Friday, August 24, 2007

Review: Grilled Expedition, Phoenix AZ

There are some places that I have walked past more times than I would care to remember, and Grilled Expedition is one of them. They have been on my radar since they opened at Desert Ridge Marketplace. I was in the mood for something a little different tonight, so off I went to the Expedition.

With a name like that, there are many different directions that the designers of the restaurant could have taken. They went with "austere". There were green walls with a triptych of slices of logs that evoked, oh, a woodpile. The tables, chairs, and non-wall architecture were wood or wood tones. I appreciate that they split the dining room into two separate sections (dramatic reduction in noise and it makes the place feel more intimate), but the usual high ceilings and open kitchen mean that if it were busy, the place would likely be quite loud. After waiting an inordinately long time for ice water to arrive when the place is slow (seriously, if it was another 15 seconds we would have left), my friend and I both decided to start out with the X-Ale, apparently created at the turn of the millennium when EVERYTHING was Extreme-this and X-that. Still, it's a decent beer. The server described it as "really dark... like Fat Tire". I shudder to think what would happen if he ever tasted Guinness. Along with the X-Ale, we had some of the Expedition Dip, described on the menu as "a hot blend of cheeses and roasted vegetables with grilled flatbread for dipping". I'm not entirely sure how one manages to screw up hot cheese dip, but they sure as hell did. The portion of dip looked meager and dull, a scant cup of dip that was mostly white with a few flecks of red pepper and an unidentifiable green, likely chopped spinach. The roasted vegetables only provided texture and color, and the primary dairy ingredients we noticed seemed to be sour cream and mild white cheddar. The grilled flatbread was good and tasted like it was made in-house, but would have been better if it was served warm. Also with the dip were a handful of stale-tasting corn chip crumbs from the bottom of the bag. Whoever put the chips on the plate really should have noticed that what they were putting out there was not something people would want to dip with, much less actually eat. The spinach dip over at TGI Friday's was vastly preferable to this... stuff. And at $8.50, this already lackluster appetizer was a very poor value.

For our main courses, I went with the Firewheel pizza (hot sauce, mozzarella, Andouille sausage, beef, red onion) while my friend got the Shrimp Pesto (shrimp, pesto sauce, mozzarella, feta, sun-dried tomato). While waiting for our dinner, I excused myself to the restroom, and was very displeased. The main scent in the restroom once past the bank of sinks was stale pee. I am more accustomed to noticing this in a busy truck stop, not so much in a halfway decent restaurant. It would also be nice if they took the time to brush out the insides of the urinals a little more often.* I likely should have cancelled the order at this point, but hunger makes people do strange things, so we pressed on, despite my wondering if we'd fare as well as Katharine Hepburn when she acted in The African Queen.**

The pizzas came pretty quickly. Mine was the definite winner of the two. The hot sauce had a bit of tanginess and a little sweetness, almost like wing sauce cut with a little bit of BBQ sauce. The andouille reminded me more of plain old smoked sausage, but the beef chunks were very nice, little steak-y bits all over the pizza. The crust was fantastic, picking up just enough of the wood fire smoke to give it some great depth. The guys at Patsy Grimaldi's would do well to take some notes from Grilled Expedition. My friend's Shrimp Pesto pizza was OK, but completely unoriginal. I think I had something similar from Wolfgang Puck's line of frozen pizzas when they first came out in the mid-90's.

After two beers, appetizer, and two pizzas, the bill was about $45. It had the potential to be worth this, but the combination of dull service (it was hard to tell if he was just green, or bored; there were times it sounded like he was reading from cue cards) and abysmal housekeeping left a less than pleasant taste in my mouth. The pizzas were quite good, but beyond that I have no reason to recommend the Desert Ridge location of Grilled Expedition to anyone. I may still try out the one in Tempe to see if it fares better. Or, if you've tried out the Tempe location, let me know.

*In case you're wondering, it turns out yes, the old adage how you can tell the cleanliness of the kitchen by the cleanliness of the restroom is completely true. I just checked their most recent inspection report from the beginning of July, and there were reports of "black slimy mold" in the ice machine, more "black mold" in a container of running water for holding scoops, and "food debris on floors" in the dry storage and kitchen itself. All of the problems were corrected upon the follow-up visit three days later.

**I sure love my footnotes, huh? When Hepburn did The African Queen, they actually filmed it in Africa. You know how when you go traveling overseas you shouldn't drink the water? She did.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Review: Cafe Zuzu, Hotel Valley Ho, Scottsdale AZ

(In interests of full disclosure, I work at Hotel Valley Ho, but in a different department. I stayed objective as possible, and yes, they did know I work at the hotel.)

I have been working at the Hotel Valley Ho for over a year now. It's a great place. However, due to my weird schedule from working the dinner shift, I haven't been able to partake in the offerings at the hotel's other restaurant, Cafe Zuzu. I'm always either in bed or at work when Zuzu is open. I do have a friend who joins me regularly for breakfast, and we love going all over the place. We've been to Matt's Big Breakfast, Butterfield's, Au Petit Four, and a host of other breakfast places. There are some great places for breakfast in town, but I would have to say that Zuzu blows everything else clean out of the water. The atmosphere is delightfully retro, with oranges and browns all over the place, and plenty of curvaceous furniture. The waitress, Sharon, did a wonderful job of keeping our coffee and juice full and the table clean (she's one of the few I've seen who regularly picked up empty sugar packets) and was just the right level of cheerful warmth to make you feel right at home. The food is serious stuff, too. I had the daily special, a Seafood Newburg omelette loaded with crab and shrimp; my friend Mike got their breakfast sandwich, consisting of a fried egg, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and veggie cream cheese smear on toasted white bread. My roomie came along too, and he tried the strawberry waffle. I truly love how everything was perfectly done familiar comfort-style food with just enough of a twist to make it interesting. That's a tricky balance; too familiar and it tastes just like everything else out there, too unique and almost every breakfast diner out there will turn up their nose at it. I'm very hard pressed to pick a stand-out dish; all three were winners. I think that Mike's breakfast sandwich was the winner by a nose. It was something about the veggie smear that just brought everything together. Roomie's waffle had lemon-orange curd on top, which somehow went brilliantly well with maple syrup. My seafood omelette was very rich, but not *too* much so. It knew right where that line was and came as close to it as possible. House-made apricot preserves were a very delicious touch to top my toast.

Before tax and tip, the full breakfast for three was around 42 dollars. I would say it's a very solid value; a little pricier than most breakfast places, but you will certainly be well-fed with very high-quality grub. I've spent a long time searching, but I may just have myself a regular weekend breakfast spot. And to think, it's been right under my nose all this time.