This newly opened Phoenix restaurant is a double comeback. First, it's the return of a landmark dining destination. It's also the return of a chef.
For decades, Peerce's Plantation was a landmark, family-owned Baltimore County dining destination before it closed in 2001. A short revival under new owners didn't take, and Peerce's faded into memory, along with dozens of other bygone favorites.
Then, a stirring. In 2008, Joe Bivona purchased the property as a venue for his Signature Catering company. He reopened the old ballroom but not the restaurant. He was waiting, he says now, for the right person to run the restaurant. Shrewd strategy.
With the veteran Mark Hofmann as a executive chef and general manger, the Grille at Peerce's opened Oct. 4. In almost every way, it's a triumphant return for the place and the man.
This is not the old, formal Peerce's, where gentlemen wore jackets and the women were handed menus without prices listed. The Grille at Peerce's is intended for casual dining, the kind of place where you'd come a few nights a week when no one feels like cooking dinner. Entree prices are clustered in the high teens, the dress code now is business casual and folks are having a ball. A group of a dozen women have taken up residence in a cozy transitional room between the bar and the dining room. As for the bar itself, full and merry on a weeknight — where were all of these people going all of these years past?
Dining here might no longer be formal — there are no tablecloths — but the main dining room has the trappings of conservative ambience. Think crimson walls, big oil paintings and a working fireplace. The unclothed tables are arranged in long rows that stretch from one end to another, and if this is bit inelegant, it feels right for the new casual attitude and for Hofmann's "user-friendly" menu.
That's how Hofmann described his approach to me for a Table Talk column, a claim I've heard before. But I think he has nailed it. There are still moments of pure style, mostly with the appetizers, but for the most part, the moderately sized menu anticipates the tastes and preferences of Peerce's customer base. Here, wines by the glass are big and inexpensive, and your server is uncannily there when you want him or her — and not a moment before.
This is where you'd come because you know the filet mignon is going to taste just as good the 20th time you order it as it did the first, or because the short-smoked salmon is both perfectly done and pleasantly bland. A side of corn comes salted and buttered, and a side of steamed broccoli, served with lemon and butter, is cooked how real people like it, so that it's not mushy but it's not virtuously crunchy, either.
The filet mignon, one of two steaks listed among Hofmann's nine entrees, is available plain, grilled "Diane style" or bleu cheese-crusted. I'm not sure about "crusted" here — "smothered" or "topped" would better describe to diners what they are in for. More than that, the steak really doesn't need any help at all. The person who ordered the salmon here orders salmon as an entree nine out of 10 times he dines out. It was he who found it both surpassingly bland while still insisting it was the best salmon he has ever had in a restaurant.
Entree prices are kept reasonable here because the portions are moderate. That was true of the steak, the fish and a third entree, Mongolian short ribs, which were tender without being fatty and flavorful without that artificial sweetness you find so often.
If it's excitement you crave, though, look for it in brief flourishes, as with a stirring ahi tuna appetizer, in which gorgeous slivers of fish are layered with cool cucumbers and dressed with a creamy wasabi dressing. Most things here are enjoyable because they're well-made, like the plate of crispy salt-and-pepper calamari, served with a fresh-tasting roasted-tomato sauce and melted garlic butter. An "upside down" wild-mushroom tart is simply Hofmann's smart way of serving lusciously warm mushrooms together with flaky pastry without the risk of everything getting sodden or dried out from reheating.
Billed as the "original 'Polo Grill' recipe with linguine," the blackened chicken pasta entree amounts to an across-the-board exception to the kitchen's otherwise suave performance. There's about a quarter-pound too much pasta here and a cup too much sauce, which is all a disservice to the essential goodness of the ingredients. Linguine feels like the wrong pasta, too. I'd love to try it again at half the size and with penne instead.
A short dessert list includes creme brulee, a baked fruit cobbler, a Smith Island cake (from SugarBakers), and something called an apple pie ice cream sundae. (What we really wanted was apple pie.) The must-have is warm flourless cake, served with vanilla ice cream.
It's back, he's back, and life is good in Phoenix.
Where: 12460 Dulaney Valley Road, Phoenix
Hours: Open for dinner seven nights a week and for Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$9.95 Entrees,14.95-$28.95
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]