Breads aren't the only thing the chef can bake. He has a way with desserts, too. On one visit, we ordered a single piece of French almond cake to split between us. The waiter brought two slices instead. "This is so good, one won't be enough," he said, "so I brought you a second on the house." He was right; this cake is out-and-out terrific. The Linzer torte and rich Swiss chocolate cake merit the same kind of praise.
Will west-siders recognize their good fortune in having Bistro Panino in the neighborhood? I hope so. If they don't, it's back to the chain gang for them.
North Valley Grill, Arrowhead Towne Center, 75th Avenue and Bell, Glendale, 479-3430. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
I have to confess I didn't go to North Valley Grill with a heightened sense of anticipation. In my experience, the food at mall-based restaurants is lucky to range from dull to bland. It's not hard to understand why: Like every retail outlet in every sprawling, cookie-cutter mall, these restaurants must cater to mass tastes. That means they must feed the same people who watch Friends, read self-help books and attend John Tesh concerts. Is it any wonder my expectations were low?
To my surprise, however, going to North Valley Grill was like going on a successful blind date. I was so happy that the place didn't turn out to be a dog that, in retrospect, I may have overestimated its actual charms. Still, I have to confess, if North Valley Grill were a woman, I'd definitely want to see her again.
The menu trumpets the homespun grub as "Real American Food." It's complemented by homespun decor touches: There's a hanging quilt, a green wood cupboard and large dried wreath. The room is dominated, though, by a wall-size painted flag overlaid with a huge copper map of the United States. Outside on the patio, the fireplace is flanked by two built-in televisions, so you won't miss a single moment of the NBA playoffs if you come on a game night.
One appetizer turned out to be quite a gem. That's the savory marinated portabella mushroom, grilled and topped with crumbled bleu cheese. (North Valley Grill ought to put up a sign for westbound Bell Road traffic: "Next portabella mushroom dish, 400 miles.") The spinach artichoke dip could have been cheesier and chunkier, but it still made a favorable impression. Less successful were the wildly misnamed "Chinatown" egg rolls, two filled with shrimp, two with cheese, paired with an off-putting trio of sauces. This is what happens when a kitchen forgets its mission and decides to get cutesy.
Here on the west side, diners insist on value. That means you can count on meals coming with either soup or salad. North Valley Grill does a first-rate job with the former. The creamy seafood chowder is well-stocked with salmon, corn and potatoes. The beef-vegetable broth, studded with black-eyed peas, tastes like someone has been in the kitchen watching over it for several hours. The cheese-draped onion soup ($1.50 extra) is just as commendable.
Several entrees had me rubbing my eyes in happy disbelief. I can't remember the last time I had a pork chop as good as North Valley Grill's. The thick, tender double chop, coated with a marvelous maple glaze, delivers you right to hog heaven. Outstanding sides of creamed spinach and skin-on, chive-laced mashed potatoes also got me cheering, as did the wallet-friendly $12.95 tag.
Meat loaf is probably the quintessential "Real American Food." Yet an astonishing number of Valley restaurants do it ineptly. Not here. In texture and taste, this meat loaf is just right, a blend of coarse-ground beef and veal, zipped up by wild mushrooms and a ketchupy crust. The menu boasts that "Mom never made it like this." You can say that again. If she had, I might not have had the courage to move away.
North Valley Grill even does a good job with ribs, a specialty that's almost always better left to rib houses. These bones are properly crunchy outside, soft and meaty within. A lively barbecue sauce, sweet and vinegary, furnishes an additional boost.
The kitchen also prepares a respectable jambalaya, a zesty mix of shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage served with spicy rice. The one entree misstep? It's the baked Boston scrod, a dry, rubbery fillet made even less appealing by a dry Ritz cracker crust. This is the first time I've ever had fish stick to the roof of my mouth.
I thought the restaurant might stumble at dessert time, taking the lazy way out with the usual supplier-provided suspects. But like all my preconceptions about North Valley Grill, this one was also off the mark. Aunt Martha's blueberry bread pudding is nothing short of scrumptious, somehow both rich and light, buttery and drenched with whiskey sauce. The apple pan dowdy, spiced apples and pastry topped with ice cream, is almost in the same class.