a massive chive clinging to one of her upper incisors.

The situation is Seinfeld-like, to say the least. Will your obsession with her lack of dental hygiene murder any carnal bliss to be had by Monica Bellucci's company? Or perhaps you can ignore this minor flaw, and hope that Ms. Bellucci will pay more attention to her post-meal flossing during any future encounters.

Such was my dilemma at Flat Iron the first time out, when, approaching the entrance, at one of the corners of the rectangular building, there lay a stack of dirty serviettes and an open can of Slim Fast. It was something all of my companions that evening remarked upon. And though we endeavored to forget it, when we left, the same stack of napkins lay in the same place, reinforcing the negative impression they'd left before.

Normally, I might not even mention something so trifling, were it not for significant flaws inside the building as well. Not with the decor, which has a warm and inviting hunting lodge feel to it, with oak-wood flooring, wooden beams and antlers above the door. But, alas, my party was made up of six, including myself, and the restaurant didn't have a table big enough for us. Instead, the host sat us in an odd booth-like cul-de-sac, where the table was much smaller than the space. On my next trip, I realized the space is normally utilized for two parties of two, with that same table separated out. How unfortunate to find such a high-end spot that can only comfortably accommodate parties of two, four and maybe five.

There were also serious problems with the service on that first evening. The young chap attending to us was helpful and not at all standoffish, and yet, he seemed absent-minded at times. For example, at the end of our meal, he never asked if anyone wanted coffee, and I was left to pose that query for him. Then when the desserts were brought out, a blueberry bread pudding and a fruit crisp that we all intended to share, he simply left a stack of dessert plates and silverware behind, without passing them out. Such missteps are by no means fatal. The fellow just seems green. But five-month-old Flat Iron's game needs to be tighter than this if it aims to survive past that crucial one-year mark that most nosheries have a tough time surpassing.

Believe me, I want it to survive, because Flat Iron is doing some innovative things with its wine list and menu that should be rewarded. First off, Flat Iron can boast nearly 70 wines by the glass, and has taken the time to pair wines to entrees. Owner Michael Nagode is a true connoisseur, and, for example, the Andrew Murray Syrah he has paired with the grilled elk chop topped by blackberry bourbon sauce makes the perfect accompaniment to the lean, frenched cut of meat.

That elk is the stuff dreams are made of, nearly perfect when served medium rare, and the blackberry bourbon sauce is magnificent. Why, then, is Nagode threatening to take this, by far his best item, off the menu? Seems not enough customers order it. So I hereby deputize all those reading this article, and order my posse to the Flat Iron pass to eat a mess of elk. Time's a-wastin'. Saddle up, partner, and ride!

But even if Nagode loses this ace, he's got two more up his sleeve in the form of the venison medallions and the buffalo prime rib. As with the elk, both of these are farm-raised, so all of the tangy gaminess is gone from the flesh. But at least the texture and taste vary somewhat from regular ol' beef. The deer meat is dark, with a slight pungency that I can only describe as being similar to sausage, whereas the buffalo prime rib is very soft and just slightly chewy. This slab o' bison is served with a cabernet-peppercorn sauce and a condiment container of creamed horseradish. The combination of these three tastes is enormously satisfying. Only the elk chop tops both the deer and the buffalo in my book.

For appetizers, Nagode and his chef Rob Toll have devised such an ingenious list of bonnes bouches that I'd bet my prized matchbook collection that one or more of these will be copied by other eateries. Though the buffalo sliders may be too thick from the bison slices and the focaccia-like bread to actually "slide" down anyone's gullet, I doubt Flat Iron will receive many complaints. The well-done strips of buffalo are topped with goat cheese, and the White Castle-like sandwiches come with a savory four-onion dip that's irresistible. A plate of these and a pint of the thick Black Butte Porter that Flat Iron offers on tap, and you won't be able to pry my triple-XL caboose out of my seat until both pint glass and platter are empty.

The raspberry-chipotle chicken drumettes with blue cheese dipping sauce are sweet, sticky and leave a dusty fire in your mouth that only more of that Porter will calm. I'm a big fan of them, and I'm looking forward to eating scores more in the near future. The smoked trout and shrimp cakes are better than the crab cakes most other places serve, but the stuffed quail was a huge letdown, mainly because of the stuffing, which tasted, well, gross, as stuffing often does, I'm afraid.

Two other items that should be 86'd tout de suite are the Caesar salad with blue-corn croutons, and the stuffed, braised flank steak. The former is a travesty, as the croutons are chewy and the romaine soggy from too much dressing. The latter calls to mind unpleasant memories of eighth-grade cafeteria meat loaf. Given all this, the question remains: Am I willing to overlook that chive on the tooth of this amazing babe? I reckon the answer is yes. That is, as long as I don't have to eat the gal's flank steak.

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