Cafe Reviews

Ernest to Goodness

It takes some time but, on the way back from the powder room, my guest finally notices it. On a little shelf behind the hostess stand is a single biographical volume. As far as we can tell, it is the restaurant's only thematic reference to its own name, Hemingway's, and the presence of the book at least corroborates that we are talking about Ernest.

When a restaurant gives itself an allusive name, and then makes no allusions, I get uncomfortable. I look at this particular menu and see that only the names of certain dishes are placed in quotes--"The Villager," "Knob Hill," "Devil on Horseback"--and start racking my memory. Is it possible that the author who gave us The Old Man and the Sea has elaborated upon the themes of courage and natural mortality in the little-known work "Scottsdale Burger"?

You might think I'm making an inconsequential point, but Hemingway's also calls itself a "steak & oyster house," and that's not exactly helpful either. There are only a few steaks on this basically bistro-style menu, and these are buried far down in the entree listings. Oysters (more about them later) are not even mentioned on the menu.

In all, it's just hard to figure out what this place is and who it is meant to serve. For example, here is a restaurant that has spent lavishly to create a sophisticated cosmopolitan dining and drinking environment and yet lists an elaborate children's menu right on the regular menu. All of this is praiseworthy in its own right, but restaurants that try to be all things to all people generally end up confusing and then closing.

I belabor the point because Hemingway's is ultimately worth keeping around.

This is, incidentally, already the second restaurant to have inhabited the anchor site in this architecturally ambitious but largely untenanted Chandler shopping plaza. Formerly Steven's Chicago Chop House, an expensive and ambitious venture itself, the new Hemingway's has still invested in significant alterations. Major physical modifications to the dining areas and lounge, a new paint job, new carpeting throughout and an elaborate risk-taking devotion to fresh foliage are some of the immediately apparent changes.

Having settled amidst the glass, marble and brass decor, my guest and I are enjoying the restaurant's high-ceilinged spaciousness and high-polish cleanliness when we are presented with a tray of carrots and celery and, shortly after that, with some marvelously moist and crisp-crusted "almost sourdough" bread. When the waitress informs us that Anchor Steam beer is available on tap, the restaurant immediately starts reminding me of Star's, a well-known San Francisco gourmet emporium. If you've not had that particular pleasure, Hemingway's is also a kissing cousin, ambiance-wise, of the Valley's American Grill restaurants.

As it develops, the Hemingway's menu is not quite so gastronomically ambitious as either of the aforementioned. The emphasis here is on nicely done versions of familiar cafe fare such as fried appetizers, entree salads, stacked sandwiches, burgers and grilled meats. In each menu category there are some attractive signature items, however, such as Garlic Chicken (chicken breasts baked in fresh garlic and topped with fried onions); "The Villager" (a grilled sandwich of marinated pork slices served on toasted rye and topped with beurre blanc sauce and cheddar cheese); and Prime Rib Pu Pu (the "house specialty," an appetizer of cubed prime rib served with horseradish sauce and French fries, assigned a name that certainly conjures up the literary legacy of Ernest Hemingway--maybe it should be called Prime Rib Pa Pa).

Fortunately, we ask our waitress if there are any specials this evening and this jogs her memory about oysters. It turns out that Hemingway's is quite sincere about presenting fresh fish and seafood--on days when good product is not available, none is offered. This is commendable, but it's not a policy that works well if it seems an afterthought to the waitress.

We are in luck this evening and are able to place an order for Oysters Rockefeller. Although the finished dish contains too much spinach and lacks a good shot of Pernod, the oysters themselves are fabulous, very plump and juicy. Our other appetizer, Cajun Chicken Wings, is a typical version of this hot sauce-tossed treat, and is nicely rendered here.

As we eat our dinner salads, whose typical ingredients are chopped and arranged in a nice mosaic-like pattern, my guest and I confront our only entirely negative impression of the evening. Music will always be among the most personal of tastes, but we both just hate the lounge singer, whose every weird falsetto trick is unnecessarily amplified over a fuzzy sound system. The resulting noise sets off a squall of baby crying in the dining room, and the combined aural barrage is a perfect example of how this restaurant confounds its own sense of identity.

Are the babies the intruders? The people drinking in the lounge? What about those of us who just want to have a nice quiet dinner?

Happily, the singer goes on break just as our entrees arrive.
One of our dishes is a prime rib sandwich, a very generous slice of beef served on a split French roll, accompanied with horseradish sauce and a large portion of French fries. Unfortunately, Hemingway's uses the phrase "best in the Valley" to describe its prime rib, and this exaggeration creates undue disappointment. This is flavorful beef, but great prime rib melts in the mouth and this stuff doesn't quite cut it.

Our other entree is a very interesting presentation of pork tenderloin. First marinated in a mixture of honey, mustard and soy, the pork is then grilled and topped with a delicious orange-apricot beurre blanc sauce. Accompaniments include lightly glazed broccoli and carrots and a choice of potato or rice.

I like this dish but wish the pork was not cooked to well-doneness. Even though modern pork is bred to be quite lean, and even though it has been decades since the last report of trichina-worm infestation in U.S.-inspected pigs, there are still people who refuse to leave the slightest trace of moisture in the meat. Pork tastes so much better cooked to medium-doneness.

For dessert, my guest and I share a slice of praline cheesecake. The topping is a little bitter and the filling a little underbaked and gummy, so, obviously, it fails to impress. In general, I'd like to see Hemingway's put a little work into its dessert list, perhaps coming up with a few lighter fresh-fruit items as well as some imaginative ice cream concoctions.

Maybe something like Floating Islands in the Stream.

Even in its glory days, just a few years back, Rick's Cafe Americana never had much of a reputation for food. This luxuriantly beautiful restaurant, inspired by Bogie's boite in Casablanca, is perhaps the most popular upscale singles spot the Valley has ever known. But one has always gone to Rick's to drink and to seduce and to outwit the Gestapo; rarely to eat a meal.

Stories abound, some of them ugly, about the demise of the restaurant's original owner. It's hard to find someone connected who knows the entire tale, but it's true that "Rick" is long gone. So is the toney crowd that once made walking into this place on a weekend akin to running a draw play through the entire player roster of the NFL.

Having cost approximately $1.5 million to build and furnish in 1982, a phenomenal and nearly profit-prohibiting sum to spend on a restaurant then or today, it is rather amazing that the creditors have not yet carried off the restaurant piece by piece. I suspect that it is a testament to the sheer beauty of the place, more than anything else, that new owners are lured into a relationship.

All of this is preamble to a recent dinner experience at Rick's which in all ways proves remarkably satisfying. There is clearly better talent in the kitchen than there used to be. And the beautiful outdoor patio, situated beside Lake Margherite (artificial lake, real ducks), is certainly one of the most pleasant spring evening environments in this or any other valley.

There are three of us dining, and we start our dinner with an order of escargots and a split entree portion of Fucilli Chicken. The snails are served in a traditional compartmentalized dish, but instead of being left in the shells, they are placed with mushrooms and garlic butter in the compartments and the whole dish is baked under puff pastry. The snails are tender and the flavor mild but flawless.

The Fucilli Chicken is a combination of chicken breast, pasta, walnuts and snow peas in a light-orange cream sauce. Although I feel this dish could use a little more zing, just adding salt and pepper at the table helps a lot. Texturally and visually, the dish is superb.

Next, we enjoy generously portioned salads served in chilled soup bowls and made memorable by the addition of an exceptional honey-mustard dressing. Although entrees at Rick's tend toward the basic--steaks, grilled fish, ribs dominate the menu--there are a few more imaginative offerings. We select Southwest Grilled Chicken (smothered with salsa and topped with Monterey Jack), Roasted Pork Loin (stuffed with spinach and pine nuts and served with a peach veloute sauce), and Broiled Swordfish Rio Lobo (topped with a compote of pepper strips, salsa and shrimp).

All of these dishes are good, although the pork is just a bit dry, and the chicken might benefit from the addition of some guacamole. Yet, we are all most fond of the job the kitchen does with the accompanying vegetables and potatoes. Rick's kitchen turns out great au gratin side dishes, rich and creamy throughout with the top burned just enough to give a nice crispy textural contrast, and fabulous French fries, big wedges of skin-on baking potatoes cooked in a small amount of fat in an iron skillet to reduce greasiness and bloom the mineral-rich taste of the potatoes. Most of Rick's desserts are not made on the premises, but this does not impair their quality. We like particularly the German Chocolate Cake, a traditional coconut and deep-chocolate delight with an exceptionally moist, almost pudding-like texture. And everything at Rick's is made a little sweeter by the piano accompaniment that gently underscores the loveliness of the setting.

The true virtuoso performance, though, is rendered by our waitress, Madonna. This young woman is cordial without being intrusive, knowledgeable without being affected, and in all ways a perfect guide to the kitchen's merits and capabilities. I am absolutely floored when she notices, on an already dark patio, that I am using a salad fork to eat my entree and rectifies the situation without calling the slightest bit of attention to her gesture.

Alas, it is Madonna who informs us that Rick's is about to undergo another management change. In the very near future, perhaps as you read this, the running of Rick's will be the responsibility of former management personnel from the well-known singles hot spot What's Your Beef? The overall plan, as far as Madonna can tell, is to reclaim some of the glory of yuppie yesteryear with the addition of such features as a wine bar and a fresh seafood bar.

I don't know. I sort of like Rick's the way it is right now. But they sure as heck can't survive solely on my beautiful friendship.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steven Weiss