Cafe Reviews

The Marinara Has Two Faces

Tal's, 13610 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-348-0086. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday.

When is disappointment the keenest? The moment you realize your wildest dreams will never come true? No. People get on with their lives even though they'll never play center field for the Yankees, win the Nobel Peace Prize or look like a movie star.

The sharpest sense of disappointment occurs when things you expect to go well, don't: When the term paper you slaved over comes back with a "C"; when your new car breaks down; when a relationship starts to sour.

Like our disappointments, our joys are most intense when they're unexpected. Matching four numbers on a lottery ticket, finding a parking spot next to Nordstrom the day after Thanksgiving and getting a warning instead of a ticket from a cop give us pleasure disproportionate to any actual benefit.

I've had my share of Italian restaurant disappointment and joy this week. I had enormous hopes for Tal's, which, in theory, promised to press all my hot buttons. Nothing about Molise Cucina Italiana, meanwhile, suggested that it was in any way distinguishable from its scores of competitors.

What got me in an anticipatory lather about Tal's, ever since it opened last March? Just about everything. The Israeli-born, New York-raised chef/proprietor is no novice -- he's worked at Un-Bacio and runs a catering business. The appealing menu features what he calls "Meditalian" fare. I was mentally inhaling the scents of olive oil, oregano, basil, capers and lemon long before I got there. An ad I saw played up the "great ambience." The wallet-friendly BYOB policy added another level of potential charm. In short, I imagined an evening of wonderful food, in a nice setting at a reasonable price.

Two out of three, the cliché says, ain't bad. And usually, that's the case. But not at Tal's. That's because, unfortunately, the "wonderful food" part of the equation falls seriously short.

Set in one of those generic shopping centers that Valley developers specialize in, Tal's looks a lot better from the inside. It's narrow, with the kitchen set along one side of the room, and tables running along the other. The tables are set with thick white linen and vases of carnations. Dark-wood wainscoting lines the walls, which are hung with a mix of pictures: Italian countryside, abstracts and a scene from The Phantom of the Opera. Tony Bennett croons over the music system.

This is the kind of place that I'm genetically programmed to love: a small, casual, slightly up-market BYOB, run by an experienced chef. But for the most part, the food is either not very interesting or not very good. Sometimes, it's both.

The first bad sign? It's the third-rate, over-the-hill bread. It's not hard to find good, fresh bread these days. Why isn't Tal's sweating this detail?

One of the few good signs? It's the freebie plate of garlicky hummus, sprinkled with olive oil.

Although the appetizers hail from the Mediterranean, something seems to have been lost on their journey to the Valley. Spanakopita is nothing to sing about, a spinach-stuffed pastry square that lacked the delicacy and flavor of the best models. On our server's recommendation, we ordered the eggplant rollatini. Maybe I misheard -- perhaps he meant to warn us. He should have. The undercooked eggplant was as tough as leather, and the indifferent cheese and sauce layered on didn't make it any more palatable. Only the rice-stuffed grape leaves, freshened with a bit of lemon, reached anywhere near the level Tal's ought to aspire to.

Salads are another pre-entree option. The two we sampled didn't display much vigor, Mediterranean or otherwise. The Israeli salad brings a mix of tomatoes, onions and pickles, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. The spinach salad comes with greenery, tomato and onion tossed in a lemon balsamic vinaigrette.

The main dishes don't mount much of a flavor assault, either. I had great hopes for the chicken moussaka. In my mind's eye, I pictured poultry, eggplant and cheese, infused with Mediterranean spices and moistened with a bubbling béchamel sauce. I'm going to have to get my mind's eye checked, because Tal's dispiriting dish didn't come close. Instead, it featured a charmless chicken breast topped with a forgettable bit of spinach, eggplant, tomato and cheese.

That same lack of energy afflicts the Sunset Shrimp linguini. Perhaps it's so named because you'll feel like going to sleep while it's still in front of you. This insipid seafood-pasta combination, coated with an oddly sweet tomato sauce, won't give anyone $15 worth of pleasure, except the proprietor's accountant.

Two brochette plates also deserve skewering. I usually don't think much of chicken, but occasionally I run across a chicken kebab so juicy and flavorful that I'm tempted to change my mind. Tal's dry, tasteless model, however, isn't one of them. I wasn't impressed with a brochette special, either, an unremarkable mix of halibut, salmon and beef. Compounding our displeasure was the side: roasted potatoes. These skewers cry out for rice, not potatoes. When we asked, we were told that the kitchen had run out of rice. Run out of rice at 7:30 on a Saturday night? Is this any way to run a restaurant?

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Howard Seftel