North Fork

Imagine you and a few of your friends -- say, 3,000 of them -- are looking for a good place to grab dinner out. Where would you go?

If you live in Anthem, the decision is simple: Persimmon Bar & Grille at Anthem Golf and Country Club. There's practically no other option for residents of Del Webb's monstrous, monochromatic, master-planned community on the edge of New River.

For the several thousand homeowners who were the first to bite last March at the Disneylike dream of an "unparalleled assortment of lifestyle amenities," the most there has been to munch on is dust kicked up by phalanxes of tractors digging yet another home "as original as you."


Persimmon Bar dinner, Wednesday through Sunday, 6 to 9 p.m.; brunch, Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; grazing menu, Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Before Persimmon opened in February, in fact, Anthem denizens could find nourishment only at the Prime Outlets mall food court across I-17 (Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway) or down the road a bit at Black Canyon City (cowboy grub at Squaw Peak Steakhouse or the Rock Springs Cafe). Even groceries were almost 20 miles distant, until a Safeway opened within the Anthem compound a few weeks ago.

Certainly by the time Anthem is built out, there will be many more dining choices in the area. (Let's hope so -- the mini-city is expected to be home to about 50,000 people, and that's a lot of forks pounding the tables.) The good news, Anthemites, is that for the time being, Persimmon Bar & Grille handles your hunger quite nicely. Although some main-plate entrees still need a little work, most of the lunch and grazing dishes are enjoyable enough to make life in this feel-good commune of cookie-cutter homes almost endurable.

The better news, for the rest of us on the outside, is that Persimmon is open to the public -- if you happen to be traveling some 35 miles north of downtown Phoenix. Add it to your list of dining choices for the next time you visit friends and family incarcerated at the state juvenile detention center or the federal prison that separates Anthem from the rest of the Valley. Or if you get the munchies heading out to the Shangri-La nudist colony just over the mountain that shadows Anthem. Just turn right at the Anthemized kids on the neighborhood's entry billboard, grinning at you with teeth as large as your head.

Pass the grand fountains and rippling pennants announcing your arrival to Anthemityville's 5,800-acre "lifestyle experience." Don't stop at the VW bug-size golf ball marking the welcome center on your right, nor at the adjacent park with its kid-sized railroad, fishing lake or skateboard park. Just avert your eyes from the community center's rock-climbing wall, soaring waterslides and indoor sports courts -- they're for Anthem-approved residents only. You won't get through the country club gate, either, without stopping to give your name and license plate number.

Persimmon's interior looks perfect, in that glossy, model-home manner of complete theme coordination. Emerald green and whisky-brown carpet melds with faux marble tables, charcoal stone columns, leather wall cutouts and fat cherry wood crown molding. Color-matched silk plants are placed just so, copper wine buckets flank a fireplace for accent more than practicality, and everywhere are those curious decorator items that "pull" together a prefab room: glass orbs, decoupage boxes, non-statement oversize artwork.

The precision lends nouveau riche charm, but also makes the blemishes that much more jarring. Soaring display shelves are empty. At dinner one evening, a sunscreen completely blocks the breathtaking sunset view of Daisy Mountain through Persimmon's floor-to-ceiling windows -- until the chef strolls out from the kitchen, notices, and raises the blinds himself (just as the sunset slips away and leaves our bouncing reflections in the glass for the remainder of the evening). And why have two big-screen televisions playing -- sound off or not -- through what's supposed to be an elegant meal?

Don't expect country club service, either. Dinner prices hover around $20, à la carte, yet our youthful servers manage only snack-bar professionalism. One waitress is sweet and friendly but completely confused. We inquire about sides and are told that everything comes on a plain bed of greens -- or maybe some have potatoes, she's not sure. She describes the Delmonico steak as flank, even after we gently ask her to double-check with the kitchen. She has no clue at all regarding the lamb's preparation, and when reciting the evening's single special (swordfish), she has to pull out a crib sheet to read. Another waiter launches into a diatribe on how much he hates fungi when describing a soup du jour of marsala mushroom. We have to ask several times for fresh cutlery and side plates.

And somebody, please, correct the adjustment of the tabletop salt grinders. I like the idea of fresh-ground salt, but not when it comes out in a flurry of big chunks that, had we tested it on our food instead of our bread plates, would have destroyed the meal.

Fortunately, the fare is more polished. Persimmon is under the direction of executive chef John Bartilomo, formerly a lead instructor at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Surely he was obsessed with detail when teaching his students; he has brought the same level of care to this new restaurant.

The quality of ingredients is the highlight of each dish we sample. Simple presentation, though, is better here. When the kitchen stretches for dramatic effect, the result is like a woman wearing one too many pieces of jewelry.

A quite straightforward dinner appetizer of mussels marinière, for example, brings a boatload of blue East Coast shellfish, the pretty black shells and briny meat lightly dressed with chopped red pepper, garlic and shallots in a puddle of cream, Chardonnay and fresh thyme. A lettuce wrap (from the all-day grazing menu) illustrates why everyday iceberg lettuce is making a comeback on fancier plates -- the tasty dish is nothing more than crystal-crunchy greens, torn and tucked with butter lettuce, sautéed chicken, ginger and garlic, then dipped in a soy wasabi sauce.

Whatever our server's feelings about the mushroom soup, I'm quite happy with Bartilomo's light-handed takes on a signature baked-potato soup and a du jour offering of clam chowder. A cup is big enough to share, with my companion and I savoring spoonfuls of smooth potato purée and delicate sour cream under crisp potato frizzles. Clam chowder is an excellent hot-weather dish, more broth-based than cream-based, and loaded with chopped potato, real bacon slices and lots of tender clams, topped with sesame flat bread.

Our server gawks when we order salads as appetizers at lunch, and when they arrive, I do, too. The Anthem Caesar may be starter-priced at $5.50, but it's a meal-size plate paired with a slice of grilled ciabatta. Too bad the dressing is so flat it bogs down the fresh romaine.

Weak dressing also mars a dinner serving of bleu crepe salad, an already baffling jumble of spinach, fennel and frisée lettuces, strawberry chunks, shelled pistachios, sweet potato frizzles, radish slivers and bleu cheese served in a thin, dill-flecked crepe shell. Whew. There's way too much going on in this hyper dish -- sweet, soft, chewy, crisp, with no unity of flavor under watery bleu cheese vinaigrette. Stick with the Mediterranean salad instead, a fine toss of fresh greens, eggplant, roasted bell pepper, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumber and Feta crumbles in a thick balsamic vinaigrette. Dip some of Persimmon's great foccacia or French bread in the dressing, and you've got a satisfying lunch.

A blackened sea bass "jet fresh" selection of the day actually makes me smile in the Anthem spirit. It's a small piece, to be sure, but Bartilomo obviously knows blackened doesn't mean burned, rendering a wonderfully moist fillet. It's partnered with a lemon vinaigrette and cherry-tomato salad, plus a timbale of dirty rice lightly seasoned to match country club tastes.

I'm also impressed with the shrimp wrap, a healthy portion of tender shrimp, diced red onion and lettuce in a whisper of mayonnaise, served with yummy, pepper-marinated cherry tomatoes and a big salad. The only quibble I've got with a tuna melt is that its soft bun turns to mush under generous heaps of thick avocado, white cheddar, tomato and white albacore -- especially when the semi-sweet juices of accompanying coleslaw overlap their boundaries of chopped cabbage and red, green and yellow peppers. What happened to the hearth-baked bread the menu promises?

Likely it's hiding out with the ciabatta bun advertised with the Fairway burger. What I get is another average yellow bun, topped with a half-pound of okay beef and jack cheese (not the Cheddar I requested). Grilled whole-grain hearth bread is another no-show on the chicken sandwich, just the ubiquitous bun cradling a hefty slab of grilled breast and jack cheese. The sandwiches are very acceptable club cuisine, but the best part of the plates? The very fresh shoestring French fries, dipped in cocktail glasses of ketchup.

Hopefully as Anthem fills up with more residents, its heartier entrees will be up to better speed. For sure, it needs to rethink its à la carte dinner pricing -- Persimmon isn't a Ruth's Chris.

Roast chicken, labeled a house specialty, for example, is an unexciting plate of two thighs on a thin chop of sautéed greens for $11. That's it. The meat's good, but taken off the bone, it would barely make a sandwich filling. A pasta of the day is boring, with undercooked fettuccine and summer vegetables (squash, zucchini, carrot, avocado) in an oily cream sauce. Three chops of garlic-and-tomato-dressed American lamb cower under a huge sprig of rosemary, with no additional adornment than a few forkfuls of Swiss chard and Napa cabbage. The meat's raw-red, rather than the medium-rare requested.

The largest oversight, though, is with our Delmonico steak, a generous parcel of ribeye. It's cooked a bit past medium-rare, but more disturbing is the unexpected drenching of butter and chopped herbs it swims in. The menu proudly states the meat is "served naked, to savor the true American flavor."

After adding side dishes of very buttery, skin-on garlic mashed potatoes ($3) and unremarkable sautéed wild mushrooms ($6), we're looking at a pretty expensive dinner for two.

Meals end on a happier note, bringing better-than-average crème brûlée topped with huge, fresh strawberries, and a chocolate torte that's delicious once we dig it out from its whirlwind presentation of fresh blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, crème anglaise, banana chips and raspberry coulis in two dramatic designs, plus dustings of cinnamon and powdered sugar.

Is Persimmon Bar & Grille worth a special trip? No. But if you happen to be in that neck of the desert, or you're an Anthem resident, it's worth stopping in. Now, everybody, smile.

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