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Gwen Ashley Walters
December, 2010, Page 146
Photos by David Moore
Brick-roasted little chicken
High-end cowboy cuisine king Robert McGrath is back in the saddle with great comfort food in a chic setting.
Chef Robert McGrath is an icon – not only here in the Valley but across the Southwest. For more than two decades he’s been the driving force behind the success of “American Western” cooking – a term for fancified cowboy cuisine.
After his 2006 break-up with Roaring Fork – where during his tenure he penned a successful cookbook and captured a Best Southwestern Chef award from the James Beard Foundation – McGrath dabbled in restaurant consulting, bought a (now closed) beach-themed restaurant, and planned to open a Continental-style restaurant before circumstances (including the economy) intervened.
Four years later, along with a well-oiled team, McGrath’s back in the saddle with the rustic-chic Renegade Canteen, churning out the boldly flavored Western cuisine he’s known for. So far, Renegade Canteen is playing out like a feel-good Western movie, where the good guys wear white. Only, in this showing, “Cookie” is a tall, stately man, dishing out more than a pot of beans and sourdough bread.
It’s not just the grub that leaves me giddy. It’s the whole experience of dining in a handsome restaurant with genuinely gracious hospitality – and yes, it’s the food, too, which more often than not, lives up to McGrath’s reputation for gussied-up comfort fare.
The menu is geared to round up just about everybody, from sharable small plates and flatbreads to a handful of salads, soups and stews to a smidgen of vegetarian dishes and, of course, plenty of meat and fish options. There’s even a section of rib-sticking “weekly classics” ($20) like Saturday’s Dr. Pepper-braised short ribs and Sunday’s chicken-fried steak. Kids are welcome, too, with the usual finicky-eater-menu standards.
grilled duck breast fajitas
McGrath works the “gentleman’s ranch” decorated space – wood-planked floors, cowboy paintings, wrought iron lighting, buckskin and leather – like he owns the place. I even spotted him delivering plates one busy weekend evening.
Renegade is divided into three camps. On one side there’s a festive dining area with a U-shaped bar in the back, which can get rowdy in a chivalrous sort of way during happy hour and on weekend nights. On the other side there is an elegant, glass-enclosed and carpeted dining room – perfect for a side of conversation with dinner – and another mirrored and plush banquette-lined space that’s somewhere between festive and refined.
Smack dab in the center of the sectioned space is a floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed wine cellar. Clearly this is not the wine guy’s first rodeo. The wine list has a wide variety and is as impressive as the rest of the place. It includes a couple of rosés but, more importantly, a smart collection of food-focused wines that extends beyond California’s buttered whites and jam-packed reds.
Meanwhile, McGrath’s posse whips up his old standards – damn good green chile pork stew ($10); a fat-dripping, two-fisted burger ($13); and green chile mac and cheese ($9).
He’s flirting with new potential standards, too, while seemingly still in the midst of tweaking the menu since opening last June. He’s added a small plate of rare-grilled duck breast fajitas ($12) and a chile-spiked pot roast ($15). While the spicy, oversize coffee cup of dreamy cauliflower fondue bit the dust, I’m consoled with an equally tempting bowl of warm butter pecan goat cheese from local Crow’s Dairy ($12).
14-ounce rib eye
Platter-size flatbreads (irregularly shaped and a cross between cracker and pizza dough, $13-$15) have switched toppings several times, but I really haven’t taken to any of them. From a turkey sausage and roasted red pepper to a grilled shrimp with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, neither the crust nor the toppings have struck that “delicious” chord with me.
Even though I fell for the duck fajita small plate with duck two ways (sliced, rare duck breast and shredded, roasted leg meat), I’m on the fence about a couple others.
The chilled crabmeat “enchiladas” ($12) is a Western spin on an Asian spring roll, but too much mayonnaise dresses the onion-speckled crabmeat, which is rolled in a blanched Napa cabbage leaf. I want more of the spartan, sweet mango and tangy lime sauce dots, but the crunchy, toasted pepitas and salty, aged Jack crumbles are just right.
Plump, briny sea scallops ($15) – one perfectly seared and another seared and diced for presentation – are paired with a slightly overcooked risotto and corn mixture on one visit. Somewhere in the dish, according to the menu, is bacalao (salt cod), but I couldn’t detect it. I wouldn’t be surprised if this dish is reinvented at some point.
Blackened catfish ($21) could be a Renegade classic. Generously but not overly seasoned, the skillet-seared fillet goes from potentially healthy to decadent with a deeply flavored “Cajun fondeaux” – a roux-based sauce mixed with crabmeat, chopped shrimp and crawfish. The base of andouille-studded “really dirty rice” is so flavorful I don’t really mind that the rice is slightly overcooked on one occasion.
blackened catfish atop “really dirty rice”
The brick-roasted “little chicken” ($14) – literally a whole, small chicken with crisp skin, moist meat and a drizzle of bright sage pesto – takes some knife-and-fork work. It’s worth the effort, accompanied by respectable chive-flecked mashed potatoes and a delicious chicken hash (shredded chicken, diced potatoes and bread cubes – actually more stuffing-like than hash-like).
Feeling lazy? The steaks take no effort, thanks to the man-sized steak knife, and they arrive nicely seasoned and cooked just the way you ordered. The 14-ounce rib eye ($32) I ordered turned out to be a New York strip once, but it was delicious, nonetheless. By the next visit, the strip was off the menu and the rib eye was everything I expected it to be – marbled, juicy and tender.
Whether you order the fillet, rib eye or a porterhouse cut of Berkshire pork ($22), you have a choice of four mouthwatering sauces (creamy horseradish butter, porcini flavored bordelaise, green peppercorn or blueberry barbecue sauce) and a side dish (mashed potatoes, green chile macaroni or a couple of seasonal vegetable sides).
Save room for pastry chef Eddie Robinson’s corral of creative desserts (all $7). His meringue-based red beet root cake with carrot-vanilla gelato and his “candy cap” mushroom bread pudding (made with mushrooms, called candy caps, that have a distinct maple syrup aroma) are as delicious as they are unusual.
Too edgy for you? Try the traditional crème brûlée or the chocolate toffee pecan pie with bourbon-laced vanilla ice cream, served in a Staub skillet surrounded by candied pecans. Both are satisfying, if conventional.
Renegade Canteen is rolling comfortably along the trail McGrath blazed years ago, with a few new twists and turns (especially in the dessert arena). Familiar, inviting – and still brazenly flavorful – it’s a trail worth following.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: green chile pork stew • shrimp, prosciutto and mozzarella flatbread • Mac and cheese • chocolate toffee pecan pie with bourbon-laced vanilla ice cream.
: Contemporary American/Southwestern
: 9343 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale
: Dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily; happy hour 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily
: Grilled duck breast fajitas ($12), green chile pork stew ($10), brick-roasted little chicken ($14), chocolate toffee pecan pie ($7)
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