Cafe Reviews

When Plush Comes to Shove

Some pretty funky history is happening in downtown Scottsdale these days. Since the opening of The Velvet Room in late March, the Old Town neighborhood has been jettisoned back to the 1940s and the "Golden Age of Jazz." The supper-club concept has been reincarnated here, pairing the evening meal with soulful jazz music and black-aproned waiters serving refined plates to -- wonder of wonders -- a clientele that still dresses up for dinner.

In a welcome departure from the pulsing nightclub collection that has infested the area, the ambiance at The Velvet Room is sophisticated, the live entertainment masterful, and the setting genteel. Its retro theme plays superbly, appealing equally to young night crawlers and mature social diners. Half of the treat at this sultry joint, in fact, is the people-watching -- parades of ambitious 20-something poseurs blending with uncomfortably aging lounge lizards, all dressed to the nines.

The place could be -- should be -- a huge success.

Unfortunately, the fare served at The Velvet Room lacks the same panache as its surroundings. The menu reads well, but the goods fall far short of what I expect from such a polished-looking operation. Somebody, please, hand-deliver this review to VR's executive chef Patrick Casey right away -- he needs to hurry back into his kitchen and figure out just what in the world his staff is doing to the food.

Casey should take the criticism as tough love. The Velvet Room has so many elements in its favor, in fact, that I find myself trying to justify its faults as my companion and I trudge through dinner one evening. This place is so cool, I gush. I'd come here all the time, except I'd stick to cocktails, bread and desserts. I really do like the club, I explain, except for the food, and . . . and yet, I am here for a restaurant review. Food counts. Nifty setting or no, I have to say that this sustenance is pretty sad.

The Velvet Room's location alone is enough to bring tears of nostalgia to longtime Valley diners' eyes. Housed in the main hall of the former Trader Vic's, the restaurant summons loving spirits of the colorful Polynesian restaurant that was a Fifth Avenue landmark for almost 30 years before it closed in the spring of 1990. I celebrated my high school cotillion dinner there. The tiki-tressed eatery with its umbrella-capped cocktails attracted actors like Robert Mitchum, John Forsythe, Elke Sommer and Paul Newman; yet the celebrity I miss the most is Eric Denk, the restaurant's charming manager from 1980 to 1990. He passed away in 1993, and was a gent with true, old-style Arizona class. If Denk were in charge of The Velvet Room, I have no doubt that the menu wrongs would instantly be righted.

After a decade away from Trader Vic's, the current architecture remains comfortingly familiar to me. A few years after closing, the restaurant space was carved into a mini-mall including shops for that king of kitsch, Valley jeweler Gilbert Ortega. The only artifact surviving the gutting supposedly was Trader Vic's signature 15-foot outrigger which hung from the ceiling of the very same space that is now The Velvet Room (where the boat is now, I don't know, but I hope it found a happy home).

Yet surely those are the original, elaborately carved ceiling beams above my head, I comment to my server. Not only is he unaware of the significance of his employer's location, however, he's never even heard of Trader Vic's. Anywhere. Amazing.

Another message to Velvet Room management: Hold a staff meeting. Quickly. Impress upon your employees the importance of this landmark location. It'll make your older crowd (the ones who usually visit before 10 at night) feel warm and fuzzy. It'll make your younger guests (the ones who swarm the place from 10 until the wee hours) feel immeasurably cool. Plus, it will give your servers something to talk about with customers other than apologizing for the poor dining experience they're about to undergo.

The first sign that The Velvet Room needs some finesse comes when I make reservations. I'm told three times -- three -- during the short phone call that there will be a two-hour time limit imposed on our dining party (VR's policy Thursday, Friday and Saturday). When I call Friday evening to say I'm running about 15 minutes late, I'm warned that my "time allocation" will begin at my appointed reservation time, regardless of when I arrive.

Now, I completely understand the mandate, given The Velvet Room's entirely delectable lineup of live music. It makes no sense for the restaurant to encourage cocktail squatters when it could be turning tables for dinner. But I'm feeling guilty even as I check in with the hostess, and that's no way to begin an enjoyable evening out. The embarrassment turns to smugness, though, as over several visits I experience some of the longest lapses in service to be found around town. The two-hour time limit should be imposed on the kitchen, not us.

Indeed, how can we be penalized for twiddling our thumbs while waiting 15 minutes for pre-dinner glasses of wine? Or for playing tic-tac-toe with our breadcrumbs while enduring a 50-minute wait for appetizers? Or for losing another valuable 10 minutes in sending back our entrees, prematurely delivered before our starter seafood and soup courses? To their credit, VR staffers allow us to stay as long as three hours at a stretch with nary a nudge to the door.

Want to hear weird, though? We love every minute of the suspended agony spent waiting. Nursing glasses of wine (those with a taste for grapes will enjoy The Velvet Room's expansive selection, including one of my favorites, Caymus Conundrum), we amuse ourselves with the glitter gulch of guests surrounding the central bar.

