Cafe Reviews

To Go . . . Or Not To Go

I have always found it strange that the Valley lacks the kind of grab-and-go spots that are so popular in other big cities. Places that take the humble deli to a higher level, with mountains of mouthwatering gourmet food that's tastier than most of us could ever hope to make at home.

New York's Dean & Deluca, with ready-to-eat exotica displayed like food porn in gleaming glass cases, is the first place that comes to mind. Better yet, there are the depachika of Tokyo, those basement-level department store emporiums devoted to every kind of freshly made dish imaginable, from fried chicken and steamed Chinese buns to fennel salad and panna cotta.

So it's a good sign that The Foodbar and dish market & wine bistro, two new dining spots that opened this summer in Scottsdale, are attempting similar concepts.

I say "attempting," though, because right now, neither place is pulling it off, in my book.

The Foodbar was the first eatery to open at SouthBridge, the upscale residential, retail, and dining complex that's still under construction along Stetson Drive, right next to the canal. Among the other restaurants in the works are two more from SouthBridge developer Fred Unger, plus four highly anticipated eateries from restaurateur Peter Kasperski. When it's all open, it promises to be one of the most high-profile destinations in the metro area.

First time I walked into The Foodbar, though, I thought, "This place is a total cluster___." (You fill in the blank.)

The décor has some appealing touches — hand-painted floor tiles, handsome wood tables, artsy lighting — but the layout's weird. At one end, there's an espresso bar. Stretching down the narrow aisle in the middle, there's a row of two-seater tables along the wall, and along the window, some uncomfortable built-in bench seating that doesn't allow you to face your dining companion. Instead, you awkwardly face the people at the tables, and must lean sideways to eat. At least the outdoor cafe-style seating is normal. The other end of the space is taken up by counters and cash registers.

I didn't visit The Foodbar until it had already been up and running a couple of months, but even then, the staff seemed confused. Why were six employees crowded around behind the counter as I gave my order? There was the same kind of congestion another day I stopped by. Even the last time I went in (three months in), they flubbed my order. By now, you'd think they'd be running more efficiently.

The food itself was hit-and-miss. Fresh salads and sandwiches were fine, if not memorable, while the selection of side dishes interested me more. Tangy, parsley-flecked Tuscan white bean salad, butternut squash soup, and "caprese" orzo with pesto, mozzarella, and moon-dried tomatoes were a few decent options. But the dry, bland North African couscous, studded with grapes and chunks of squash, was completely inedible.

Half-cooked rotisserie chicken was clearly geared toward take-home customers, but what happens if you stop by for lunch? Oh, they'll reheat it for you, but that's not too appetizing. Same goes with warmed-over meatloaf. My order showed up piping hot, with a side of still-cold sauce to remind me that it just came from the fridge.

The desserts were more enticing, looking fresh out of the oven. I especially loved how the peach-berry cobbler (very tasty) was displayed on the counter in a big pan, ready to be spooned up. A few savory dishes were set out that way, too, including beef pot pies topped with pastry crust, and a thick chorizo frittata available by the slice.

For now, The Foodbar lends itself more to eating in than taking out (aside from that kooky seating), but the half-cooked chicken tells me they're still pushing the takeout component.

Conversely, dish market & wine bistro is fully stocked for meals-to-go, even though the tables are packed at lunch.

Have you ever gotten anything from AJ's ready-made food counter? dish is like that, although much bigger (sans grocery store). They have sandwiches and salads, wine and cheese, bread and flowers, barbecued ribs and pizza, cupcakes and gelato, and a huge loop of refrigerated cases in the middle of the room, where you'll find everything from poached salmon to lasagna. And just in case none of that strikes you as trying too hard, they've even thrown in a few shelves of $10 dog toys, kitschy paper plates, and aromatherapy cleaning products, just to keep up with La Grande Orange. (Which does it so much better, by the way.)

That alone is damn ambitious, but dish has a full-service, dinner-only bistro and wine bar, too. I didn't try it, after the market fell short of my expectations on several visits. And it didn't help when I heard that chef de cuisine Martin LaMarche, a Binkley's alumnus who was hired to launch dish, bailed within weeks of the restaurant's opening.

The best thing I had at dish was a barbecued brisket sandwich on soft, warm naan. It was sloppy and smoky, topped with Tillamook cheddar and coleslaw. I tried a roasted turkey and provolone sandwich on a baguette, and that wasn't bad, either. Of only two kinds of thin-crust pizza offered, I went with the basic tomato, basil, and mozzarella version — edible, not incredible. And although the lemon herb rotisserie chicken was better than The Foodbar's version, I was still annoyed that I had to microwave it myself, along with a cold baked sweet potato. Seriously.

dish has dozens of side dishes, and every one of them is a pain to get, unless you can find one prepackaged in the fridge along the side of the room. At a grocery store deli, it's easy to order a half-pound of this and a pound of that, but I wanted to try small portions of a few things for lunch. Price-wise, it added up fast, and unless I knew what I wanted all at once, I had to wait in line for each item.

The problem was, none of it struck me as any better than what I'd find at my local supermarket. There wasn't anything special that I'd crave or come back for. If I lived or worked nearby, then yes — I'd grab a casual bite at dish from time to time. If we're simply talking about convenience, then dish and The Foodbar both fit the bill.

I can't help it, though — I really wish these places had lived up to the buzz.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig