Cafe Reviews

Ernest to Goodness

Page 2 of 3

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.

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Steven Weiss