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Prescott, AZ, Reviews: El Gato Azul, Sweet Tart, Raven Cafe

silverbear Oct 24, 2006 03:05 AM

A recent midweek trip to Prescott allowed an opportunity to return to a favorite restaurant and to try two new ones. Prescott is seldom seen as a food destination, and the chain restaurants that line Highway 69 on the way into the city certainly don’t offer much promise. Once in Prescott city limits, and especially in downtown, the situation improves decisively with a number of independent restaurants making their mark.

El Gato Azul
316 W Goodwin St.
http://www.fourcornersrestaurants.com/restaurant_detail.asp?RestID=5

The “Blue Cat” is actually owned by Four Corners Management, LLC, which operates four restaurants in Prescott. El Gato Azul, however, does not feel like part of a “collection” in any way. The restaurant is small and casual, occupying a cozy space alongside one of Prescott’s myriad creeks. When the weather is warm, outdoor tables on a patio overlooking the creek are available.

As its name suggests, El Gato Azul is heavily influenced by Spanish cuisine and features tapas. The restaurant also acknowledges a New Mexican influence – not in the sense of green chile stew or other traditional N.M. favorites, but instead a contemporary Southwestern approach that mingles with more traditional Spanish touches. I don’t know if hummus, black bean cakes, and small flatbread pizzas with roasted garlic have ever been served in bars in Spain, but these items round out the menu nicely.

As with prior visits, my companions and I disregarded the entrees in favor of multiple rounds of tapas. On this visit, the first round of cold tapas included hummus with grilled pitas, an assortment of olives, and relish of cucumbers and tomatoes paired with flour tortillas. The hummus and olives were both as good as expected. The hummus was just the right consistency and had assertive garlic and lemon flavors. The olives were just salty enough to be noticed without overpowering other flavors. The only disappointment was the relish. The chopped cucumbers and tomatoes blended well, but the accompanying tortillas had a rubbery, mass-produced texture. More pita bread would have been a better accompaniment.

The second round of hot tapas included a black bean cake, a small pizza with roasted whole gloves of garlic, and a daily special of a very plump scallop lightly breaded and sautéed. The black bean cake is a perennial favorite and actually a holdover from the restaurant that previously occupied the location. The pizza burst with roasted garlic flavor and did not disappoint. The scallop was fresh and not overpowered by the breading. One of us had intended to order the daily soup, potato-bacon, but we ran out of room before reaching that point.

Of course, dessert goes into a separate chamber, so we did find room to sample the chocolate mousse cake and the berry flan. I’ll admit my expectations were low for the mousse cake simply because it’s a dessert that is abundant and seldom well-prepared. To my surprise, the version at El Gato Azul was among the best I’ve had. It truly was chocolate mousse in the shape of a cake slice, rather than a floury chocolate cake with a token layer of mousse. The berry flan, which seemed more in line with the Spanish / Southwestern theme of the restaurant, was a delicious counterpart to the intense chocolate of the mousse cake. A layer of flan was topped with almost equally thick layer of blueberries and blackberries.

Beverages sampled included Spanish red wine by the glass, fruit juice for the pregnant wife, and chamomile mint tea after dinner. Service was friendly, crisp, and informal without being too familiar. Our efficient server anticipated our needs for drink refills, congratulated us on impending parenthood, and orchestrated a friendly conversation between our table and another regarding the merit of the desserts we had ordered. El Gato Azul has grown in a short time to be my Prescott favorite. I hope it can stay as inviting and comfortable as its popularity grows.

Sweet Tart
125 N Cortez St.

Sweet Tart is at heart a patisserie. As noted in another recent post, croissants are this establishment’s signature item, and one could buy a week’s worth of baked happiness just by getting a dozen to go. As the adage goes, “one cannot live on bread alone” (or something like that), so Sweet Tart doubles as a small café, offering breakfast and lunch throughout the week and a special prix fixe dinner only on Saturdays.

Arriving at lunchtime on a weekday, we had to wait a few minutes while the server cleared our table, but within five or ten minutes of arriving, we had a comfortable place in this shoebox of a restaurant. Beverages available were sodas, fruit juices, and bottled water from a display case, along with coffee and tea. No alcohol is served, but BYOB is welcome during the Saturday dinner service.

The lunch menu is reasonably extensive given the restaurant’s small size. Four quiches are featured each day, and my wife chose the smoked salmon variety. I never eat quiche because of a general dislike of eggs and “eggy” dishes, so I did not have a taste. Nevertheless, my partner in crime pronounced the quiche excellent, saying that it was a bit lighter and fluffier than many she has sampled.

For the quiche-adverse, there are soups, sandwiches, and salads available, generally priced around $6 or $7 for a lunch-size serving. Unable to choose among the many choices, I upgraded to a $9.95 option that allowed me to choose a combination of any three salads on the menu. The three that made the cut on this day were Mediterranean Macaroni, elbow macaroni with roasted eggplant; a sweet potato salad; and a salad of marinated beets. All three were good, but the sweet potato salad stood out simply because I can’t recall ever having had sweet potatoes served any way other than roasted or mashed. The cold presentation, with dressing, worked amazingly well and the vinegar in the dressing contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the sweet potatoes. The three entrée-style salads were complemented by an unannounced serving of simple mesclun greens.

Dessert was a shared croissant, which was every bit as good as it sounds. Sweet Tart is a new discovery that I owe to a previous post on this board. I’ll be eager to try the Saturday night dinner option during a future trip.

Raven Café
142 N. Cortez St.
http://www.ravencafe.com/

The Raven is a place I want to like. The atmosphere is hip without being pretentious, and the breakfast we enjoyed there was delicious. Still, eating there was a slightly weird experience. The problem seems to be that the Raven has not yet decided what type of business it wants to be. It seems to be trying to carve out an identity as a bar, restaurant, art gallery, nightclub, and coffee place all at once.

The space is huge, beginning at the Cortez Street entry and going all the way back to the alley that runs halfway between Cortez and Montezuma. Hardwood floors and high ceilings create a loft-like look. Still, a lot of the space seems to be wasted, leading to my broader question of Raven’s business model.

The bar at the Raven is definitely enticing, with over a dozen interesting beers on tap, and many more bottled beers available. Since our visit was at 8:00 AM, beer was not high on the priority list. Instead, we ordered from the limited breakfast menu, which offered just three items. I ordered the granola with yogurt and berries, while my two companions both decided on the French toast. The woman serving us stated that baked goods are often available, but that none had been delivered that morning.

After ordering at the bar, we found a comfortable table and waited for our entrees to be delivered. The wait was long for breakfast – nearly 25 minutes. Most of the clientele seemed to be people in no hurry, which was good because the leisurely pace would not make stopping for a quick breakfast on the way to work feasible. Fortunately, the food was good enough to be worth the wait.

My yogurt and granola was admittedly not a challenging dish for the kitchen, but I was still impressed that the yogurt provided was plain and not the sweetened pudding that is more typically served in restaurants. With the sweetness already present in the granola and the berries, any more sweetness would have been overkill. As for the French toast, that item received rave reviews for being light and not excessively heavy or sweet.

The Raven’s breakfast menu, although limited, shows that there is definitely something good happening in the kitchen. If the Raven can expedite service and expand its menu, it might evolve into a real breakfast destination. Before doing that, it may have to focus its mission. “Bar” and “breakfast” are not usually words found in the same sentence, so it will be interesting to see if the Raven can find its niche and thrive.