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September, 2012, Page 147
Photos by David Moore
Chilean sea bass
The first Arizona outpost of a Midwestern restaurant chain opens with a veggie-heavy menu and inconsistent service.
Without a tablespoon of irony, 86-year-old North Dakota food columnist Marilyn Hagerty recently wrote a glowing review of an Olive Garden that took the Internet and foodie world by storm. Inadvertently, Hagerty put her finger on the pulse of our country’s ambivalence about chain restaurants. Say what you will about their failings; one thing you can count on from chains is consistency. They are like the chicken Alfredo that Hagerty savored – soothingly familiar, “warm and comforting on a cold day.”
Which is why Mia Francesca, an Illinois-based chain that recently debuted in the Valley, is so puzzling in its inconsistency. Tucked into the tony environs of The Marketplace at D.C. Ranch, Francesca wears the facade of a serious, upscale eatery – floor-to-ceiling windows soar two stories, lending an atrium-like feel to the ground floor dining room, which is graced with a glassed-in private room. The upstairs mezzanine seating is warmer and cozier, if noisy at peak times. And the overall aesthetic of subdued wood and neutral colors verges on the formal.
But the aura of luxury is extinguished by a hostess dressed in short shorts and servers wearing verging-on-sloppy white Hanes-style T-shirts with a silk screen of the purported Francesca on the back. Runners and bussers get navy T-shirts, which look marginally less like underwear.
Asparagus, tomato and blue cheese salad
During the course of my visits, service was – wait for it – inconsistent. There was the hovering busser who kept trying to snatch our food and the server who took 10 minutes to get to our table, neglected to bring bread and didn’t ask about an entrée salad afloat in dressing that we’d barely touched. Another server argued vociferously with my husband about the provenance of a certain kind of fish. Two female servers did deliver cheery, if not polished, performances. It’s difficult not to compare this unpredictability with other chains, where the service manual is followed to the letter.
The menu freewheels much more than the average chain – about half of the smallish listings change frequently, and vegetables play a major role in most preparations.
On the first visit, the hostess seated us at one of the miniscule two-tops downstairs – the scant table-space made scanter by a candle, salt and pepper shakers, a decanter of olive oil (high quality and deliciously infused with herbs), water glasses, a bottle of water, bread plates, bread basket, napkins, silverware, wine glasses and the food. We spent the whole meal pushing and piling things, trying to make room. My visits apparently coincided with the kitchen trying new bread products, because it went from dense, soft and gummy to deliciously crusty with a lovely elastic crumb. Good move.
Appetizers ranged from outstanding to deeply misjudged. Calamari ($9) came crisp-tender, albeit paired with ho-hum marinara. Tart lemon aioli would have made it a real treat. A special of lentils jeweled with carrot cubes, barely sautéed spinach and goat cheese ($9) was wonderful. An elegant salad of al dente asparagus, ripe tomato and tangy blue cheese ($7) sang with flavor, while a whole choir chimed in on the carpaccio ($12). The high quality, paper-thin beef was heaped with a veritable salad including avocado, which obscures the dish’s purity. Also in the overkill category: a dish of three unwieldy whole roasted tomatoes mounded with ultra rich burrata and pesto ($11). A spinach, portobello mushroom and goat cheese entrée salad was drenched in puckeringly sharp balsamic dressing, and for $15 was scant on mushrooms.
Photos - From left: risotto contadina • lemon chicken
Pizzas exhibit a dense, biscuit-like crust unlike any I’ve tried. On one visit, the nightly special ($11) completely lacked the promised mozzarella and fontina and was very dry. Maybe the towering pile of mostly yellowed arugula was meant to make up for it.
Risotto contadina ($10) was both authentically flavored and an innovative twist on standard spaghetti. Pasta doesn’t fare as well; linguine vongole ($17) had exactly six clams on a huge tangle of barely seasoned, seriously underdone pasta without even a sprinkle of parsley. Linguine with shrimp, scallops and clams ($20) was described as being in a spicy cherry tomato sauce that was actually sweet and one-dimensional.
Kid’s Sloppy Sundae
The roller coaster effect throws the entrées for a loop, as well. A filet mignon special with potatoes ($29) was unappealingly drowned under a deluge of dark brown mushroom sauce, but lemon chicken ($19) was picture-perfect, beautifully executed and full of sprightly flavor. A generous chunk of sea bass ($30) was deftly handled but overwhelmed by a heap of red onions, mushrooms, roasted red peppers and garlic.
Two desserts were killer, while two others should be killed. The Kid’s Sloppy Sundae is actually very grown-up, with its symphonic blend of vanilla and chocolate gelato, warm fudge, caramel and crushed almond cookies ($7). Ditto a refreshing lemon crème brûlée ($7). Done-to-death tiramisu ($7) misses depth and richness, and the cannoli shell ($6) is hard and flavorless.
Mia Francesca’s wild inconsistencies might be the result of its distant proximity from the Chicago mother ship; if so, we can expect them to be smoothed out as the chain expands westward. Meanwhile, enjoy the flashes of Italian cucina brilliance and be thankful it’s not another Olive Garden.
Mia Francesca’s dining room
: 20825 N. Pima Rd., Scottsdale
: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
: Calamari ($9); asparagus, tomato and blue cheese salad ($7); lentil, spinach and goat cheese salad ($9); risotto contadina ($10), pollo limone ($19), sea bass ($30), Kid’s Sloppy Sundae ($7), lemon crème brûlée ($7)
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