Cafe Reviews

Mealing and Dealing

The Copper Club Restaurant, America West Arena, 201 East Jefferson, Phoenix, 379-7777. Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11a.m. to 2 p.m.

Today's quiz: Choose the statement that best describes your downtown-job situation.

1. When you arrive at work, you pull into a parking spot with a) your name on it; b) your father-in-law's name on it; c) the chalk outline of the guy who parked there yesterday.

2. Your office door has a sign that reads a) Executive Vice President; b) Director of Finance; c)Men.

3. At the midmorning break, you like to check a) how the Japanese stock market is doing; b)how 30-year treasury bonds are doing; c) how your lottery numbers are doing.

If you answered "a" or "b" to these questions, there's a good chance you've eaten lunch, on the company dime, at the Copper Club. It's the ritzy room on the second floor of America West Arena, where this town's movers and shakers can move and shake in peace. Here is a place where things can get done: Business people are putting together deals, lobbyists are wooing legislators and lawyers are billing clients for a "working" lunch hour.

On the other hand, if you chose "c," the Coyote Springs Brewing Company may be a better downtown lunchtime option.

The Copper Club isn't interested in attracting the brown-bagging masses. It's pitched to the tailored-suits-and-coordinated-outfits crowd. Look for lots of clubby touches: dark wood, plush burgundy carpeting, eye-catching chandeliers, elegant china (Royal Doulton), greenery in Oriental vases, linen-draped tables. Televisions are tuned to ESPN seniors golf--if you're into As the World Turns, you'll have to tape it at home.

Decorative copper lozenges hanging from the walls seem like an odd touch at first glance. But they make more sense after you read the menu and learn that the restaurant is named "in honor of [copper producer] Phelps Dodge Corporation's many contributions to the state." The gushing continues: "As you enjoy [Copper Club's] special ambiance, we hope you will be reminded of Arizona's rich heritage and the important part played in all our lives by one of the state's most important natural resources ... copper."

It's hard to take this drivel seriously. But it's especially difficult to swallow when you consider the modus operandi of the person behind it. After all, Jerry Colangelo is a man who'd cheerfully name his new stadium Preparation-H Ballpark if that company forked over enough dough.

Fortunately, what comes out of the kitchen is a lot easier to swallow than what comes out of the arena's public relations office.

The menu designers obviously don't believe premeal nibbles are profitable at noon. If you want to pay for something to eat before your lunch platter arrives, you'll have to go with soup. The cream of banana squash, one day's special, seemed heavier on the cream than on the squash, but that's no great cause for complaint. Otherwise, the only preliminary attack you can make on hunger pangs is to assault the basket of warm sourdough and whole-wheat rolls.

Lunches are sufficiently hearty--hardworking executives need proper fueling. Some of the dishes are also very well-crafted.

As evidence, check out the Scallop Napoleon, a daily special we encountered on the first visit. The deferential waiter couldn't have been more pleased with my choice: "Ah, that's Mr. Colangelo's favorite," he beamed. His admiring gaze clearly indicated that he thought I was upper-management material.

I can understand Mr. Colangelo's enthusiasm. It's a pretty creation: a two-story tower fashioned from layers of sliced eggplant brushed with sundried tomatoes, each layer topped with three juicy sea scallops. It's all ringed with colorful bits of zucchini, potato and summer squash in a tomato-cream sauce. One quibble: The eggplant needs to be cooked longer or cut thinner--it's a bit chewy.

Penne pasta with smoked chicken is equally satisfying, especially if you're into carbohydrate-loading. You get a large bowl of noodles crammed with slices of smoked chicken breast, tossed with sun-dried tomatoes, basil, pine nuts and mascarpone cheese. The dish has an unexpected and distinctively sweet taste, which may take a couple of bites to get used to. But it's worth persevering.

Chicken and dumplings are almost--almost--perfect. The rich broth harbors gorgeously tender strips of white-meat chicken, carrots, celery andirresistibly light, puffy, cheese-sprinkled dumplings. Why, oh, why, then, did someone in the kitchen decide to heap on the salt with a shovel? I'd like to try this again when the flavors are allowed to speak for themselves.

The meat loaf is not exactly to my taste. I prefer it thick and hefty; Copper Club's model is too light, crumbling at the first touch of a fork. First-rate, creamy mashed potatoes helped ease my disappointment. The triple-decker-club sandwich, however, has no defects. It's a big-enough-for-two monster on good 12-grain bread, loaded with ham, turkey and bacon.

