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Mar 5, 2008 06:29 PM

Review: Tarbell's - Phoenix (w/ photos!)

I freely admit that I am not a fan of the reality shows on the Food Network. I miss the recipe-based shows and early Food TV celebrities like Sarah Molton and David Rosengarten. However, I still had a burst of pride when I saw that Mark Tarbell had beat Cat Cora during the Iron Chef America contest.

According to the press, Phoenix metro has produced two Iron Chef America winners and I pleased to hear that. Knowing that Tarbell had won, I planned to take J. to Tarbell’s at 32nd Street and Camelback for dinner. I made our reservations and we both put on our fancier duds for a night out.

Arriving at Tarbell’s, we were cheerfully greeted and escorted to a very nice window table for four. We made ourselves comfortable and began our survey of the menu. J. immediately noticed that Tarbell’s winning Iron Chef menu was prominently featured a the top of the first page but we ultimately decided to go al a carte.

Our server arrived and offered to take our drink order. We requested two Diet Cokes ($2.00 each). When he returned with the drinks, he also brought a basket of bread and a small ramekin of olive oil. I thought the bread was rather mundane. J. thought the bread was completely one-dimensional. It wasn’t horrible; it just seemed to lack any complex or complementary flavors like buttery or salty or sweet. I wasn’t sure what was up with the olive oil, but I had a strange medicinal taste to it.

When our server returned, we placed our order. J. started with the Fried Calamari ($12.00) which would be followed by the Halibut with Acorn Squash ($32.00). I selected the Caesar Salad ($11.00) for my appetizer and the Double Pork Chop ($33.00) for my entrée. We also decided to try a plate of the Pomme Frites ($7.00).

I mentioned to J. that I really liked the surroundings. The interior was dark with light reflecting off the bright, white table clothes. The decoration was minimal, but the atmosphere and the view of the kitchen gave the place a comfortable and clubby feel. I also liked our table next to the window.

We only waited about 10 minutes before our appetizers arrived. My Caesar Salad was plentiful and traditional with Romaine lettuce, Caesar dressing, croutons, Parmesan cheese and a hint of anchovy. It was a competent and straight-forward creation and presentation. I was also pleased the salad was very cold which kept the lettuce crunchy.

J.’s Fried Calamari was also quite large in the quantity department. A long, rectangular plate was filled with the crisp rings of squid and accompanied by two dipping sauces. J. found the presentation pleasing and thought the calamari was very good. However, J. wasn’t thrilled with the breading as it was literally falling off the calamari with the touch of a fork. Thankfully, the squid made up for the breading issue by not being chewy, but delicate and slightly sweet.

The plate of Pommes Frites was also a large serving and the golden color of the potatoes was appealing. We both liked the fact the fries were very crisp on the outside and yet tender on the inside. The amount of salt sprinkled on them was perfect, but we felt that they would have been enhanced by some sort of sauce or additional seasoning.

Between the appetizers and the entrees, we did encounter a problem in getting our water and drink glasses filled. I am not sure if our server was over-extended in his serving area, but on a couple of occasions, we had to bring it to his attention that our water glasses were sitting empty.

Our entrees arrived and I was pleased at the appearance of my Double Pork Chop. The exterior had dark grill marks on a canvas of dark amber. The chop was fairly large and rested on a bed of butternut squash stuffing and sautéed spinach. The meat on the chop was tender and moist, but slightly overcooked. Still it had a very pleasant smoky aftertaste that I enjoyed. The stuffing was an interesting mix of textures with the bread being soft and the cubes of squash providing a bit of roughness to the dish. I would have appreciated a bit more seasoning on the stuffing. The spinach was top notch and I loved the infusion of garlic. I was a bit confused by the reduction sauce. It really looked gorgeous on the plate, but the taste was non-existent. I dredged a bit of the stuffing through the sauce and all I got was a bit of additional saltiness. Overall, the chop was a solid choice with the spinach being the unqualified winner on the plate.

J.’s Halibut with Roasted Acorn Squash was quite pretty. The orange color of the squash and the green leaves from the Brussels sprouts made the white, flaky halibut pop out visually. J. liked the fish and the squash but found but felt the dish sounded much better in theory than it was in execution. There wasn’t any “wow factor” to the dish and J. said it “just came across as a nice piece of halibut.”

After our meals, we debated about dessert and decided to each get one. J. went for the Bread Pudding ($11.00) and I had the Spice Bread ($11.00). There was only a few minutes break between ordering and the desserts arriving. J.’s Bread Pudding was dense and looked appealing. J. had no complaints about the taste other than it needing a bit more sauce. The pudding was filled with plenty of raisins and a hint of cinnamon.

My Spice Bread was interesting in that it was served with a small dollop of Pumpkin Ice Cream. I thought the bread had far too much spice in the mix and that hid the rich, earthy pumpkin flavor as well as killing off the subtle flavors of the ice cream, which just came across on my palate as cold. Overall, I was disappointed with the dessert, and J. commented that the $11.00 price tag for each dessert was a bit excessive.

We requested our bill and the total was $131.04 including tax. The service was professional, but somewhat stoic and we did have to request refills a few times.

