If you're searching for a town on the cutting edge of the 21st century, Phoenix probably won't make your short list.
After all, thousands of people here think that interjecting "groovy" into the conversation puts them at the forefront of the Valley counterculture. In fact, there are plenty of locals who still think a well-placed "twenty-three skiddoo" makes them part of the avant-garde.
But when it comes to dining out, this metropolis is quickly closing the hipness gap. Look at the evidence.
We've got trendy restaurants that hang what look like Rorschach tests on the walls and confidently call it art. The more up-to-date establishments no longer summon waiting guests by calling out, "Smith, party of four." That's technologically gauche. Instead, they hand patrons a beeper and buzz them when a table's ready. And adventurous palates seeking exotic and creative delights don't have to fly to Los Angeles to get a workout. Any day now, I expect some bold local chef to attract national attention by offering up a platter fashioned around the still-beating heart of a freshly slaughtered yak, bathed in a mild chipotle cream sauce. Call it Tibetan-Southwestern fusion.
Left behind in this food-scene rush is the kind of restaurant that used to define "fine dining" for generations. It would have white-linen tablecloths, subdued art that wouldn't induce a migraine and some vaguely "continental" fare. Patrons would dress up, and waiters wouldn't introduce themselves. It would look a lot like Vagara Bistro or Rolands.
About six months ago, Peter Hoefler, former executive chef at the Arizona Biltmore, took over Vagara Bistro. At the same time, Vagara Bistro's chef, Roland Oberholzer, left to be his own boss at Rolands. Don't look for yak, beepers or Generation X trendoids at either place.
Hoefler apparently comes from the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of restaurant management. It's a wise philosophy. Under the previous owners, Vagara Bistro furnished an enjoyable dining experience. After a bit of fine-tuning, it's now even better. The restaurant hasn't had any noticeable physical changes. The same framed reproductions of the Old Masters hang from the walls. The banquettes are covered with the same colorful fabric with a fruit motif. The same Edith Piaf tape spills from the music system. More surprising, despite the new ownership, many of the same dishes spill out of the kitchen. I don't think too many chefs could have sublimated their own culinary egos to this extent. Of course, that decision is made easier when you can continue to dish out wonderful appetizers like veal-and-mushroom strudel in phyllo dough or the calamari salad adorned with oyster mushrooms and peppers. But I don't remember risotto from previous visits, and my memory usually doesn't fail me when it comes to tasty starters like this. Dotted with thick chunks of Portobello mushrooms and diced tomatoes, the generously portioned $5.75 plate gives diners their money's worth on all counts. Just as appealing are the four bacon-wrapped shrimp. An unusual creamy salsify sauce turns this clichd nosh into an inventive treat. Just as they did under previous management, pastas do double duty as main dishes and appetizers. If the pan-seared spinach gnocchi are any guide, don't expect a letup in quality. These are flat-out superb, a big bowlful of dumplings festooned with mushrooms and asiago cheese. I was happy to see that my favorite entree hadn't been banished from the menu. The rosemary-infused roast pork tenderloin, wrapped in bacon and moistened with a two-fisted port sauce, hasn't lost any of its oomph. It's still good enough to turn a principled vegetarian into a carnivore. The crunchy green beans alongside reveal an admirable attention to detail. The "Napoleon" of beef tenderloin is a goofy version of an old Vagara Bistro menu staple. Now, three beef medallions come stacked high, one atop the other, separated by layers of pancetta and wild mushrooms. If you wanted to commit suicide, you could climb to the summit of this fussy-looking plate and leap. But once you topple the ingredients and spread them out at sea level, you'll be rewarded with butter-soft beef and a mouthful of hearty flavors. Osso buco is a menu newcomer that deserves to stick around. Diners who enjoy scraping the meat from the bone themselves might carp at being deprived of this pleasant task by an overly thoughtful kitchen. But they won't carp over the quality of the veal, or the saffron-tinged risotto accompaniment. Only the moist but bland roast chicken breast with corn stuffing left us unenthusiastic. Serves us right, however, for ordering chicken: It's invariably the least interesting entree at any restaurant, the dish of last resort, where calorie counters, cholesterol watchers and other dullards park their appetites. Desserts have undergone the biggest change, and now they're clearly worth saving room for. That's especially true for the outrageous white-chocolate mousse. It's rich, sweet and intense, and layered with luscious, thin chocolate wafers. My dessert-shy spouse, who generally shrinks from sweets the way Dracula retreats before a crucifix, was moved to frenzy. A topnotch double-crusted apple pie, garnished with marzipan ice cream, and a pretty-as-a-picture ginger cräme brle are close runners-up. Vagara Bistro won't launch anyone into the world of 21st-century dining. But its cozy setting and skillful preparations can launch a very pleasant Saturday night. Rolands, 4515 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 946-7236. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Like Vagara Bistro, Rolands doesn't throw diners any culinary curves. It's aiming to build a reputation with deftly seasoned dishes and prime ingredients. Installed in the space that last housed La Bruschetta, Rolands shies away from making any artistic statements. It's done up simply, in black and white, with fresh flowers on the table, a massive pot sprouting ferns in the center of the room and "spot" lighting that illuminates the food but still keeps the rest of the place intimately dim. But the room is incredibly noisy. One of my companions didn't hear her beeper go off; and I didn't realize there was a music system until the place had almost emptied out. Perhaps the high-decibel clamor came from diners exclaiming over the food. Most of it is worth talking about. I'm a big fan of mussels, and Rolands sends out a first-rate starter of these steamed black beauties. Instead of bobbing in the usual tomato broth, they float in a mild, wonderfully fragrant curry sauce. What a nice idea. Pasta appetizers also get dinner off to a fast start. The homemade gnocchi differ from the version served at Vagara Bistro, but they're no less tempting. Here, balls of potato flour and cheese are boiled and then pan-fried--they look a bit like Tater Tots. Then the gnocchi are draped with a spoon-licking sauce featuring Gruyäre and Parmesan cheeses. Simple, but effective.
Puff pastry crusted with Parmesan cheese and slivered carrots is big enough for a couple to share, but good enough for each party not to want to. When it comes to the main dishes, think meat. The chef has latched on to some mouth-watering cuts, and he knows what to do with them. The mixed grill is the obvious choice. It features gorgeous hunks of beef and pork tenderloin, as well as a slab of escalar, a meaty, white-fleshed Pacific fish. An appealingly crispy potato pancake is hidden beneath. A veal special was just as rewarding. Tender veal medallions, garnished with artichokes, come soaked in a sweet, sherry-tinged cream sauce, infused with tarragon. It's a rich, satisfying plate.
A lighter main-course option is angel hair pasta combined with scallops, peas and red peppers. What drives this dish is the aromatic, saffron-scented clam broth the ingredients swim in. For $13.25, though, the kitchen could have ladled out a few more noodles. The least interesting platter involved five hefty, sauted Black Tiger prawns, over rice enlivened with diced eggplant and a hint of orange. Why waste the chef's talents? I can saut my own prawns at home for less than $19.75, and without having to fight Saturday-night traffic at the intersection of Scottsdale and Camelback roads. Two shortcomings, though, keep Rolands from breaking into the culinary big time for the moment. The first is dessert, by far the weakest segment of the meal. The touted carrot cake isn't very moist, despite an apricot glaze. The eye-catching fruit plate couldn't be saved by a champagne sabayon. Why on earth did it feature a tropical fruit like papaya in March? The yellow wedges had all the juicy flavor of cardboard. And the cheesecake blended with raspberries is also a mistake. This is the first time I've ever had to floss after cheesecake. The service here is also not yet up to fine-dining snuff. We were seated before a second couple arrived, yet received no water, menus or even the inevitable question: "Would you like a drink?" Dishes were cleared before everyone had finished. Requests for extra plates, additional silverware and more coffee went unheeded for uncomfortably long periods. And we had to ask about desserts, after our waiter appeared ready to bring us the check when we'd finished our entrees. (Perhaps he'd already tried them.) Like Vagara Bistro, Rolands won't attract the yak-and-chipotle-cream-sauce foodoisie. But the appetizers and main dishes should take the sting out of not being on the cutting edge.