Cafe Reviews

The Garage Is In Need of a Tune-Up

Editor's note: Michele Laudig's column will return next week.

Homer Simpson: "I wonder why he's so eager to go the garage?"

Moe: "The garage? Hey fellas, the garage. Well, oo-la-dee-da Mr. French man."

Homer: "Well, what do you call it?"

Moe: "A car hole."

Garage Restaurant & Bar, the three-month-old addition to the trendified intersection of 16th Street and Bethany Home (also home to stylish Luci's Healthy Marketplace, the Vig Uptown, and Cupcakes by Design) was, indeed, a car hole, with grease on the floor, air ratchets at the ready, and lads clad in coveralls. Now, in place of cars, this attractively rehabbed space fills the empty tanks of North Phoenix boomers thirsty for a cold microbrew or glass of wine and hungry for bar grub with a gourmet twist.

Doors to the former auto shop's two bays open up to a perky patio facing Bethany Home Road. The stripped-down interior of exposed brick, dark wood, and hunter green paint mixes contemporary with vintage, as old car tires (and one ginormous propeller) hang on the walls.

A U-shaped bar offers inside and outside views, and the tables and upholstered booths (still with that new-restaurant smell!) are spaced far enough apart to give diners a sense of privacy. There's even a fireplace and a couple of chairs for lounging. Only the unnecessary and distracting half-dozen HD flat-screens, airing the athletic contest du jour, betray the vibe of comfortable neighborhood bistro.

When it comes to the food, Garage is more Camry than Mustang — it gets the job done, but don't expect a high-performance ride.

As a starter, delicious cedar plank herb-marinated lamb chops were a hit. Topped with a bright green and herbalicious chimichurri (Argentina's national condiment), the four Australian chops were tender, lean, juicy, and flavorful.

Some signature dishes, though, including Garage's wings, sputtered and stalled.

Besides being undersized and dry, the claypot-aged chile and white truffle Garage wings left an unpleasant aftertaste that couldn't be washed away, even with a glass of Tucson's Thunder Canyon Amber ale, one of a handful of craft brews available on draft or in a bottle. The same truffle oil proved unnecessary drizzled on Garage's featured deviled eggs. Unfortunately, these eggs — each adorned with a chunk of bacon handsomely nestled in the yolk — suffered already, missing what should have been a mustard-y kick.

Thankfully, there was plenty of kick in Garage's chili, where Southwestern spices packed a punch in each spoonful of ground beef, beans, onions, and spices.

Salads were hit-and-miss. When I finally got past all the green in the humble house salad, I considered myself lucky to find a few heirloom tomatoes and some shavings of Parmesan. Fortunately, a creamy buttermilk pesto dressing saved this salad's day. The Caprese wasn't stingy when it came to chilled, fresh tomatoes, but barely-there basil and bland buffalo mozzarella equaled a salad half-eaten.

A meaty flatbread, generously topped with pepperoni, prosciutto, tasty Schreiner's fennel sausage, applewood-smoked bacon, and havarti cheese made for a sharable treat. But its cousin, topped with tiger shrimp, roasted garlic, and tomato, was limp and oily, its flavors all but masked by an overpowering taste of cooked tomatoes.

You also may want to share the Garage Burger, a $12 behemoth piled high (or overloaded, depending on your point of view) with lettuce, thickly sliced tomato, horseradish pickles, caramelized onions, bacon, and your choice of cheese on a toasted brioche bun. The burger gets a green light for its high-quality ground beef, but like the flatbread, it arrived undercooked. Ordered medium-rare, mine came out raw in the middle and fell to pieces after the first bite. Fork, please.

Bratwurst and sauerkraut on toasted brioche was served with a colorful array of toppings, including horseradish pickle relish, fresh-tasting pico de gallo, and giardiniera-esque hot cherry peppers. The brat boasted a nice, mildly spicy flavor, but for $10, I would've liked a more sizable link.

Unfortunately, in keeping with a theme, the waffle fries and sweet potato fries that came with my sandwiches arrived undercooked and, in the case of the sweet potato fries, cold. At least the giant, herb-battered onion rings made for a worthy side dish, as did a piping-hot bowl of mac 'n' cheese (secret weapon: havarti). Despite al dente pasta and a case of oversalting, it was pretty much impossible to resist this cheesy dish.

Desserts felt like afterthoughts at Garage. Slices of chocolate cake and bread pudding — each served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream — were beyond generous. In fact, don't plan on finishing these desserts if you have anything smaller than a table of four. While not lacking in flavor, both desserts were dry and less-than-inspired — and, ultimately, went unfinished.

Service was hit-and-miss, too. During dinner, my friends and I waited almost 15 minutes for a server (clad in updated mechanic's shirt, complete with embroidered name) to take our drink orders. Then we were informed they had run out of specials (I had to ask), only to hear another server offer them to the couple across from us. Hmm. It went downhill from there. But lunch service was completely the opposite — in a very good way. Our affable server efficiently took care of everyone and was five-star fantastic.

Is Garage a place I'd take my gut for regular munch-time maintenance? It's a great scene for a sip, but the newest neighbor on this recently hip corner of 16th Street and Bethany Home is going to have to work harder on kickass gourmet bar food to be worth the green in my wallet. Otherwise, this Garage will be little more than a Phoenix carport.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld