Cafe Reviews

UP SHTICK CREEK

Duke's Place, 7210 East First Avenue, Scottsdale, 970-4484. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Remember the movie The Crying Game? It was basically a formula flick: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But the twist--girl is actually boy pretending to be girl--gave the story an attention-grabbing edge. On one level, perhaps, the movie took the audience out of its comfort zone. But at its heart, The Crying Game was really just a variation on the traditional love story, an effective crowd-pleaser.

Some restaurants, hoping to stand out in the Valley's fiercely competitive eating-out market, use that same, old-wine-in-a-new-bottle technique. Places like Duke's and the Impeccable Pig lure patrons by packaging familiar menus in an offbeat way. They give customers a sense of novelty, but never get too disorienting.

Can the technique work? Sure it can, as long as the meals are solidly backed up by informed cooking, top-quality ingredients and smooth service. But this is precisely where, in varying degrees, Duke's and the Impeccable Pig fall short.

It's not quite clear whether Duke's, which has been open about six months, is merely offbeat or genuinely weird. Seven tiny, marble-topped tables and a small bar are crammed into a space not much larger than a department-store fitting room. I've never seen a place that has more beers and wines on its beverage list than it has square feet. And unless they ride horses at the racetrack for a living, guests will have to watch out for the undersize chairs--they won't work if you are derriäre-challenged. (Test yourself at home. Can you sit comfortably on a pad the size of a pie tin?) Fortunately, human-size seating is available at the patio tables. According to the spacy tale on the back of the menu, Duke is actually a basset hound, a dog "far ahead of his pears." (Bosc? Bartlett?) His portrait appears on the wall, showing him decked out in a Chicago-style gangster outfit. The menu flummery continues with an inadequate description of the fare, calling it "Native American with a Cajun flair." No, that doesn't mean blackened Navajo tacos or Indian fry bread po' boys. It seems to mean that the chef here considers it his merry duty to shovel on every herb, spice and seasoning at his command on various forms of beef, chicken, pasta and fish. The chicken wings, for instance, are hailed on the menu as a "house specialty." Why? Because the chef uses "37 different seasonings resulting in the best wings ever." Yes, the wings are tasty, but, after all, they're only wings. I can't imagine a significant diminution in quality had, say, 34 or 35 ingredients been omitted. This is culinary overkill, not balanced cooking. According to this mentality, if 37 seasonings make great wings, 38 should make them even better. The indiscriminate fascination with flavors pops up everywhere. Sometimes, almost randomly, it works, as with the starter of bay scallops blended in a creamy maple Dijon sauce boosted with basil. Sometimes, it doesn't, as with mushrooms presumably stuffed with clams, bacon and cheese, but totally overwhelmed by enough lemon to make your toes pucker. And sometimes, it doesn't matter, as with the fresh, fiery jalapeo peppers, filled with seasoned cream cheese, then deep-fried. Forget about flavor. These peppers are hot enough to cause not merely pain, but true anguish. Main dishes get down the runway fast enough, but they never quite take off. Fettuccine Duke is the best of the lot. Although the platter was fashioned with regular fettuccine, not spinach fettuccine as the menu promised, a creamy mushroom sauce sprinkled with spinach and Parmesan cheese made the switch easy to overlook. So did the pasta's unexpected Cajun seasoning bite, which kicked in about five seconds after each swallow. A generous portion and the friendly $8.95 tag also contributed to our satisfaction. Cajun chicken cordon bleu, however, is less than the sum of its parts. It's chicken breast dusted with lots of red chile pepper, and topped with ham and cheese. Unfortunately, the chef also decided to add a big squeeze of lemon, a flavoring that simply doesn't belong here. This dish needs to be rethought. The Chteaubriand doesn't need to be rethought, just improved. Duke's version is more like a kebab, peppery chunks of marinated fillet bathed in a distinctive, snappy raspberry sauce. The marriage of flavors here is right on target. But the dish was done in by tough and chewy meat. And after he finds a supplier with better quality beef, Duke might also consider adding a bit more of it. I doubt if there were even eight ounces on the plate, which seemed a bit chintzy considering the $15.95 price. The swordfish suffered from the same impediment that brought down the Chteaubriand. In this case, a mild jalapeo jelly coating, strips of red pepper and a small lake of lemon butter couldn't compensate for a rubbery slab of fish.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Howard Seftel