Cafe Reviews

Worshiping the Devil

My tab for three martinis will be $22.50. Plus tax and tip. Ouch. Is it just me, or does meeting a friend for a drink these days require a pretty healthy wallet situation?

The two of us plan to make the best of it, loitering at the bar for more than two hours, nursing these $7.50 toss-backs (one martini each, and the third split between us so we can drive home). Good Lord, they're strong cocktails, the fumes practically curling my hair. Still, it seems a pretty steep investment for what's basically vodka (nobody uses gin anymore, it's so passé) with fruit (no olives, no onions; today's young drinkers want high-octane, cotton-candy punch).

As we sip, my good buddy Nat announces he's hungry. I'm trying to be the good hostess. Go nuts, I say, get anything you want. Devil's Martini, our drinking haven of choice tonight, offers a wide selection -- appetizers of steamed mussels for $9.95, beef carpaccio for $8.50, bruschetta for $6.75. Or we can go whole-hog with entrees, like shrimp and scallops in a French curry with leeks on basmati rice for $19.50, or flame-broiled New York pepper steak for $24.50. Cha-ching.

In an earlier life, a get-together at the bar meant $2 well drinks. A bill of $22.50 was no big ticket then, because it brought on almost a dozen cocktails. We could fill up on freebie eats from chafing dish buffets. It was no big culinary adventure to be scarfing veggie wands and clammy chicken wings, but then, the Valley bar scene simply meant reliably cheap drinks and cheap eats.

Sometime over the last year, though, Scottsdale got a NYC attitude, opening a clutch of high-end lounges that not only charge for entrance and sling rich man's drinks, but also offer high-end meals. Places like Devil's Martini, where I'm studying a menu of hotel minibar-style gouges, such as crab cakes for $8.50, shrimp cocktail for $10.95, and roasted red and yellow peppers with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette for $7.65. Too often, though, high prices don't translate to high flavor; these places are first and foremost nightclubs, after all.

We're paying for style, I understand. Devil's Martini is drop-dead gorgeous, in a Martha Stewart chic of white-linen-and-rattan furniture, plantation-style architecture, gaping French doors and flickering candlelight. Waitresses are clad in perky white tanks and capris; they look like they just came off the croquet course. Even with the mesmerizing sparkle of a disco ball spinning overhead, Devil's Martini isn't an everyday bar. When things get busy (the hot time is after 10 p.m.), folks waiting in line to get in are cooled with powerful fans and free bottles of water. There's a hairdresser (complimentary service) in the ladies' room, and guests often are given roses as they depart. It's my new favorite place to party.

But as a place to eat? Nat's ordering with abandon, summoning plates of potstickers, fried calamari, vegetable spring rolls, chips and salsa. I'm very afraid. If the paper weren't paying, hospitality like this would leave me homeless.

Then Nat shows me his menu -- the cocktail-hour collection our server slipped him while I was working my abacus over appetizers. From 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, Devil's Martini offers a special -- six meal-size dishes for free. If that's not enough, there are nine other plates priced at less than half price. And no chafing dish stuff, but prepared-to-order and delivered to our table, with glittery presentation just as if we were ordering from the real menu. All we do is order a drink, which is no hardship given the delectable martini catwalk (my two top picks: "Sex & the City," with Absolut Mandarin, Amaretto Disarrono, peach schnapps, orange juice and cranberry; and the "Soprano," with Campari, triple sec, Absolut Mandarin and a shake of OJ).

Suddenly, I'm buzzed. At Devil's Martini, the delight is in the details. It's true this is a fashionable bar first, an overpriced restaurant second. And while I wouldn't make a point to go back for dinner after happy hour, I'm sure planning on staking out a table when the free food flows.

Nat is buried in a bowl of "five-dollar fries," a dish I'd happily pay full price for. This is true bar noshing, a massive mound of skin-on, mealy hot spuds gently dusted with salt and served with dips of mayonnaise and ketchup (try blending the two; it's a terrific sauce). The carbs are perfect for soaking up the sting of lethally poured Stoli Razberi, served as the "Turner" with triple sec and lemon juice. As a freebie, bruschetta is impressive, the crusty crostini smothered in chopped tomato and onion, sided by fresh marinated artichoke hearts. But at the full price of $6.75, I'd be quarreling with the kitchen over what happened to the promised Woolrich Dairy goat cheese -- neither Nat nor I can find any evidence of it.

It's difficult to find fault with the other giveaways, like crunchy fried calamari with tartar sauce, agreeably greasy pork-and-vegetable potstickers with spicy Thai dipping sauce, crisp vegetable spring rolls, and chips and salsa. But the best bets come in the discounted snacks.

A giant bowl of mussels could feed Nat and me fine on its own, slashed from its regular tariff of $9.95 to $4.50. It's a huge tepee of black shelled bivalves, pooled with an intriguing broth of sake, garlic, shallots, mushrooms and tomato sparked with sweet tarragon. Since I can't taste any crab, the "Scottsdale" crab cakes would have me fuming at their regular price of $8.50 for two patties; at $3.25, they're nice, moist nibbles of mostly vegetable and stuffing.

And surely Devil's Martini is losing money on its happy hour carpaccio, priced at just $3.75 for an entree-size platter of thin-sliced raw beef over arugula, with a toss of marinated mushrooms and generous shards of authentic Parmigiano. Too bad it didn't make it out of the refrigerator in time, though; the meat is crystallized with ice and completely tasteless.

To be fair, Nat and I return for entrees post-happy hour, although now it feels odd to be shelling out full price for anything. It's a disappointment, too, with tame presentations of farfalle with scallops, tomato, shallots, garlic and basil; and blackened salmon with corn-mango salsa on arugula with balsamic vinaigrette. Lots of ingredients, but little flavor. Fettuccini Natasha is oddly sticky, draped in an unlively sauce of tomato, cream and Stoli, with the barest flecks of salmon tossed in. And we push a plate of ahi back and forth, neither or us willing to commit fully to a strictly routine charred steak paired with grilled cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, zucchini and yellow bell pepper (though a side of perfumed rice is outstanding).

It's just too difficult to sign the credit card slip after discovering the happiness of happy hour. Complimentary bread, good loaves served with oil and balsamic. Gratis trays of tart, vinegary marinated mushrooms and brisk Kalamata olives. Those fantastic (free) five-dollar fries.

Dinner at the Devil, I'll pass. But 5 to 7 p.m., I'll be blissfully buzzed, bursting to the gills with good food, feeling fashionable, and mildly wondering why folks aren't beating down the doors of this sassy, sophisticated lounge. No question, at Devil's Martini, we get what we pay for.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet