Cafe Reviews

Reinventing the Meal

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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.

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Howard Seftel