J. and I made the quick drive back home and we talked about our experience. The verdict was that Tarbell’s was a solid choice with some very good selections and an inviting atmosphere. However, we also realized that Tarbell’s didn’t cross over into the “outstanding” category for us. I am not sure exactly what it was that kept this restaurant on the cusp between very good and great, but we both expressed that we expected just a little bit more from Tarbell’s. Did we expect too much from Tarbell’s after a great showing on Iron Chef America? Or was Tarbell’s playing it safe in the kitchen?

I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from going to Tarbell’s. After all, it was a pleasant meal. I wish I could put my finger on what it was that was missing.

In the final analysis, I just wish there had been more Iron Chef America inspiration with the items we ordered.

3213 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Dress: Business casual on up.
Hours: Monday through Saturday - 5 PM to 10 PM; Sunday - 5 PM to 9 PM.
Notes: Next to Sportsman’s Wine Shop on the southeast corner of 32nd Street and Camelback.
Alcohol: Full bar service.

Additional photos can be found at

3213 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ 85018

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  1. My husband and I have been to Tarbell's twice in the last couple of months. I would say we agree with you about the slightly scattered service (say that five times fast!). But we disagree about the fried calamari. We ordered it on our second visit, last month, and actually sent it back to the kitchen. It was kind of limp, the corn meal breading fell off at the slightest touch - as you mentioned - and it was very greasy. It was late in the evening and I have a feeling that the calamari had been fried earlier and had been sitting under a heat lamp or something.

    That was, however, the only sour note in the meal. On our first visit, he had the Caesar salad and loved it and I went retro and had the wedge of iceberg lettuce with bleu cheese dressing. It was perfect, although it was an enormous bowl of salad - like half a head of lettuce! Both times we've dined at Tarbell's, I've ordered the same main dish: butternut-squash-filled ravioli in brown butter with bits of chopped chestnut. O.M.G. There are only maybe five or six luscious, plump, round raviolis in the dish - hardly enough to let anybody else take a taste, even if I were so inclined - but so incredibly rich that I found myself moaning by the time I'd inhaled the last one and then swiped up the remaining butter with that focaccia.

    On that first visit, my husband's main course was the ribbon pasta with Bolognese sauce, which he adored. Last time, it was a beef special that I can't recall. Made him very happy though.

    That bread pudding was way too much for any one person, especially after having both an appetizer and a main. Even four of us, sharing, had a hard time of it. And it was soooooooo sweet! I don't particularly go for ultra-sugary desserts, but that's just me. Everybody else liked it. And the strangely-shaped bowl it was served in was amusing.

    In any case, we will return. I really do have to try some other dish. Maybe I can get somebody to share the butternut squash ravioli with me as an appetizer.

    1. hi seth,

      i'm with you. i think the food's solid. but for 33 bucks i need a pork chop to be more than solid.

      i'm not saying i expect the earth to move under my feet, but for tarbell's prices i'd rather to go ranco pinot.

      im sorry but 11 bucks for a dessert is ridiculous. esp for bread pudding. come ON - its leftover bread!!!!

      1. I ate there recently with my parents. I'll agree, that the food was very good, but not great. I ordered the Butternut Squash Ravioli, and when it came out it was warm on the outside, but ice cold in the center. The waiter took it back immediately to correct the problem. This seems like it would be a great neighborhood spot, if the prices were a little lower. For what they charge, I expect a bit more.
        I will say that it was a small thrill to see Mark Tarbell walking around, greeting people (He's the guy from TV!). He even picked out a nice bottle of Pinot Noir for us, then opened and poured it. Kinda cool.

        1. I've been a loyal Tarbell's customer since the restaurant opened more than a decade ago, and I'd be the first to defend it against unwarranted attacks. Fortunately, nothing in this thread reaches that extreme. Everyone is basically saying good but not great, especially at this price point. Even though my experiences have been uniformly positive, if so many people with good taste are saying the restaurant isn't up to par, it may be an indication that the Tarbell's concept needs a makeover after remaining essentially unchanged since the mid-'90s.

          It occurs to me that the shopping center Tarbell's occupies is probably an underutilization of the valuable real estate @ 32nd St & Camelback. I wouldn't be surprised if the corner were redeveloped in some way once the inevitable neighborhood opposition is overcome. If and when that occurs, it might be time for the restaurant to reboot with a different menu and approach. The Iron Chef victory shows that there's still a lot of creativity and talent at Tarbell's; it may just be time to take it in a slightly different direction after so many years of the Tarbell's I know and love.

          3 Replies
          1. re: silverbear

            I too am a longtime fan of Tarbell's. But I take a different approach in "good but not great" reviews: To each their own. Even people with good taste can still have different tastes.

            I see restaurants that I like(but not love) blasted to bits here. I just shrug my shoulders and move on, not really wanting to spend time on the defensive.
            Conversely, I see people go ga-ga over spots that I think are just ok.

            It's all good.

            1. re: mamamia

              Good perspective. Another factor may be that the Iron Chef victory heightened expectations to a level that is hard to fulfill. A lot of the "good but not great" opinions seem to come from those who were not Tarbell's customers prior to the show. In a way, though, I think the heightened expecations still may point to a need for change in the not-too-distant future. In other words, "go out of a high note" or "quite while you're ahead" -- and of course then come back with something even better.

              1. re: silverbear

                I would agree with that. I definately went in with high expectations, and they were mostly met. My parents, on the other hand, eat there regularly, and did so before the ICA appearance, and they say that they have always been very satisfied.