I can really empathize with the beleaguered head of the United States Patent Office a hundred years ago. Unable to handle the pace of late-19th-century technological change, and the flood of patent applications it unleashed, the overwhelmed official announced it was time to close up the bureau. "Everything has now been invented," he explained.
These days, I can barely keep my head above the flood of new restaurants opening in the Valley. But sometimes, it seems to me that I've seen them all before. Looking over the menus, I'm tempted to proclaim, "Everything has now been cooked."
Two new Camelback Road restaurants, both inspired by modern American culinary currents, gave me a chance to test my theory. Roaring Fork features what's described as "Western American cuisine." The Armadillo Grill's proprietors call their dishes "eclectic American with a bit of an international flair."
After making my way through the fare, I can advise my bosses with a clear conscience against shutting down the New Times restaurant column: It's pretty clear that everything hasn't been cooked. But culinary creativity is one thing, dining pleasure is another. Just how much do these two places add to the Valley's dining-out scene?
Roaring Fork brings together two of this town's restaurant heavyweights. Paul Fleming is the savvy entrepreneur who once operated the Valley's two Ruth's Chris Steak Houses, and who still owns the popular Z'Tejas Grill and P.F. Chang's. Chef Robert McGrath won a James Beard award for his brilliant Southwestern fare at the Phoenician's Windows on the Green. This promised to be the most exciting partnership in these parts since Wallace hooked up with Ladmo.
For the moment, however, it's only that: a promise. Yes, Fleming can still put together a concept, and McGrath can still cook. But three months after opening its doors, Roaring Fork still isn't roaring on all cylinders.
It does business out of what used to be Brio, Fleming's short-lived attempt to serve a variety of imaginative, around-the-world dishes under one roof. (Why short-lived? Right concept, wrong town is my guess.) The decor has been tweaked to reflect the new Western culinary emphasis. Look for assorted cactuses, cowboy pictures on the wall, the "RF" logo etched into the glass room-divider, a tuft of live wheatgrass on the table and a clever "log cabin" breadbasket put together with wooden sticks. The pretty brick arches and heavy wooden shutters, carry-overs from Brio, still look good in the new incarnation.
Roaring Fork's kitchen hits the target just often enough to make me think there's a first-rate restaurant here somewhere. But then there are some truly inexplicable lapses--in conception and execution--that I wouldn't expect in a place run by veterans like Fleming and McGrath.
Appetizers are the strongest part of Roaring Fork's menu. The cornmeal crepe, stuffed with portabella mushrooms and moistened with a mild red pepper sauce, exudes lusty, robust flavors. Cracked-corn stuffing, teamed with turkey confit and dried figs, is simply smashing, a masterful combination. (For some reason, however, on a subsequent visit, this starter disappeared from the menu. Let's hope management has the good sense to bring it back.) Instead of being cooked in the usual white wine and garlic, pan-roasted mussels come fancifully bathed in a mild, wine-tinged curry sauce, gilded with leeks and a touch of mint.
Soups and salad also shine. Rich, creamy rock-shrimp chowder, topped with an apple fritter and flecked with corn and potatoes, is everything you could want on a cool January evening. The delightful mixed green salad with blue cheese, bundled in a thin slice of jicama and coated with a dreamy green chile/buttermilk dressing, also gets the meal moving. And it's impossible to overlook the charms of one of the Valley's best breadbaskets, with its trio of tarragon dinner rolls, chile pistachio bread and fabulous green chile corn bread studded with dried cherries.
But the foie gras appetizer, served in a cast-iron skillet, is a $15 splurge that's gone awry. Traditionally, foie gras is paired with fruit, like pears or figs, which cut and complement its rich, fatty taste. For the same reason, it's best washed down with Sauternes, a sweet, nectarlike wine. But this foie gras comes with red lentil chow chow, whose pungent, pickled flavor seems as off-base with foie gras as it would be with a hot-fudge sundae.
Two main dishes show off the chef's considerable abilities. The skillet-seared pompano, voluptuously embellished with smoked ham hock, crawfish and French green beans, is so good I wanted to go around to every table and tell everyone to order it. The luscious sugar-and-chile-cured duck, served with an inventive green chile macaroni, could start a whole new category, "Creative Comfort Food."
But the kitchen can't sustain the effort. Sometimes the main dish is done in by not-ready-for-prime-time ingredients. That's certainly the case with the rib-eye steak. At $25, it's priced with the big boys at Morton's, Harris' and Ruth's Chris. But this chewy meat isn't nearly in the same league. I wanted more from the pan-fried trout, too, a tasteless, lightly breaded fillet that had none of the just-out-of-the-stream flavor I expected.
Sometimes the main dish is ill-conceived. Take the pork platter, a few slices of superb tenderloin and a couple of baby-back ribs, armed with a spunky green chile sauce. Unfortunately, the meat is clumsily accompanied by a sharp blue-cheese bread pudding. It's a serious mismatch. If you've ever wondered why you don't often see pork-cheese pairings, this dish will make it perfectly clear.
And sometimes the kitchen simply gets lazy. The French fries with our roast chicken arrived limp and greasy. Why bother preparing a terrific homemade red bell pepper ketchup if you can't get the fries out when they're hot, crisp and sizzling?
The dessert highlight is tarte Tatin. Here it's made with caramelized pears, not apples, and it features an unexpected ginger snap. The excellent chocolate-in-chocolate is the trendy dessert of the moment, chocolate cake with a molten chocolate center, served with Ben & Jerry's ice cream. But the heavy apple strudel, encased in pastry dough, needs work.
Right now, Roaring Fork is putting out some great dishes. But it's not yet a great restaurant. That's still a step away. We'll see if Roaring Fork has the energy and will to take it.
Armadillo Grill, 1904 East Camelback, Phoenix, 287-0700. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.
Armadillo Grill has all the right instincts. It aims to be a comfortable neighborhood grill and watering hole, in an area where comfortable grills and watering holes are in short supply. It promises made-from-scratch fare. And unlike many restaurants along this stretch of Camelback corridor, the food comes at prices that won't require a home equity loan.
Open since summer, Armadillo Grill occupies the side-by-side storefronts that once housed Pasta Segio and Azz Jazz. The room is designed to put you at ease: A big horseshoe bar, a pool table and several televisions tuned to sports programming tell you right away that this is the kind of place where you can loosen your tie after work. At the same time, the sleek black tablecloths and minimalist decor project a touch of urban sophistication.
So does the menu. For evidence, check out the chunky avocado dip, which actually tastes like it was scooped out of an avocado, not a 10-gallon warehouse guacamole tub. It's served with nifty parsnip and sweet potato chips, whose only shortcoming was that there were way too few of them. The Vegan Infusion is another well-conceived starter, a wedge of polenta covering grilled eggplant, squash, red pepper and zucchini, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette.
If you're interested in heft, the Oriental quesadilla will supply it. Veggies and cheese are stuffed in a grilled tortilla, while a sweet soy sauce supplies the vaguely "Oriental" touch. If you just want a nibble to get your appetite juices flowing, the tasty portabella pizza--a small mushroom topped with cheese, tomato and pesto--is a good option.
The main dishes, however, are more hit-or-miss. The best entree is also the cheapest, penne arrabbiata. Knowledgeable (and fussy) diners might notice that this isn't an arrabbiata at all. (Their first hint: It's misspelled.) Arrabbiata is a spicy Italian sauce, punched up with hot sausage and cayenne pepper. This wonderful pasta platter, however, features roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and grilled chicken in a rich pesto cream sauce. Still, it's hard to get too worked up over mislabeling when the result is this good.
Mimosa halibut is also skillfully done. The fish is gently poached in orange juice and champagne, and teamed with rice and melon salsa. The vegetarian sandwich is also right on target, an impressive blend of veggies and fontina cheese stuffed into grilled focaccia. It's even better if you choose to accompany it with Armadillo Grill's thick, crispy fries.
Sometimes, though, the kitchen doesn't appear to be paying attention. The blackened New York steak wasn't blackened at all. And it came rare, instead of medium as we ordered. Most distressing, however, was the low quality of the tough, fatty beef. Rosemary chicken brochette has potential--it's charbroiled white meat and veggies skewered onto a rosemary sprig. But the chicken wasn't cooked all the way through, an alarming lapse. Malaysian shrimp may also have a future, once the menu lives up to its promise to furnish "large shrimp." We could barely find the five puny critters hiding in the lovely pineapple and coconut broth.
Two desserts stand out. Bread pudding is marvelous, zipped up with bourbon sauce and a crunchy praline topping. And the deep-dish apple pie tastes just like deep-dish apple pie is supposed to taste--not too sweet and loaded with apples.
Armadillo Grill is the kind of place this neighborhood needs, a relaxing place to unwind. With a little more effort, it could become a dinner destination for the rest of the town, as well.
Duck with green chile macaroni