I get paid to eat, not drink. But the holiday season is full of such pressures. Deck the halls. Be jolly. Be naughty. Be nice. It's enough to drive anyone to the nearest microbrewery to quaff a few.
Wait a minute. Did I say "microbrewery"? Somebody, please, call William Safire. I've fallen prey to dated slang and I can't get up.
Like "junk bonds," "microbrewery" is a buzz word that has come to symbolize the spirit of the Eighties. In fact, for a while it seemed the two were inextricably linked: Many of the same young men who made killings buying, selling or handling junk bonds also harbored secret dreams of opening microbreweries. Some of them succeeded. Some of them are in jail.
At any rate, brewed-on-the-premises beer sounds like a quick way to acquire the proper level of holiday gaiety. Both Hops Restaurant Brewery and Barley's Brew Pub are conveniently located near very nice malls. I vow to shop till I drop, then imbibe draught after draught until the thought of Santa's knowing when I'm asleep and when I'm awake no longer bothers me.
Or something like that.
My first visit to Hops Restaurant Brewery takes place on a Sunday afternoon. My dining accomplice and I have attended a movie at Harkins Camelview. Later, after lunch, we will enter Scottsdale Fashion Square, where we will touch everything in The Nature Company and The Museum Company. We will emerge laden with packages.
But, I digress.
As the day is sunny, we ask to be seated outside in the courtyard. We're told the waiter handling the area is too busy. "I won't be able to seat you outside for several minutes," warns the young hostess. We opt instead for inside seating.
We consult the menu. Hops seems eager to overcome its early reputation for mediocre food. Chef Russell Hodges was brought in late in the summer to revitalize the kitchen at the almost-year-old restaurant. Hodges has spent time at the highly praised Routh Street Cafe and the Crescent Court in Dallas. We are eager to sample his cooking.
There is a palpable "city" feel to Hops, thanks in large part to a pseudo-industrial design featuring exposed concrete, black modern chairs and a teal high-tech ceiling. Over the sound system, Roxy Music's Avalon sounds suspiciously current, though it is nearly ten years old. The people seated around us are well-dressed. Women wear fuzzy fur-blend sweaters with sequined designs. Men look weekend casual, pleased to be free of neckties. Hops' waiters all seem stamped from Ken Olin and Johnny Depp cookie molds.
My accomplice is not a drinker. When a tall glass of Pilsner beer is placed in front of me, he takes a sniff or two for old times' sake. "Smells like Miller," says he. Yeah, kind of. Thankfully, Hops' sweet beer has a lot more character.
"Would you like some breadsticks?" a bus boy inquires. Certainly, we respond. He brings us three generous-size, sesame-studded sticks of bread and some dipping sauce. The bread without the garlic-lime sauce is dull, but with it, quite tasty. No butter is offered on this or my subsequent visit.
The lunch menu consists of starters, pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven, salads, sandwiches, burgers and some pasta dishes. Dinner repeats much of the same, and adds more substantial entrees. Desserts are identical at both meals.
Over the course of two visits, I sample several appetizers. The best is the tortilla-crusted shrimp with black bean cake, though we receive only three shrimp. The worst is the boring grilled chicken and beef kebabs served with a too-salty peanut sauce.
A zebra-striped puree of black beans and sour cream tastes more of red chile than black beans. While I enjoy the soup's attractive presentation and its spicy kick, I miss the rich flavor of the beans.
Fried calamari with lemon, basil and two dipping sauces are also disappointing. The calamari are underdone and chewy. I like the tart red, marinaralike sauce, but a white sauce reminds me too much of tartar sauce to make a favorable impression.
In keeping with the season, the restaurant is decked with boughs of holly. As we eat, we watch the staff erects a real Christmas tree. The process goes smoothly and without the inevitable displays of rage I've witnessed at Christmases past in private homes.
Hops' menu contains a disclaimer stating that pizzas will be brought when they are ready. Luckily, our spicy chicken pizza is delivered at the same time as our other entree, a seasonal vegetable platter with linguini and pumpkin paella. The pizza must be eaten with fork and knife. Its lovely crust maintains its crispness, despite an ample topping of sweet plum tomatoes, cheese, tender chunks of chicken and hot, fresh chiles. The music shifts to the dreaded Sting. The Eighties live at Hops.