Cafe Reviews

Where the Grills Are

Ventura Grill, 8380 East Via de Ventura, Scottsdale, 922-1500. Hours: Lunch,
Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

No industry launches a new product these days without doing lots of homework: Bean counters analyze the hard financial data; engineers perfect the design; marketers carve out a competitive niche; advertising plots a campaign; and sales staff targets the right demographic. Long before anything starts rolling out the door, every detail will have been thoroughly studied and every contingency calculated.

The exception? The booming Valley restaurant industry, where every day some new place hits the streets, launched by nothing more substantial than impulses, hunches and prayers. And even if the enterprise has been systematically thought through, putting money into a new restaurant is astonishingly risky business--maybe one in five lasts five years. In most cases, investors could probably earn a higher yield selling authentic Navajo earmuffs from an Arizona Center kiosk.

No doubt these restaurant entrepreneurs want to make money. But if that's all they cared about, they could buy a fast-food franchise or run a branch in a national chain, reasonably assured of steady profit without most of the irritations that come with operating independently.

What, then, drives apparently sane people, like the folks behind Ventura Grill and Madison's, to pour big bucks into their shiny new restaurants? Conviction. They're certain they've got their fingers on the pulse of public taste. So, for instance, they don't mind putting their businesses in locations that have buried all previous restaurant tenants. "If we serve it, they will come," is their mantra. Judging from my experience at both places, they just may be right.

Ventura Grill's proprietors aren't novices in the business. They've already made Goldie's, a Scottsdale sports bar/restaurant, into one of the Valley's best. With Ventura Grill, they've got another winner on their hands.

The key: simplicity. First, the beautifully designed room oozes understated sophistication. You walk past a throbbing bar scene on a gleaming wood floor to reach the booths in the main dining area at the far end of the restaurant. There, big, lustrous black-and-white movie-star photos--Harlow, Dietrich, Cooper and Garbo--are the focal point of the decor. They're also reflected in five mirrors along the curved back wall. And on most nights, a pianist provides the kind of musical accompaniment those celebrities would have enjoyed.

The food is just as understated as the setting, but no less effective. This menu certainly won't scare anybody. With a couple of exceptions (meat loaf, steamed mussels), the kitchen wisely sticks to grilling slabs of meat, fish and fowl. And the cooks evidently know what they're doing.

Appetizers are worth a splurge. Maybe my Eastern European genes predispose me to look favorably on potato pancakes, but I suspect I would have liked Ventura Grill's models even if my great-grandparents had emigrated from a Yukon Territory igloo. The mixed-potato-pancake starter brings six full-size beauties sizzling from the skillet: two fashioned from zucchini, two from sweet potatoes, two from regular spuds. Dip them in applesauce or creme fraiche. Two people splitting this dish may be tempted to call it a night even before the entrees arrive.

Grilled crab cakes are another good shared-appetizer option. You get two plump, crunchy croquettes, touched up with the flavors of the Southwest--a sweet chile sauce and corn salsa. Too bad somebody in the kitchen mistakenly hoped our crab cakes could disguise the bed of over-the-hill, brown-edge greens they rested on. Nope. All these greens did was get my critical antennae up, looking for more corner cutting.

Beefsteak tomato is a lighter way to precede Ventura Grill's slabs of animal protein. It comes with fresh mozzarella, garnished with basil. The tomato wasn't exactly in juicy, midsummer form, but what can you expect when the calendar has just flipped to spring? Use the two kinds of homemade bread, French and pumpernickel, to dab at the olive oil drizzled on the platter.

The entrees are uncomplicatedly satisfying. I was particularly pleased with the 12-ounce New York strip, a quality piece of beef, grilled to medium-rare specs and served with grilled slices of skin-on potatoes and chunks of candied carrot. And why shouldn't I have enjoyed it? Sitting in a comfy booth, at a table draped with crisp white linen, listening to a Duke Ellington melody, staring up at Garbo and armed with a cold beer, could I be blamed for thinking that life can sometimes be good?

The buttery, nine-ounce filet mignon is more tender than the New York strip, but not quite as beefy. A smooth bearnaise sauce gilds the already rich texture, while sides of asparagus and shoestring potatoes add some flavor and crunch.

I might have ordered one evening's special, tournedos of beef, as well. But after our waiter pronounced it "toronadoes of beef," I shied away. I kept picturing a piece of meat grilled on a 1974 V-8 Oldsmobile engine.

Instead, we went for the fussiest dish on the menu: grilled salmon and portabella mushroom. The flaky salmon, lined with a thin layer of crust from the grill's flames, was wonderful. But the marinated portabella mushroom would be paired better with steak. And the kitchen wasted its time with an ill-conceived plum-tomato risotto accompaniment, so heavily laden with garlic and pepper that it was inedible.

You're better off with the simplest dish, a grilled-chicken-and-mashed-potato platter that provides basic, primal pleasure. Grilled swordfish is also a worthy choice, especially once you scrape away the vinegary cucumber salsa that comes alongside it.

Homemade desserts end the meal on a high note. The rich checkerboard of white and dark chocolates is good enough to take your mind off calorie counting. The chocolate-mousse cake packs the same kind of creamy intensity. Best, though, is the heavenly berry tart, a colorful blend of fruit that's not overwhelmed by sugar.

The combination of high-energy bustle, sophisticated looks and first-rate fare separates Ventura Grill from most of the new- restaurant pack. If you're scratching your head about where to indulge a Saturday-night animal-protein splurge, this place may be the answer.

Madison's, 7108 East Stetson, Scottsdale, 970-7665. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.

Simplicity is definitely not the driving force behind Madison's menu, which at first glance seems to have been put together by someone who had just sampled all 28 of the restaurant's specialty brews on tap.

It's a real mishmash: Pacific Rim meets Southwest. Appetizers range from sushi and salmon cakes to nachos and Santa Fe skewers. The small main-dish list offers both salmon with a plum-pepper sauce and mesquite-seared tenderloin with a tomatillo sauce.

Oddly enough, despite the funky menu, Madison's is really more of a watering hole than restaurant. On one weekend-evening visit, drinkers here outnumbered diners about ten to one. The place attracts a young, trendy crowd--snazzily dressed, tanned and fit, people who call for a drink with one hand while holding a cellular phone with the other. Naturally, in a place like this, the rest rooms are staffed by attendants. The guy in the men's room controls a vast arsenal of toiletries, ready to unleash all your latent insecurities. The subliminal message? When you invade the Scottsdale-bar scene, you can't have too much artillery.

The appetizer artillery has some hits and misses. I'm leery about ordering sushi anywhere but a Japanese restaurant. However, somebody back in the kitchen did a worthy job with the sushi "caterpillar roll," stuffed with eel, "krab" and cucumber. To my surprise, it even came with chopsticks. Hefty salmon cakes--you get four to an order--can put a big dent in your appetite. You'll have to dip them into either the chipotle-honey sauce or tomatillo sauce, though--they don't have much flavor on their own. Three Santa Fe skewers batted .667. The grilled chicken and shrimp skewers were right on target; but the beef appetizer was tough and gristly. The ahi sliders, however, are batting zero. You get five undistinguished minibuns, each wrapped around a teeny bite of ahi tuna. At $9.50, they're also no bargain.

I much prefer the Southwestern-themed main dishes to the Pacific Rim platters. Mesquite-seared tenderloin is good enough to take your mind off all the good-looking single females here. You get four tender, beefy medallions, teamed with both red-pepper and tomatillo sauces. Stir-fried veggies and thick mashed potatoes resting on a green chile strip make diverting accompaniments. Killer shrimp is also wonderful: six grilled, garlicky crustaceans partnered with a king-size portion of lusty, luscious red chile pasta.

In contrast, Oriental chicken stir-fry doesn't have much going for it, just some poultry, peppers, two snow peas and a thimbleful of shiitake mushrooms, served over rice and moistened with some vague "Oriental sauce." Grilled salmon is too dull, getting no boost from the plum-pepper-sauce glaze. A mound of rice that could have come from an employee-cafeteria chafing dish doesn't help, either.

Desserts are sweetly effective. The peanut-butter mousse is almost overpoweringly rich and sweet, especially if you can't resist spooning on the chocolate sauce. The homemade brownie in a puddle of vanilla sauce will probably send you home happy, even if you haven't picked up somebody at the bar.

Madison's ambitious menu suggests that the proprietors take their food as seriously as they do their specialty beers. With just a bit of fine-tuning, I could take it as seriously, too.

Ventura Grill:
Grilled crab cakes
Grilled swordfish
New York strip
Chocolate checkerboard

Sushi caterpillar roll
Killer shrimp
Mesquite-seared tenderloin
Homemade brownie

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Howard Seftel