Promise of Wild Garlic disappoints

Cold food, service that's choppy don't sell this new venture
2013-03-07T00:00:00Z Promise of Wild Garlic disappointsKathleen Allen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

This is a tale of two dinners.

At one, the food was cold, the service colder.

The other, the food temperature was perfect. The service, however, wasn't much better.

The choppy service could be because Wild Garlic Grill, chef Steven Schultz's latest venture, is madly popular.

One could argue that unexpected crowds have slowed things down at the restaurant, which opened in December. And, indeed, Schultz said they didn't expect to be this popular this quickly. (He might thank Yelp for that - entries about Wild Garlic have lit up the website.)

But Schultz, who is Wild Garlic's executive chef and general manager (Maria Martin-Gourdin, who works at the restaurant, is the owner of record), is a veteran of the restaurant industry - he's been whipping up dishes for 27 years here and elsewhere. His New Red Sky and Luna Bar in Plaza Palomino had a devoted following before it closed last year.

Schultz should have the service end of the business well worked out.

What Schultz does best is food.

The eclectic menu - with many dishes reminiscent of Red Sky - includes a variety of salads, fish, ribs and even a hamburger.

Schultz's sauces are sophisticated, his ingredients local when possible, his offerings often swoonable.

Unless, of course, the entrees are cold, as they were on a weekend visit in early February.

The evening started promisingly enough. The garlic swiss fondue ($7) appetizer came to the table quickly. The thin fondue popped with the taste of garlic, and the chunks of sourdough bread soaked up the cheesey dish in delectable style.

Fondue done, we waited for our entrees. And waited. And waited.

To the waitress's credit, she stopped by the table frequently to assure us that "the entrees will be right out."

"Right out" was about an hour and 30 minutes after we sat down.

And here's the killer: Every entree was cold. The ahi ($23), which had been ordered just seared, was overcooked. The tasty tapenade on top - with capers, tomatoes and olives - did not disguise the cool state of the tuna.

A vegetable plate ($12) was requested, and that was "no problem" said the waitress. But the portobello mushroom on the plate was cold and the kale cold and gritty.

The waitress insisted on taking the appetizer off the ticket because of the wait, but, frankly, that and the temperature of the food made for an unpleasant evening.

"Maybe it's because it's the weekend," we reasoned. So for our second visit, we went on a recent Tuesday.

"I'm warning you right now, I'm the only waitress working the dining room," we were told as we sat.

Uh-oh. It was a crowded dining room. Service, again, was clumsily slow. And the first two items we ordered were no longer available.

But when the entrees came, they were hot and gave us the full measure of Schultz's kitchen magic.

The lamb shank ($23 ) was fall-off-the-bone tender and covered with a rich burgundy sauce made earthy with wild mushrooms. Garlic mashed potatoes helped soak up the sauce. There should have been leftovers - Schultz is famous for his hefty servings - but there was not one thing left on the plate.

The salmon ($15) was just as satisfying. Cooked to keep its moisture, it was topped with a beurre blanc sauce that was buttery brilliance.

It took about an hour to get our entrees - but when the food is this good (and hot) it's easy to forgive.

We were so chagrined by the service at our two visits, that we returned earlier this week just to see if things had improved. It wasn't as crowded and so not so noisy, and we found the service to be timely. Lesson here: go early - we went around 6:15 p.m. - and try to time your visit on a not-too-busy night.

Dessert was not so easy to forgive. The meal enders are not made there - when asked where they came from, the waitress said "some bakery" (Schultz said a friend makes them, but declined to give the name). We ordered the tiramisu ($7.50) before we realized it wasn't house made, and the sweet came out half frozen. Worse, the plate was decorated with a couple swirls of what sure tasted like Hershey's chocolate sauce.

It's not surprising that the desserts aren't made there - the kitchen is tiny. So is the restaurant. It's long been home to fast food joints - Sanchez Burrito Co. and Three and a Half Brothers Cafe were the most recent residents.

Schultz has transformed the space (though it still looks like a fast-food place from the outside). There's a bar set up in front of the open kitchen and a dining room packed with about 15 tables topped with butcher paper. The pine log ceiling - a leftover from a former occupant - adds some visual interest. There is an expansive enclosed patio in the back - and where we suggest you sit, if weather allows. The noise level drops way down on the patio.

The inside dining room is loud. Really, really loud. Don't expect to indulge in conversation with your meal.

And crowded. Even the entrance is crowded - as we came in, a waitress had to ask us to move because she had to get flatware out of a chest that sits in the narrow foyer. We were happy to, but it was difficult to figure out where to go: The bar was packed. The dining room was packed. Happily, we were seated quickly.

The crowded, loud dining room and poor service put Wild Garlic Grill low on our list of restaurants to visit.

But the food and the won't-break-the-bank prices inch it back up toward the top.

Review

• Where: 2530 N. First Ave., 206-0017, www.newredskycatering.com

• Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays; 11-9:30 Sundays.

• Noise level: Off the charts loud.

• Alcohol: Tasty offering of wines; full bar.

• Family call: Though it is possible to get something as down home as ribs or a hamburger, the menu may be a tad sophisticated for younger palates.

• Vegetarian options: Yes.

• Gluten free: Most items are gluten free; just ask if you have questions.

• Price range: $11-$19.50 for menu entrees; specials can reach $27.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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