I was determined, while dining at Gertrude's, not to be distracted by the chatter of tourists seated at tables on either side of mine at this Desert Botanical Garden hotspot. Fortunately, the food on Gertrude's recently redesigned menu was mostly so dreary, it was impossible to think of much else.
Because this restaurant, named for Desert Botanical Garden founder Gertrude Divine Webster, caters to that year-round, garden-visiting tourist trade, I expected a surplus of popular foods and a ton of clever Southwestern cuisine. There was plenty of such fare when Chef Steve Eldridge was at the helm of the kitchen here, and nearly all of it was excellent. And while there's lots of prickly pear jus and Queen Creek calamatas to be found among the new, post-Eldridge sides and entrées, very little of what my dining companions and I ordered proved tasty enough to finish.
Chef Matt Taylor, who replaced Eldridge last spring, has made some small amends with a fall menu. He's added a nice escarole salad tossed with pomegranate seeds, chevre, and candied pecans. The molasses vinaigrette dressing is tangy and sweet, but there's too much of it; ordering it on the side is wise. Also new is the fried bologna sandwich, which drags the comfort food concept to its nadir. Greasy grilled bread glopped with provolone, pickled vegetables and sweaty mortadella is a fine result of a drunken refrigerator raid, but at a sit-down restaurant it's just gross. Fortunately, it's served with a heaping pile of hot, crispy French fries, the single best item on Gertrude's menu.
Things started out quite nicely on an initial visit, with Bloody Marys, spicy with jalapeño and lime juice, and spicier still in their Virgin Mary incarnation. Our server was polite and enthusiastic, although she seemed to know very little about the starter menu. The house-made "Saltines" -- crispy, lightly salted flatbread -- were the best thing about the cold smoked salmon tartare appetizer, a lackluster launch of a mostly disastrous meal. Pinkish on the outside, redder at its core, the slightly smoky fish was served with a spray of bowfin caviar and a cooked egg, both easy to ignore.
We moved on to the charcuterie platter: tiny portions of underwhelming fromages, described vaguely by our server as "a bleu," "a haystack" (by which she must have meant Haystack Mountain Cheese, which makes goat cheeses), and a "whole buttermilk" (which was, in fact, a hunk of Brie). Although there was limited use for the dollop of whole grain mustard and ramekin of blueberry jam (both typically served with hard cheese, which this platter didn't offer), at least our waitress knew what these were. The ham briette was a scoop of pasty deviled ham with both the consistency and appeal of Play-Doh. The final indignity was a gelatinous cube the color of dirty burgundy that our server assured us was "bison bacon cranberry nutmeat." Its vaguely bacony flavor was suspended in a cold gelatin that nearly put us off our meal.
We fared better with a second course of cornmeal-crusted Ipswich clams, tender mollusks flash-fried tender and crunchy with mild cornmeal breading. These little charmers are made more special with a zingy jalapeño remoulade and tarted up with scallions.
The whole grain salad was pleasant enough, despite some especially chewy roasted squash. This jumble of quinoa, squash, and pickled apples dressed in a tangy tomato-based vinaigrette was the closest thing to a high point Gertrude's starter menu offered.
For fun, we watched -- for 20 minutes! -- while our entrées sat under a heat lamp in the very visible kitchen. Once they arrived, we decided we preferred watching them from across the room to eating them. The by now overcooked Gertrude's Burger was dressed with a limp roasted tomato and tasted of propane, and went unfinished by my dining companion. My braised pork shank was tough and prepared rare because my server did not ask about preferred temperature. It was plopped atop gummy grits and dressed with dried kale leaves, although the menu promised kimchi.
On a subsequent dinner visit, my companion went for the not-for-the-adventurous Brick Chicken, a deboned half bird served with a savory jalapeño bread pudding and limp tomatillo chow-chow. Crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, it was perfectly cooked and perfectly mundane, although better when forked up with a hunk of the pudding.
The dinner wine list, definitely aimed at the tourist trade (the most expensive chilled white is from Cochise County), is unremarkable. And while I was deeply annoyed by the noisy couple from Long Island on my right, who alternated between arguing with one another and yelling into their cellphones at their grown children back home, I agreed with them that a restaurant that serves soups and salads shouldn't charge four dollars for a side of bread. Big slices of dry bread, to boot.
Gertrude's dessert offerings, like much of the rest of the menu, try too hard to be Southwestern (smoked hot fudge!), and so we passed, returning that weekend for a gander at what's become of the restaurant's brunch menu, which we once enjoyed so much.
Big hunks of the Sunday brunch menu, which is served until 9 p.m., are lifted from the dinner menu. I was sorry to see that the tasty Arizona Benedict, an ambitious variation on poached eggs (grown locally, like so many other ingredients in Gertrude's dishes) and tomatillo-rich green mole, was gone. In its place, the unexciting Gertie's Benedict, which barely tweaks a traditional Benedict by adding mortadella alongside its Hollandaise.
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Also gone is the Gertrude's brunch standout known as The Hot Mess, a tower of crispy corn tortillas layered with succulent chunks of pork, zesty roasted poblano mole, and an over-easy egg. Instead, one can order a plain-Jane garden wrap, which somehow manages to overpower a mélange of marinated cucumber, red onion, and tomato with a snoozy white-bean hummus. We left Gertrude's brunch as disappointed as we had left our dinners.
It's too bad. Gertrude's was once a Phoenix treasure. Today, it teeters on a precipice between upscale restaurant and overambitious Marriott diner. The dreary cuisine and the adjoining gift shop suggest the former, I'm sad to report.
Gertrude's 1201 North Galvin Parkway 480-719-8600 www.gertrudesrestaurant.net Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily