It's not very easy to interest Phoenicians in a July auto trip, unless the car is headed to San Diego. But I just visited a couple of distant north Valley eating spots whose stimulating fare more than offsets the agony of the second-degree steering-wheel burns I got driving there.
The ride through open desert to 8700 in north Scottsdale and to the Tonto Bar and Grill in Cave Creek is still beautiful enough to elicit oohs and aahs. Enjoy the view now: You don't need a degree in urban planning to see that in a very few years this area will be paved over with development.
8700 is one of the few restaurants in the Valley that can make a guy feel underdressed if he's not wearing a jacket and tie. The place is pricey, swanky and almost stuffy. Why else would management have an absurd summertime fire roaring in the corner fireplace? Candles on the table, candelabra on the wall, chairs with elegant brocade fabric and a wall lined with reproductions of the Old Masters contribute more appropriate elegant touches. And, according to my wife, so did the opulent women's restroom, which she reports features marble walls, dried flower arrangements, an inlaid wood desk and a sculpture of a mandolin player.
Ever since it opened, the proprietors of 8700 have viewed chefs the same way that Elizabeth Taylor views husbands: They're necessary, but it doesn't much matter which individual occupies the office, as long as the position is filled.
However, the parade of chefs marching through 8700's kitchen seems to have come to a halt. The latest director, Cary Neff, has managed to make it past a year. And from what we sampled, the man knows what he's doing.
The fare here has always been Southwestern-accented, and Neff is obviously comfortable with the formula. For the most part, his summer menu (it changes somewhat with the seasons) avoids clich‚s without going over the edge.
You can tell from the small appetizer list. Yes, there's the inevitable smoked salmon, and the usual grilled Mexican shrimp. But the crustaceans come blackened in spicy seasonings, and are served with bite-size avocado corn pancakes, all moistened with citrus butter. They're scrumptious. But whether this nibble is worth the $8.50 tag--you get three medium-size shrimp--is a question that only you and your financial adviser can answer.
Indian blue-corn crepes, on the other hand, can be confidently ordered without calling in a consultant. They're crispy pouches, fragrantly stuffed with smoked chicken, leeks and wild mushrooms. A mild chile-black bean sauce and a teaspoon of dried cherry and pecan relish furnish complementary regional flavors.
And if you're able to ignore the calendar, soup offers a pleasant way to glide into dinner. At first, the salty, intense lamb broth seemed better suited to the Yukon in February than the Valley in July. But the two goat-cheese-stuffed pastry pillows floating on the surface have charms that aren't limited by the seasons.
Breads weren't quite as good as I recall from previous visits. The signature blue corn muffin, with the "8700" logo branded on top, was too dry. The whole-wheat roll looked like it wandered in from a coffee shop. Only the sourdough loaves tempted us.
But if you don't order starters, taking the edge off your appetite with any of the breads may be strategically sound. That's because most of the main dishes here aren't ample enough to cause diners to loosen belts, open buttons or call for a doggie bag.
While heft may be problematic, taste is not. That's especially true with 8700's best entree, the roast tenderloin of veal. It's a magnificent hunk of butter-soft meat, vibrantly moistened in its tarragon-spiked juices. The veal is aided by a well-thought-out quesadilla accompaniment, which is layered with roasted peppers, black beans, boursin cheese and vegetables. This dish is a knockout.
Southwestern cioppino also sports some flair. Mussels, shrimp, scallops and sea bass swim in a pungent, chile-spiked, tomato-and-red-wine broth. Strips of nopal cactus, chayote squash and black beans provide crunch and local color.
Pan-seared loin of lamb, the most expensive entree at $31.50, offers meltingly soft meat in a peppercorn crust. But there's not very much of it. And even the muscular lamb is almost overwhelmed by the side of thick-scented braised red cabbage that shares the plate. Instead of cabbage, this dish would benefit from some kind of starch.
8700 also offers a vegetarian option, which showcases the same Indian blue-corn pouches we encountered in the appetizer. Here they're filled with a "Southwestern ratatouille." They're good, but the pouches cry out for sauce--they're very dry. Baby organic veggies and a nifty black bean and potato cake round off a platter basically designed for the one veggie-minded member of your party.