Desserts are made in-house and wheeled over to the table on a dessert cart. The server fondles each one, giving a descriptive spiel at the same time. It's an effective selling technique, and you won't feel any buyer's remorse after your purchase. The excellent mud pie is thick and fudgy, lined with caramel sauce, peanuts, chocolate chips and whipped cream. Even better is the dessert tortilla. It's made from almond-brittle candy, and stuffed with kiwi, strawberries, papaya and white chocolate shavings, moistened by a papaya sauce. I could get used to this.

What I couldn't get used to, however, was the jolt I received from a double espresso. No, it wasn't the caffeine that had me bouncing off walls--it was the outrageous $6 price tag. Somebody in accounting needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

Not everyone has time for lunch at the Copper Club. Not everyone wears the kind of work clothes suitable for lunch at the Copper Club. And not everyone has the $10 to $15 to pay for lunch at the Copper Club. But if you do, it's a pleasant way to break up the workday.

Coyote Springs Brewing Company, 122 East Washington, Phoenix, 256-6645. Lunch, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

The proprietors of Coyote Springs must have given careful thought to the location of this, their second branch. (The original is in Town & Country Shopping Center, at 20th Street and Camelback.) After all, two brew pubs have already gone under in this spot since 1994.

I predict Coyote Springs won't. What distinguishes Coyote Springs from its two late, unlamented predecessors, 122 East and Buddy Ryan's? Someone in Coyote Springs' kitchen actually knows how to cook.

The place hasn't undergone any major facelifts. A big bar still occupies the center of the room, ringed by booths and tables. For visual stimulation, you can gaze at soundless televisions tuned to CNN and ESPN, or contemplate the blackboard listing the beers available on tap and in bottles. (The manager says they'll soon begin brewing their own beer on the premises, as they do at Coyote Springs' other operation.)

There's nothing terribly fancy about the menu choices, but just about everything we encountered was tasty, filling and reasonably priced.

Those adjectives apply especially to thepizza, an 11-inch model that could justabout take care of two appetites. The ElPollo Borracho model came generously topped with grilled chicken, peppers, pesto and smoked mozzarella. The herb-scented crust, made with beer, is also first-rate--chewy but not dry. And the wallet-friendly $6.75 price tag does nothing to diminish its appeal.

Like pizza, chicken-fried steak is another down-home favorite that the expense-account lunch crowd can't get at the Copper Club. Coyote Springs' version features a moist slab of beef sealed in a crisp, puffy batter, coated with a jalape–o-spiked country gravy that has a real chile kick. It's aided by topnotch mashed potatoes, salad and terrific, green chile corn muffins. The only problem with this dish is fighting off the urge to nap as soon as you've finished it.

Kokopelli pasta should also see you through to the 5 o'clock whistle. You get an ample bowl of penne pasta festooned with turkey sausage, cheese, green chile and cilantro. It's obvious that the kitchen isn't just going through the motions.

The Texas tri-tip sandwich will supply you with your noontime allowance of protein. Lots of lean, beer-marinated, thin-sliced beef gets slathered with cheese and put on a wheat bun. Try it with the homemade slaw, which is simultaneously heated up by jalape–os and cooled off with pineapple.

The only underachiever on the menu is the Thai beef salad, which the kitchen doesn't seem to have its heart in. It's a desultory pile of noodles topped with gristly meat and a couple of snow peas and peppers. The ginger-chile vinaigrette also lacked bite.

I remembered the rich, stout cheesecake dessert from a long-ago meal at the original Coyote Springs. It's still a highlight--creamy and cheesy in a chocolate cookie crust, drizzled with chocolate syrup. If you've got the time to linger over dessert, this one is worth lingering over.

Most of Coyote Springs' customers are probably not here sealing million-dollar deals, dreaming up legislative mischief or discussing upcoming litigation. They are, however, probably enjoying lunch.

The Copper Club Restaurant:
Chicken and dumplings
Pasta with smoked chicken
Scallop Napoleon
Mud pie

Coyote Springs
Brewing Company:
Texas tri-tip sandwich
Kokopelli pasta
Chicken-fried steak
Stout cheesecake

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Howard Seftel