Cafe Reviews

Razz and Shine

Professional chefs are born different from the rest of us. While the home chef may cook to relax, the professional cooks out of a compulsion to create. We may rummage through our shelves as we go, making do with what's available, yet the professional won't start until he has every perfect ingredient picked over and laid out on his work space. Though we may happily step over pets sprawled under our feet, the only barking in a professional kitchen will come from a chef if any of his staff accidentally gets in his way.

It's not snootiness, really; he has to be tough. A professional chef may be talented and given to uninhibited abandon with his recipes, but if he doesn't approach his craft with precision, he likely won't be in business very long.

Case in point: the recently reopened Razz's Restaurant in Scottsdale. While Razz's itself isn't anything new (it has a long-standing history as one of the Valley's best eateries for its creative Mediterranean-inspired dishes), what is new is that customers now can be part of the gracefully frenzied kitchen scene. With Razz's recent relocation to a new space across the parking lot from its former digs, the tiny, galley-style kitchen has been brought to the forefront. Guests can watch Razz Kamnitzer and crew prepare their meals, either from one of the 20 or so tables or, for the best view, seated at the bar directly overlooking the chef's space. It's a good move: The excitement of being so close to the kitchen action is almost as interesting as Razz's meals.

The view is also an education as to just how much work being a career chef can be. It's early on a busy Friday evening, a without-reservations-don't-even-think-about-it kind of night. We're studying Kamnitzer performing his ballet in the exhibition kitchen, his neatly tied signature ponytail spinning as he creates our dinners. He's busy working on perhaps half a dozen orders, but at first, he makes it all look so easy.

A splash of oil, and a skillet of clams bursts into flames, the orange inferno leaping several feet into the air. Kamnitzer tosses the clams in an arc, the mollusks dancing over themselves and back into the pan -- once, twice, until they're sautéed to perfection. At the same time, he gauges a boiling cauldron of fettuccine, plucking out the noodles at just the stage of al dente. With a flip of the wrist, the pasta is mounded atop the clams, squirted with a plastic bottle containing a secret-recipe tomato sauce, dressed with a few handfuls of julienne vegetables and voilà -- Portuguese-style pasta is served.

The whole episode takes perhaps 10 minutes and dirties only two pans. We joke that we could do the same thing at home. Twenty minutes later, though, every seat in the restaurant is taken, and it's a different story.

Now, Kamnitzer is scanning order tickets and distributing assignments as the requests start flooding in. He grabs a rack of lamb, a pristine piece of beef, and sets them sizzling. He checks a finished plate and hands it into the pass-through for a purple-polo-topped server to receive. It hardly seems to concern him that he's at the epicenter of a swirling team of assistants -- bustling bakers sliding large trays of bread in and out of an oven a few feet away, cooks garnishing plates from tubs within elbow-knocking distance, grillers flipping steaks and frying fish virtually under his nose.

I dig into my dining companion's pasta, seeking out a piece of the sausage she's raving about. Even with all burners roaring behind him, Kamnitzer notices and is on me in a flash, asking if everything is all right with our meals.

Through dinner visits that last several hours, the pace never subsides. Yet the high-energy activity is tempered by Razz's new, soothing decor. Calming hues of tan tablecloths blend with spunky purple napkins and comfortably padded tan chairs. Golden-tan walls breathe with eclectic, colorful art (some painted by Kamnitzer) against the shining stainless steel of the kitchen. When a car pulls into a space in front of the restaurant, its headlights glisten off mirrored columns, reflecting over a softly babbling fountain in back and cutting through the dimly lit interior like a torch.

Razz's portions are huge, particularly for their modest (in this neighborhood) pricing. Wine offerings are well thought out and well priced, with a delightful light Le Muse Pinot Grigio available for $7 a glass. Service is silky smooth, polished, friendly, but unobtrusive.

In an interesting change to accommodate bar diners, Razz's offers a casual dining menu with streamlined choices like chicken salad with honey chile dressing, grilled fish and vegetables, and steak and vegetables. But full dinners are offered at bar service, too.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet