Here's my dining advice for the week: Don't knock a "30 Dollar Sandwich" 'til you've tried it.
It certainly helps to have a sense of humor when you dine at Canal, a trendy, three-month-old restaurant tucked away on the second floor of the SouthBridge complex in Old Town. No sense in letting Snottsdale clichés detract from your meal, dahling.
Indeed, the place has its share of stereotypical pretension, from tables full of tipsy cougars clad in fur and Manolos to bling-bling sugar daddies showing off their surgically enhanced arm candy. There's a huge, high-tech video wall flashing sexy images of haute couture maquillage, along with a corner booth just for the DJ, who plays thumping, high-decibel dance tracks. The back of the restaurant opens directly into The Mix, a labyrinth of boutiques hawking high-end clothing and accessories. And just in case you didn't figure out that Canal shrieks fashion at the top of its lungs, there's a translucent, color-shifting catwalk swerving right through the middle of the room.
Canal, 7144 East Stetson Drive, Suite 250, Scottsdale
Tuscan bread salad: $9
Swet corn cakes: $11
Roasted duck breast: $25
S'mores crme brle: $8
480-949-000, web linkHours: (Lunch) Daily, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; (dinner) daily, 6 to 10 p.m.; food available in lounge daily, 11 a.m. to midnight
I'd be tempted to write the whole place off as sheer spectacle, except that I honestly enjoyed chef Justin Beckett's food, a globetrotting assortment of Asian- and Latin-inspired dishes, as well as sophisticated American fare.
And to be fair, there were moments when Canal seemed to be poking fun at its own self-conscious glamour. One night, they were screening Zoolander right alongside the glossy model photos. How could I keep a straight face when, after a friendly busboy cleared our table, I noticed the back of his T-shirt said "Paparazzi"? How could I not chuckle at chef Beckett's cheekiness (namely, the ahi three-ways, or the "hot and tasty dessert threesome")?
Nor was the clientele all about scenesters, poseurs, and the people who love them. Plenty of pretty young things schmoozed in the sleek, dim bar area, but in the main dining room, the crowd was mostly older.
Anyway, back to that 30 Dollar Sandwich. Beyond the absurdity of the name, and the inevitable smirk that comes with saying it, I thought it was a deliciously novel way to eat lobster tail. Along with lots of sweet, tender meat, the buttery challah roll was spread with a creamy layer of Boursin cheese and packed with mushrooms, yellow heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, and watercress. A fried, batter-dipped lobster claw was decadently perched on top, and there was a colorful salad on the side. Calling it a sandwich makes it sound like a casual, light bite, but it was as rich and filling as any of the main dishes, worthy of knife and fork.
Meanwhile, I was much more annoyed by the 15 Dollar Grilled Cheese Sandwich. Okay, it wasn't called that on the menu, but I'm still hung up on the price. With melted Fontina, manchego, aged cheddar, and pancetta on soft doughy cheese bread, it was definitely tasty — especially with a side of dijon mustard aioli — but didn't have much bang for the buck. I think what put me over the edge was the tomato bisque that accompanied it. Again, I liked the way it tasted, but was disappointed at the sad little portion. Instead of a cup or, better yet, a bowl of soup, it was just a tiny, shallow dish of bisque, enough for a few dips.
Canal is pricey, no doubt, but not everything breaks the bank. Eight different salads could qualify as entrees, from a classic niçoise with grilled ahi, to tangy Tuscan bread salad, a jumble of crunchy bread chunks soaked with balsamic reduction, soft hunks of fresh mozzarella, crisp cucumber and red onion, and plenty of ripe, juicy tomatoes. I was particularly impressed with the Thai beef and cucumber salad, topped with tender slices of medium-rare steak. It combined delicate glass noodles with spinach, fresh mint and basil, onion, and a pickled ginger vinaigrette spicy enough to make me blush.
There's enough variety in the list of small plates to assemble a meal, or you could just try one or two as appetizers. The corn cakes were easy to love, as hot and crisp as fritters, with a soft, mashed-potatoey texture inside. A garnish of cool avocado and cotija complemented the sweetness of the corn. Chunky roasted meatballs were another fine dish, slathered with savory mushroom gravy and paired with a tart salad of arugula and paper-thin fennel.
Crisp chicken samosas, Canal crab rolls (slender versions of Vietnamese summer rolls, filled with crab salad), and the aforementioned ahi three-ways (peppercorn-seared; sashimi-style with slices of avocado and mango; and diced into poke with scallions and sesame seeds) were all well-prepared, if not particularly distinctive. The duck confit tostada was a more interesting option, with a generous layer of moist shredded duck meat between crispy tortillas, festively topped with cotija and a colorful pepper-jicama slaw that reminded me of confetti.
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And the fries? Oh man, were they good — the best I've had in ages, maybe even the best in town. Tossed with parsley, garlic, and plenty of shaved Parmesan, these golden-fried shoestrings were perfectly crisp, with a heady aroma. Mustard aioli tasted great with them, too. I had to push the bowl to the other side of the table to stop eating them.
I would've been content to nibble on small plates all night, but I'm glad my dining companions were hungry for entrees. The grilled New York steak came with a nice heap of cheesy mashed Yukon potatoes, garlicky spinach, and roasted mushroom gravy, while pan-seared salmon was served on top of white beans and asparagus in a mild tomato cream sauce. Roasted duck breast was paired with bacon, sautéed Swiss chard, and fingerling potatoes; a drizzle of berry gastrique balanced nicely with the rich, meaty flavors. And the juicy bone-in pork chop, set atop a mound of sautéed spinach, came with three different sides: luscious mac and cheese with green chile heat, some crispy fried onion slivers, and pear applesauce.
With so much to enjoy on the front end of the meal, it would be easy to blow off dessert, but save room. The delicate pear Napoleon and the creamy cheesecake with raspberry puree were pleasing, and that "dessert threesome" was downright fun, with mini-portions of apple pie, blueberry cobbler, and bread pudding. A piping hot chocolate soufflé was made even more mouth-watering by guava purée and caramel ice cream, while the s'mores crème brûlée was completely over the top: graham cracker crust, milk chocolate crème, and a pillow-y homemade marshmallow, artfully garnished with a flame-shaped cracker and a twig of chocolate.
Sure, some things at Canal made me smirk, but food like that just made me smile.