Anchored by a 1920s saxophone converted to a draft beer pull, the rectangular bar is positively collapsing under the crush of 40-something first wives. Hair extensions tacked into bouffants? Tight white Guess jeans marred by visible panty lines, paired with $400 slingback shoes and Prada bags? They're here. Tanning-salon skin, absurdly orange under Acquanetta-esque raven black hair? Do you resemble a partially preserved Connie Stevens? The Velvet Room is your catwalk.

And the men. I've never seen such succulent specimens this far removed from Las Vegas. It's like a living wax museum dedicated to Wayne Newton, Sonny Bono and Hugh Hefner.

No matter where you're seated in The Velvet Room, you've got an unobstructed view of the entertainment -- both from guests, and onstage. One evening, we're crammed into a tight table directly under the piano backed by a 3-D relief of the New York City skyline. At first, I'm irritated; I can't push back my chair without hitting the stage (if you can get a booth against the velvet-draped back walls, you'll be much happier).

But the music is so good, discomfort quickly melts away.

The Velvet Room has put Big City effort into its music lineup, booking such notable crooners as Alice Tatum, Margo Reed, Joel and Delphine, and Sherry Roberson. Their smoky voices do beautiful justice to songs made famous by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Nat "King" Cole and, of course, Frank Sinatra.

If the music is retro, though, the menu should be repo'd. Some mistakes here are clumsy, others are downright negligent.

An appetizer of smoked-salmon crepes sounds decadent, tempting me with thoughts of Twiggy-thin sheets of salted pancake delicately draped with gossamer salmon. But they're not. These crepes, rather, are oddly purple and thickly tortillalike, exceedingly heavy over slabs of brackish smoked fish. A drizzle of crème fraîche is merely welcome moisture, a centerpiece of red leaf lettuce inconsequential, and a dozen-egg drip of oestra caviar much too stingy to appreciate.

Lobster-stuffed mushrooms suffer from clumps of overcooked shellfish in a witless blend of red pepper cream cheese. The best thing about the dish is an unexpected garnish of grilled red pepper, spinach and phyllo dough. Vegetable tartlet is much better, even if it's presented as a salad instead of my anticipated phyllo pie. I like the balsamic-dressed blend of roasted mushrooms, red pepper, artichoke, tomato and goat cheese, although the spinach is too bitter to be the baby variety promised by the menu.

There's nothing of note in the appetizer seafood platter. It's the hall of wax all over again, with rubbery representations of chilled Malpeque oysters in a watery "champagne" vinaigrette with teeny freckles of caviar. Our confidence is low from the start, as our server misidentifies the caviar type, labels the ceviche as lobster salad, and disregards the actual lobster salad altogether. After a few bites, I understand why. It's a room-temperature scoop of shellfish and chopped red pepper slicked with mayonnaise and white pepper -- boring. Ceviche, meanwhile, obviously has sat too long in the refrigerator; it's much too cold, its tortilla shell has gone stale and the halibut has overcooked in its bath of lime. Check the prep line, chef Casey -- I bet you'll find more poor plates like ours, dressed with wilted arugula, dead parsley and dried-out lemon wedges.

I'm happier gorging on The Velvet Room's fabulous breadbasket, brimming with freshly warmed soft pretzel cigars, crusty baguette and soft olive bread smeared with sweet garlic butter. That, paired with an evening's special of salmon and clam chowder, is nirvana. The soup is sumptuous, deftly balancing grilled vegetables, wine and seafood chunks served en croûte.

Entrees don't merit any historical mention, either, done in by sloppy quality control. The Velvet Room capellini brings a pleasing chop of spinach, tomato, artichoke heart and roasted mushrooms, but the pasta has been cooked past instant ramen stage. Steak LaBarge, too, is overcooked, charbroiled New York strip sliced in a fan, dressed with Roquefort and topped with a dry jumbo shrimp. I find the accompanying Velvet Room potato to be kind of silly, essentially whipped potatoes stuffed into an inedible cylinder of carved-out potato skin.

I've rarely seen anything as laughable as the crisp potato wheels that come with my tournedos Napoleon, however. The entire presentation is ridiculous: a layered tower of mashed potato, squishy tenderloin filet, dry-as-dust foie gras, a saucer-size moth wing of fried potato, more filet, more potato, another wing, and more foie gras all capped by mashed potato. With its tail of wilted spinach, it looks like a hand-push lawn mower rolled on its side.

I have fewer complaints with the Velvet Room chicken (breast stuffed with ham, mushrooms and artichoke in tarragon cream) or the grilled Arctic char (a salmonlike fish that comes over too-dry shrimp risotto cake with an invisible tomato vinaigrette). They're simply too run-of-the-mill to generate much interest. At least they're not offensive, as is the salmon and shrimp buccalini. The kitchen staffers should have known just by looking at the plate that the seafood was horrendously overdone, and how could they mistake a vat of ceviche broth for the menu's listed lemon thyme consommé?

At least the desserts end on a gracious note. Fresh raspberry cheesecake is pleasingly creamy with a very nice graham cracker crust. And look out, Vincent's, the trio of crème brûlées our table shares is one of the best around -- perfectly creamy, crisp topped and delicate.

I love the mood at The Velvet Room, but its food sure gives me the blues.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet