As long as there are rules, there will be renegades. Those who, whether for themselves, humanity, or both, deem that the current playbook needs to change and are willing to give their respected fields a kick in the ass, shocking some, delighting others, and challenging the conventional.
Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Katharine Hepburn — these are some of the renegades whose images grace the walls of Renegade Canteen in North Scottsdale. Good company to keep in an atmosphere of edgy eats, but the reality of this restaurant helmed by James Beard Award winner and former Roaring Fork owner and chef Robert McGrath is sophisticated, well-prepared familiarity. Nothin' wrong with that if you're willing to give your piggybank a few extra shakes to get it. But don't come here looking for anything that lives up to the name Renegade.
Consider Salvador Dalí and my pot roast.
The surrealist painter's photo, sporting his famously flamboyant mustache, stared at me, wide-eyed, as I savored each bite of a warm, comforting bowl of pot roast with a mellow aroma and a taste like an early Sunday dinner on a crisp, Midwestern autumn day. Chef McGrath's pot roast was the best I've ever had (sorry, Mom), but the juxtaposition with Dalí seemed almost comical.
The spaciousness of North Scottsdale restaurants never ceases to amaze me, and the classy, cowboy-like atmosphere of Renegade Canteen is no exception.
Commanding the corner of an upscale strip mall, Renegade Canteen made me feel as though I'd taken a nip from Alice in Wonderland's shrinking potion. Tall, flower-filled vases, mirrors, chalkboards, and chair backs stretch upward to a high ceiling sporting a canopy of wrought-iron lighting over a vast expanse of wood flooring, rust-colored walls, and, along with the photos of renegades, cowboy art. A glass-enclosed wine cellar, rising from floor to ceiling, serves as the restaurant's centerpiece and helps divide the room into two sections: an upscale casual eating area with a sizable bar and outdoor patio, and a more formal dining domain including a carpeted, glass-enclosed room, presumably to separate the elite renegades from the riffraff in jeans, like me.
The bar is hopping during happy hour, and if you're on the casual side of the restaurant, you'll feel right at home; however, if you've planned for a more intimate evening in the formal dining area, the carry-over of commotion can alter the mood considerably.
While not familiar with the overall eating habits of renegades, I'm quite sure they would enjoy chef McGrath's calming, perfectly prepared Western cuisine as a complement to their rebellious natures as much as their prosperous North Scottsdale neighbors do. Decidedly devoid of surprises and heat (the lobster tacos, described as "very spicy" by my server, were not, and the "atomic" horseradish cream for my pot roast was more firecracker than nuclear blast), what I appreciated most about McGrath's fare was its understated goodness, quality ingredients, and confident approachability.
And let's face it: The man makes a damn fine hamburger.
At $13 (lowered from $15), Bob's Big Burger is nearly as tall as some of the décor and worth every penny. Arriving as a towering stack — a thick, two-third pound, juice-dripping burger of sirloin and chuck, melted cheddar, crispy bacon, tomato, lettuce, a poblano chile, and grilled onions ringing 'round a long toothpick barely holding the entire creation together — you're gonna want that knife in front of you to slay this drool-worthy meat monster into manageable sections. Even then, it's a two-handed affair. Find a friend or finish it off yourself, then dive into the pile of thin-cut, crispy fries piled up alongside it — if you can.
Compared to the burger, I found the lobster tacos to be far less interesting, the sweet flavor of the crustacean chunks unfortunately lost to the breading surrounding them.
Taking along a friend or two to Renegade Canteen can also mean making a meal of shared starter dishes. During two of my visits, servers steered me away from the flatbreads, suggesting instead the duo of bacon-wrapped shrimp atop rich, flavorful grits and McGrath's popular green chile pork covered in pepper Jack cheese — a signature dish in which, while the chunks of meat were warm and wonderfully prepared, the flavor of green chile was almost undetectable. The blue crab and cabbage "enchiladas," featuring chilled crabmeat inside crispy cabbage wrappings, although bright and fresh, were not nearly as flavorful as my duck breast and confit fajitas. Forget the mini tortillas served with them, because the scrumptious duck, served sliced as well as shredded, is best savored solo or with touches of the mustard demi-glace, caramelized onions, and arugula.
Though effusively promoted by my server, what I wouldn't order again would be the spinach salad. Featuring toasted pecans, honey-bacon dressing, and a lightly cooked egg atop it all, the result was a lot of spinach and little other flavor.
The less contrived chef McGrath's creations are, the better. His straightforward, well-prepared entrées (like my favorite starter dishes) elicit that comforting American West vibe for which he's so well known. Along with the pot roast, I especially enjoyed McGrath's blackened catfish atop dirty rice, with a saucing of Cajun crawfish and shrimp fondeaux, and his wild Alaskan halibut, with lobster sauce and a couple of sweet corn fritters that I could have eaten by the bowlful.
After inquiring about a steak knife for my filet mignon, part of a selection of premium steaks on the menu, my server smiled and said, "You won't need it." I didn't. This piece of tenderloin cut like it ate, delicately and with easy effort — expertly prepared, its flavor a meat lover's dream.
Chef McGrath's skill at creating dishes of comfort is paired sweetly by pastry chef Eddie Robinson. His "Elvis," featuring chunks of peanut butter brittle, ice cream, and apples, was certainly King-worthy but not nearly as delicious as the candy-cap mushroom bread pudding. Mushrooms? Yup. Highly aromatic and with a sweet, syrupy taste, these 'shrooms are the key in making this dish so unique and flavorful. Share it and listen to spoons clatter for the last bite.
In uniforms of denim and vests, the service at Renegade Canteen had that homey friendliness coupled with extensive knowledge about the dishes. However, table attention slowed considerably after the entrées arrived, some just after I had just taken my first few bites of starters. This too-fast flurry of food, in addition to a serving of stale bread, made for hurried and disappointing dining experiences, especially for a swanky establishment with a $33 steak on the menu.
Thankfully, for Renegade Canteen, the not-so-rebellious "chuck wagon" in North Scottsdale, the photos of renegades on the wall may seem out of place, but chef Robert McGrath's masterfully made fare of Western cuisine feels right at home.