uhockey's ramblings on The Valley 9/29-10/1 including Pizzeria Bianco, Binkley's, Barrio Cafe, Kai, Cowboy Ciao, The Mission, and more.
First of all, thanks to all the local hounds who helped me out with their wisdom and recommendations. Additional thanks to those who met up with me for meals and educated me about the area I very well may be calling home in the near future.
Reviews will be slow in coming as I tend to be long winded, but for now I'll provide the list of places I went as well as my "Top 15" things I ate. As usual the pictures will be housed in the blog and all text will be posted here at Chowhound.
Morning Glory Café
Over Easy Café
The Fry Bread House
La Grande Orange Grocery
Cartel Coffee Lab
7133 East Stetson Drive, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
623 E Adams St, Phoenix, AZ 85004
La Grande Orange Grocery
4410 N 40th St, Phoenix, AZ 85018
6920 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Fry Bread House
4140 N 7th Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85013
4730 E Indian School Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85018
Morning Glory Cafe
6106 S 32nd St, Phoenix, AZ 85042
230 N Gilbert Rd, Gilbert, AZ
Top 15 Things I Ate in Phoenix:
1) Kai - Escargot, Truffles, Wild Mushrooms & Caramel Goat Cheese – Native French “Toast,” Frozen Truffle Crema, Meyer Lemon & Black Garlic Nage, Pork Belly Nuggets, Oregon Truffles, Tarragon Oil, Chive Oil, Blis Vinegar
2) Binkley’s - Foie Gras Beignets with White Truffle Cream and Foie Gras Vanilla Milk Shake with Blackberry Swirl and Blackberry Whipped Cream
3) La Grande Orange Grocery - Tammie Coe Crumb Bun
4) Pizzeria Bianco - ROSA - Red Onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, Rosemary, Arizona Pistachios
5) Morning Glory Café - Farm Monte Cristo French Toast “Sandwich” with Slow Baked Ham, Over Easy Eggs, and Melting Cheese, with Warm Maple Syrup
6) Kai - Prairie Squab & Spiced Cornmeal Dusted Sweetbreads - Truffle & Iberico Lomo Gratinee Potatoes, Wilted Summer Chard Leaves, Stone Fruit & Grape Chutney, Micro Stevia, Truffle Croutons, Baby Carrots
7) Liberty Market - Cinnamon Roll
8) Kai - Mexican Chocolate Souffle - Scented with Kai’s Sweetened Dry Mole Spices & Wattleseed Anglaise
9) The Mission – Duck Carnitas Empanada - duck + foie gras + orange + habanero + oregano + mushroom + queso oaxaca
10) Barrio Café - Churros Rellenos de Cajeta de Cabra Goat’s milk caramel stuffed fritters served with vanilla bean ice cream
11) Scratch Patisserie - Red Velvet Cupcake
12) Cowboy Ciao - Exotic Mushroom Pan Fry mucho mushrooms (including cremini, button, oyster, cepe, lobster, black trumpet, shiitake, morel, yellow foot) in ancho cream over double-cooked polenta, topped with grilled portabellini, avocado, tomato and cotija cheese
13) The Fry bread House - Chocolate and Butter Fry Bread
14) Binkley's - Peanut Butter Souffle with Raspberry Jam
15) Herb Box - Ding Dong
Yes, I realize there are a lot of dessert items - so what? :-)
7133 East Stetson Drive, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
623 E Adams St, Phoenix, AZ 85004
La Grande Orange Grocery
4410 N 40th St, Phoenix, AZ 85018
6920 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Morning Glory Cafe
6106 S 32nd St, Phoenix, AZ 85042
230 N Gilbert Rd, Gilbert, AZ
7611 W Thomas Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85033
Agree with Themis!
We visited Kai finally for the first time earlier this year and both the escargot dish and souffle were two of my highlights also. I never get tired of the signature mushroom pan fry at Cowboy Ciao, and I just love everything about Binkley's. I really need to get to the Mission.
5594 W. Wildhorse Pass Blvd, Chandler, AZ 85226
Morning Glory Cafe, Over Easy, Liberty Market:
Text as below, full reviews with pictures in the blog.
…nearly a month after my trip to The Bay my interview travels would take me to Phoenix/Scottsdale, a place I’d never really considered before, but a place with a job that just seemed “right” and a number of fellow gourmands, foodies, and chow-hounds who really reached out with their recommendations and offers to meet up for meals – a great group, each and every one. With days jammed packed with interviews, practice visits, sightseeing, and a hockey game this short trip would actually prove to be a little tricky in planning but after getting a general feel for the local logistics the restaurants fell into place nicely with breakfast, lunch, and dinner planned strategically each day along with a few snacks. Beginning first with breakfast, just as my trip did, there were three proper sit down breakfasts in The Valley and the first took place less than an hour after I hopped of the plane at The Farm at South Mountain.
With bags packed light and my car easily obtained the drive to Morning Glory Café would be a straight forward 15 minutes from Sky Harbor Airport and arriving at the large farm I proceeded down the gravel path through gardens of streaming sunlight that I quite simply did not expect to see in the “desert.” With signs delineating the location of the café (and the oft raved Quiescence next door) parking was found under a shady tree and checking the thermostat, 87 degrees Fahrenheit at 8:45am) I hopped out of the car and walked down the path to the restaurant only to find the patio approximately 1/3 full. Greeted promptly by a thin young woman and subsequently by the elderly gentleman who would be my server I was told to “sit anywhere you like.”
Selecting a seat in the shade as my pale Midwestern complexion certainly was not ready for an hour in the Arizona sun it would be mere moments before Cliff would stop by with the menu and a bucket of condiments to inform me of the daily pastry special and to ask if I had any questions. Requesting a coffee I was informed that the coffee, water, and tea are all “help yourself” and suggesting I’d need a minute to browse the menu I was told to take my time.
With the menu concise but full of excellent choices largely consisting of locally sourced meats and organic produce I spent a few moments weighing my decision and with my choices made I motioned to Cliff who stopped by to take my order and warn me “you’d better be hungry” before departing for the kitchen. Undeterred by his warning I next proceeded to the coffee stand where biodegradable cups and lids were provided for both water and coffee and after getting a cup of each I returned to my seat where I sipped the thin and mildly acidic locally roasted Café Cortez coffee while awaiting my appetizer.
Prebaked but still warm, the first item to arrive at my table would be the pastry of the day – a Blueberry Muffin nearly the size of my fist and bespeckled with crystals of cane sugar. First tasting the muffin as it was and then gilding the proverbial lily with salted California Dairies butter the muffin would prove to be quite impressive in its density but also in its fluffiness as the medium-size blueberries burst with flavor within the buttermilk batter with tinges of cinnamon tickling the palate.
With coffee refilled and a short wait as the patio filled another pair of tables with locals (and regulars judging by the greeting) Cliff would arrive perhaps twenty minutes after I was seated with the main course – the “Farm Monte Cristo” consisting of two thick slices of fluffy rustic French Toast sandwiched around slow baked local ham, two over easy eggs, and melting cheddar cheese. Apparently expecting me to be overwhelmed by the size Cliff offered me a “good luck and bon appetite” before stepping away and with that I set out to douse the amalgam with warm organic maple syrup and take a bite; a bite that more or less redefined the Monte Cristo for all time as the bread was not the least bit oily but rather light and fluffy with a nearly croissant textured interior and slight yeasty notes mellowed by the syrup and the powdered sugar. Moving next to the ham – young, fresh, lean, and salty – and then the sharp cheddar and creamy eggs the flavor was in a word “perfect;” salty, sweet, creamy, crunchy, and at the same time surprisingly light. It was not only the best breakfast item I had in Phoenix, but the best sandwich I’ve had in a very long time.
With Cliff returning surprised that I’d finished the meal and offering me a “good job” I joked (well, not really joked as I really did go for pastry and pizza afterward) that the sandwich “wasn’t that big, but it was THAT good” and thanking him for the service I requested the tab while getting yet another coffee to enjoy while I checked my mail and another cup to go. Noting now that the experience of such a great sandwich, setting, and service is not “cheap” ($23 with tax and tip) I can say without a doubt that if I do end up in Phoenix long term Cliff will not make the mistake of underestimating my capacity again because without a doubt I’ll be a regular.
With a whole day of eating including a 26-course masterpiece at Binkley’s behind me the second day of my trip to the Valley would be a clinic day…starting at 8:00…which of course meant a 10 mile run at 5:00am was not out of the question, nor was breakfast beforehand, in this case a place recently brought to national attention by (insert synonym for annoying) food personality Guy Fieri – Over Easy Café. Not particularly a fan of Fieri but having found some of his recommendations to at least be interesting (and in the case of Rino’s Place occasionally outstanding) the restaurant fit my time frame as well as location and as such I decided to give it a go.
Arriving shortly after the doors opened at 6:30 Over Easy Café was easily located via GPS and attached to the Phoenix Coyotes Ice Den practice facility I allocated parking quickly and after a quick browse of the rink I made my way into the café – a starkly decorated seemingly converted office space with a breakfast bar and Formica all around and with a few tables of patrons already seated I was greeted at the door with the suggestion to sit anywhere I like. In this case electing for a two-top near the doors I took my seat where silverware wrapped in napkins along with the menu were already in place and grabbing a copy of the local paper I started to peruse the menu moments before service would arrive, a pleasant young lady named Samantha who appeared to be the only server working the room.
Clearly a place for regulars as nearly ever patron to enter after me was greeted by name Samantha welcomed me and filling my water asked if I’d like coffee while I perused the menu; an offer I gladly agreed to when I noted that they were serving the same locally roasted Café Cortez as the day prior at Morning Glory.
With my coffee being readied and having already perused the online menu I would be ready to order by the time Samantha returned and with the time just before 7:00 I opted for two dishes, both garnering a “good choice,” and sat back to read the paper and listen to the overhead radio while I waited perhaps fifteen minutes for my plates to arrive.
With service efficient and friendly throughout my stay and coffee maintained near full along with my water my two plates would arrive simultaneously and having heard some (Food Network) call Over Easy the best breakfast in the state while the posters on the walls hailed Fieri’s commentary I started first with their signature item of Waffle Dogs, three chorizo spiced pork breakfast sausages on sticks dipped in the house waffle batter and fried to a golden brown and dusted with powdered sugar. Warned that these were hot in temperature but mild in flavor Samantha suggested a combination of maple syrup (not authentic maple, mind you) and hot sauce as a condiment for this and first tasting the Dogs themselves and then with syrup and sauce I had to admit they were better dressed but not terribly impressive either way. A bit spicy and a nice blend of sweet and savory the overall impression was that yes, this was kind of like a corndog, but without the cornbread and thus inferior. Light and without oiliness the crispness was appreciated, but overall rather lacking for a “signature” dish.
Moving next to my second selection, the better of the two by some degree, a half order of Caramelized banana & pecan French toast was delivered – a dish that would clearly be tasty based simply on ingredients, but actually a nice preparation with the single slice of buttery brioche crisp on the exterior and custard like on the inside topped with fresh bananas, crunchy pecans, and a thick caramel sauce that tasted good on the toast and equally delicious spooned into my coffee. Certainly not a breakfast for those lacking a sweet tooth one slice was definitely enough, especially after the waffle dogs.
With a coffee offered for the road and the clock just shy of 7:45 I accepted the to-go cup and after paying the admittedly modest tab plus tip made my way from the restaurant en route to clinic along with the newspaper housing and sports sections that I was encouraged to take along with me. Overall a nice place with good service I cannot say I’d go out of my way for Over Easy, but considering its location I could certainly see it making a great breakfast spot after a morning skate – goodness knows it would have trumped the Denny’s or Bob Evans I frequented after hockey as a lad.
Another long day – clinic all morning, lunch at Barrio Café, and a late dinner at Kai – yet the morning routine would repeat itself again with a great twelve mile run around Kierland making me wish every hour of every day was like Phoenix before dawn. Showered and refreshed by the in-room Starbucks Africa Kitamu and readied for another long day of eating, sightseeing, eating, hockey, and eating I made my way to the car and set my GPS for the town of Gilbert; destination Liberty Market, home of what many (including the local paper) have noted to be the best Bread Pudding around.
A functioning grocery since 1935 and located in a building under a water tower every bit showing its age I approached Liberty Market slowly due to the local farmer’s market – a market containing much of what has now been out of season in Ohio for at least a month – and with parking readily available I made my way into Liberty Market via the side door. Passing the al fresco dining area, the kitchen, and subsequently the store and pastry counter to take my place in a line six deep I grabbed a paper menu on the way in to browse though in all reality it was not really necessary; I knew what I was there for and the pastry case had already tempted me with any number of appetizers.
Standing in line while others made their decisions, some a full meal and some merely pastries to go, when I eventually reached the coffee bar I was greeted by a young man with spacers and sleeves to fit his blasé demeanor and placing my order the price was recited and a number was handed to me with any number of seats to choose from both inside and out. Opting this time for the indoors and filling a glass with water and ice I took a seat with a full view of the room and placing my number on the table was left to wait for perhaps 10 minutes while reading a local guidebook detailing Liberty’s history as well as the other restaurants in Joe Johnston’s stable.
Sipping my water while watching a small boy barely make a dent in his enormous pile of eggs my first course of the meal at Liberty would arrive hot from the pastry case in the form of the largest Cinnamon Roll I’ve eaten to date – a squared off yeasty pastry nearly filling the 12” by 12”plate and inundating what I can only imagine to be a 6 foot diameter with the smells of butter, cinnamon, and sugar. Large yet impressively light with wispy dough sandwiching layers of cinnamon and butter and the entirely lacquered in a thin sugar shell the Cinnamon Roll wowed in flavor as much as it did in size and without being the belly buster of Cinnabon was a perfect size to share as an appetizer – or, if you’re feeling truly ravenous (gluttonous) to enjoy on your own.
With the cinnamon roll easily dispatched of and now wishing I’d have gotten coffee but not wanting to withstand the 10+ deep line my second dish would arrive approximately fifteen minutes on the heels of the cinnamon roll and given all its hype I truly expected the Griddled Bread Pudding to be mind blowing, but alas it was merely very good. Served with real maple syrup and approximately half the size and twice the weight of the cinnamon roll the bread pudding was in reality nearly flawless French Toast – a caramelized exterior and a moist custard interior, but what he had in texture it unfortunately lacked in taste. Largely eggy but also with slight notes of cinnamon and vanilla that perked up with the syrup perhaps part of my disillusionment with the pudding was actually how sweet its predecessor had been but overall it just felt like something was missing – perhaps some fruit, whipped cream, or caramelized nuts to add a bit of texture and nuance (this is apparently how they serve the dessert, non-griddled, bread pudding.)
Overall a very nice spot and a place I’d definitely return to for the baked goods as well as to try the pancakes, plus perhaps the griddled bread pudding with a side of fruit as a starter and one of those incredible looking Sticky Buns or scones as dessert. Additionally, a third interesting breakfast in three days in the Valley and a good sign that breakfast and brunch are definitely worth going out for – a far cry from my current environs back home.
6920 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, AZ 85331
4730 E Indian School Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85018
Morning Glory Cafe
6106 S 32nd St, Phoenix, AZ 85042
230 N Gilbert Rd, Gilbert, AZ
1445 W Southern Ave Ste 2142, Mesa, AZ 85202
La Grande Orange Grocery, Scratch, The Herb Box, Cartel Coffee, Sweet Republic, The Fry Bread House:
Full review with pictures in the blog, text as below:
Never one to let the idea of three square meals a day deter me from enjoying a visit to a new city my three plus days in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Glendale, and Chandler would additionally lead me to a number of ancillary eats – some upscale and French, some down n’ dirty Southwest, some new, some old, some hot, and some cold. Beginning first with my love of pastries, the first of these six stops would be at the combined grocery, café, bakery, liquor store, souvenir stand, and pizza parlor that is La Grande Orange Grocery; the sort of place you have to see to believe yet the sort of place where it all seems to “fit.”
Harbored in a small strip mall with plenty of parking plus curbside checkout for those on the go I made my way into La Grande Orange only half knowing what to expect and having already mentioned the commodities entailed the only thing I could think of when I entered the door was a trip to Whole Foods if you condensed the entirety of one store into a space approximately one quarter the size. With cups to one side and cupcakes to the other, wine to my right and coffee to my left my first impression was one of total sensory overload yet at the same once I entered and started to browse I detected a sort of controlled chaos as the various lines moved toward their destination with a good flow.
Having already eaten breakfast and had plenty of coffee with pizza plans at Bianco for later in the day I took my time investigating the space – children’s toys, shirts, travel mugs, cheeses, pre-made salads, locally roasted coffees – before finally approaching the pastry counter to browse the cornucopia of goods. With many items baked in house and others provided by Tammie Coe Bakery two doors down I weighed the options carefully while additionally gauging my hunger and although any number of the options sounded delectable I ended up settling for two; one my own choice and a sort of obligation at this point and the other a recommendation from the young woman at the counter as “the best thing in the world;” a promise I told her I’d hold her to if she was wrong, and after paying the modest tab I made my way to the street with my choices packed up (ostensibly for later, but in reality for enjoyment less than thirty minutes later as I checked into my hotel.)
Beginning first with my selection, La Grande Orange’s very own Red Velvet Cupcake, this large specimen wrapped in red wax paper and topped with an ample pile of cream cheese frosting would prove to be one of the better Red Velvets I’ve had in some time save for the stellar version at Bouchon Bakery just one month prior. Loaded with notes of cocoa and sugar plus the faint taste of cinnamon and what I’m pretty sure was clove I really enjoyed the subtle nuance to this cake and despite the $3.95 price tag the portion was substantially larger and the cake significantly more moist than more expensive versions in other major cities.
Moving next to the suggestion of my cashier, the Tammie Coe Crumb Bun, I really was not sure what to expect of the $2.50 option but what I received, while not the best thing in the world, was without a doubt the best sweet I had on my visit to Arizona. Beginning first with the exterior, this golden biscuit looked something like a cinnamon roll meets a scone with a spiral texture encased in crystal sugar, but digging deeper and peeling off a layer the texture was instead somewhat akin to the famous Breton Kouign Amann kissed with cinnamon and topped with streusel. Layer after buttery layer, bite after yeasty bite, and making a mess of the carpet (crumb bun indeed) all the while all I can say is that if you find yourself in the Phoenix area this is a must try and given the quality of both selections I was lucky to be staying so far from La Grande Orange and Tammie Coe because otherwise I’d have gone back for more.
Another day and another bakery; a second stop on my tour of the Valley of the Sun would take me to Scratch Pastries & Bistro, a relative newcomer (2008) to the scene featuring both baked goods and a bistro menu focusing not only on French inspired creations but also frequently utilizing French imported items in their creation. The brainchild of Duc Liao and his wife Noelle based on their time in Paris as a photographer and model, respectively, the space had originally appeared on my radar based on the recommendation of a friend and had only increased its status in my mind by advertising one of my favorite desserts – the Paris Brest – on their website.
Located in a rather unattractive strip-mall beside a Subway my arrival to Scratch would be just past noon and with the thermostat topping the century mark I made my way quickly from the car to the cute French-Chic interior and greeted by two young ladies behind the counter I was asked if I planned to dine in or take some items to go, a decision I debated for a few seconds before I was handed a menu and left to decide. Already with lunch plans I knew the bistro menu was not the choice (though admittedly the duck and foie gras had my attention) and as such I turned my attention to the pastry case only to be told that no Paris Brest was available – a disappointment to be sure, but at the same time given the variety of options (including a number of my other favorites) not totally disheartening and after a few moments of indecision I opted for three selections, paid the modest tab, and made my way outside to enjoy.
Beginning first with the only warm item of the group, an almond croissant fresh from the oven, my first bite from Scratch would show that the Liao’s time in Paris had been well spent as the golden shell shattered on my bite giving way to an airy layered interior with a smear of sweet frangipane that not only added flavor and nuance to the already sweet pastry but also did not weigh down the wispy pastry inside; a fine balance not often seen in American Almond Croissants.
Moving next to another French specialty, a small Salted Caramel Macaron stored refrigerated in a plastic sheath, this two bite $3 cookie would prove rather average largely due to the temperature and a degree of dampness marring its characteristic crackling shell. With the filling ample in flavor I do wonder if perhaps the dry Arizona air has something to do with the decision to store these cookies chilled, but overall it is not a decision I fancied when it came down to texture.
For my final taste of Scratch I opted for an American classic, my typical Red Velvet cupcake, and where the macaron disappointed the cupcake achieved at the highest level; a textural masterpiece ranking in my top 3 red velvet cupcakes of all time. Beginning first with the frosting, seemingly a small puff of sour cream cheese actually tunneling down into the body of the cake, it was quite good but where this cake truly stood out was its density – the sort of moist sponginess that made the cake seem almost undercooked as a bit of red dripped onto my hand, but in reality a veritable cloud of loaded with chocolate and vanilla tones that permeated the palate in perfect balance with the frosting.
Overall Scratch was a good visit and I feel like I (pun intended) merely scratched the surface of what they have to offer – if and when I return I’m calling ahead to make sure they have the Brest and while I’m there I’ll check out that bistro menu because, really, where else can you get duck and foie gras for lunch in town and chase it with a top notch French Pastry or cupcake?
A third day, a third bakery, but this time the goods actually made it back to the hotel and served as breakfast on the day of my departure…well, okay, I had to try a bite of each while they were fresh but I promise the rest made it through both refrigeration and rewarming without further consumption until the next day. For my third and last pastry stop on this tour of the Valley I just so happened to be wandering the Scottsdale Fashion Square before lunch at Cowboy Ciao and opted to stop into The Herb Box based on the recommendation of a friend.
First approaching the upstairs restaurant, at this point thriving with Saturday brunchers, the space is admittedly gorgeous looking out on the river and after browsing the menu (note to self, red velvet pancakes and a divine sounding BLT with ricotta) I subsequently made my way down to the basement bakery, café, coffee shop, and wine store. Greeted on entering by a young lady behind the counter who asked if she could get a beverage ready for me while I waited I agreed to a large iced coffee while I weighed my options; a bevy of muffins, scones, pastries, and desserts totaling at least forty – some standard and some entirely unique but all but a few desirable. Deciding once again to choose one for myself and to rely on my server for the second choice my options were boxed, then bagged, and paying the $13 tab with tax and tip I made my way back to the street.
Beginning first with my selection, a tossup between the Red Velvet Cake and Bread Pudding, the pudding always wins and in this case my selection of Vanilla Bean Bread Pudding with Peach and Peaches n’ Cream Glaze would prove to be the best bread pudding of the trip not only in its present cool state, but even more so the following day after reheating. Dense and packed with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and most of all vanilla juxtaposing studs of sliced peaches this “pudding” was nearly cakelike in its texture and when topped with the glaze – a dense anglaise with more cinnamon and the fructose sweetness of peaches serving as top notes – it was simply outstanding.
Moving next to my server’s suggestion, another dish billed as “best thing ever,” this is one circumstance where I can actually say that at that very moment I felt like she may have been right because as good as my Bread Pudding had been, the adult Ding Dong was all the better. Beginning first with a dense chocolate cake made with dark Dutch processed cocoa, the base of this dessert was clearly sour cream based and all the better for it as the slight flavors melded perfectly. Moving next to the “cream filling” in this case replaced with a nearly liquid white chocolate marshmallow cream the sweetness was a perfect balance to the cake while the entirety of the dessert was encased in a dense dark chocolate shell flecked with blue edible glitter. A masterpiece both visually, texturally, and in terms of flavor I’d not hesitate to call this one of the best “upscale” takes on American Retail comfort food I’ve ever had (notwithstanding Cathal Armstrong’s Foie Gras Twinkie, of course.)
Doing my best to restrain myself from eating the entirety of both before the following day while carrying the bag from store to store in order to prevent melting in the hot Arizona Sun all I know now is that my next visit to Phoenix/Scottsdale will see me with breakfast or brunch at The Herb Box and desserts from the café below (that may or may not make it out the door, but certainly not to the following day.)
After lunch at Ciao and still with my Herb Box pastries in hand I spent the afternoon wandering Old Town Scottsdale when the sudden urge for caffeine hit me. Knowing there was a Starbucks nearby but wanting something a bit more novel I pulled up the Yelp locator and noted a familiar name from my research on the city; Cartel Coffee Lab, apparently a new location filling the space of a now defunct store that used to serve their beans. Having heard good things about their sourcing, roasting, and brewing I made my way into the small store to find a number of folks lounging, surfing the web, and enjoying their coffee and on making my way to the counter I was met by not only a prompt and friendly barista, but also a knowledgeable one who asked what I liked in a coffee (full, thick, cocoa, low acid for those curious) and he spot-on recommended the Ethiopian Dark Roast at $3/8oz or $16.99/lb.
Taking his suggestion while discussing the other six varieties available I was quoted prices, terroir, and tasting notes as he prepared my single drip and with options ranging from $12.99 for 12oz to $29.99 for 12oz I was told that all were available by the cup if I wanted to taste – a mental note well engrained for my next trip to the area. With coffee prepared and limited options for sweetener (muscovado sugar or Agave nectar only) I opted to drink it black and sipping the brew the flavor was spot on to what I appreciate – velvety, cocoa tinged, and a bit of cherry and almond. An important aspect of any city I’m considering as my next home it is good to know that Phoenix/Scottsdale has a place like this – very important.
With pastries and coffee now well covered and plenty interesting enough to put Phoenix on my culinary map the next question was how well they did Ice Cream, and coming from the self-proclaimed Ice Cream Capital of America I figured I might as well just go for the best to compare head-to-head with the Jeni’s, Bi-Rite’s, and Toscanini’s of the world – in this case, Scottsdale’s own Sweet Republic.
Rated by Bon Appetite as one of the nation’s 10-best and focused on small batch artisan flavors just like the rest of the list Sweet Republic is tucked into a small strip mall off Shea Boulevard and while not simple to find the products are also available by the pint at Whole Foods. Not wanting a pint but rather to sample I made my way up the stairs to the small store to find it largely empty – a surprise since every parlor in Ohio is lined up out the door when it is 100 degrees out, but perhaps not surprising in Scottsdale where temperatures frequently reach such peaks. Entering the store I was greeted by the smell of sugar, vanilla, and that all-too-familiar scent of ice cream cones and within moments I was greeted by a young lady ready with sampling spoons.
Not wanting to be greedy but certainly wanting to sample a couple before buying in my first two tastes of Sweet Republic’s Ice Cream would be Tres Leches, a dense and flavorful but largely one-dimensional vanilla and next Desert Honey, a lovely bite not dissimilar to a frozen liquid Bit-o-Honey. With easily twenty more flavors to taste and my server not seeming to mind my next two bites would prove memorable enough to commit to a double – one scoop of Honey Blue Cheese and the other of Salted Butter Caramel – for $4.25. Waiting for the scoops as I browsed the shops collection of cookies, candies, and even bacon brittle I thanked my server for her assistance and sitting down to enjoy my choices I was very pleased by one and blown away by the other.
Beginning first with the Salted Butter Caramel, a flavor I try everywhere, this dense concoction with pockets of liquid gold oozing from the otherwise milky sweet ice cream was exceptional and on par in all ways with that of Jeni’s back home – potentially even better though a side-by-side would need to be done to be certain. Moving next to the Blue Cheese – easily a top 5 ice cream moment of all time with the sharp notes of the cheese aptly countered by the sweetness of the honey and the overall texture somewhere between frozen frosting and cheesecake; an absolute must try for anyone living in or visiting the area whether it is 100 degrees or not.
Moving finally to the last of my supplementary snacks I’ll start off by saying I’d read about The Fry Bread House a couple of times when planning my trip to The Valley but it did not make my list of must visit stops until just the day prior during dinner at Kai when I was speaking with head Chef Michael O’Dowd about the lack of Native American restaurants in the area (he explained this to me, but that is for another time) and one of his expeditors suggested I should check out Cecilia Miller’s temple of fried dough calling it “about as authentic as it gets around here.”
Hailing from the Tohono O'odham Nation and serving up her style of Indian Tacos around the area for nearly twenty years (and now at two locations) I opted to head to the original Fry Bread House West and having followed my GPS from door to door I found the location with ease on a relatively dingy stretch of 7th Avenue and allocating parking with ease I made my way into the unassuming low-lying restaurant where I was greeted by a short line and then by a curt but friendly waitress who took no time in requesting my order and name before handing me a plastic cup to get my water and suggesting it would be perhaps 10 minutes before my food was ready.
Taking a seat – the table slightly sticky and clearly not wiped down since (at least) the last diners – and browsing the scene while I watched the kitchen work through the small open window I marveled at the flow of the room as patron after patron received his or her food. With some orders having been phoned in and others being delivered to the tables surrounding mine if I had to guess nearly fifteen Fry Breads were served during my nine minute wait and when I finally heard “Michael” called from the front I stepped up to collect my $12 merely seconds before the next order was served up to “Andre.”
Returning to my seat with prizes in hand my first impression was that I’d over ordered as each disc was easily the size of a Frisbee and two-to-three fold as thick, but picking up my first option, the “Indian Taco with Pinto Beans, Shredded Cheddar Cheese, Lettuce” I was next impressed as to just how light the hand stretched bread was – a wisp of pillowy flat bread crisped on the outside by the oil but light and airy within. With the ingredients a standard store-bought admixture of traditional taco toppings and a bit of hot sauce to taste this was a good choice to understand what the “Indian Taco” was all about (and perhaps to understand why diabetes and lipid disorders are so prevalent in their population, as well.)
Moving next to my dessert selection, one of the frequently noted “best dishes” in Phoenix and denoted as an “Award Winning Favorite” on the restaurant menu, the Chocolate and Butter Fry Bread would prove to be every bit the “Fair Food” extravagance I expected with the same airy dough this time served openfaced and drizzled – nay – ladled first with butter and then with melted dark chocolate tinged with what I believe was adobe spice and cinnamon. Sliced and resting atop both wax paper and napkins to soak up the grease I attacked this fry bread with zeal and without going so far as to call it the most sinful thing I’ve eaten this year I will simply say this; it was a once-in-a-year sort of treat that was entirely worth the money, calories, and visit but at the same time the sort of thing that simply feels “bad” for you despite the smile on your face as you’re eating it.
7133 East Stetson Drive, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
La Grande Orange Grocery
4410 N 40th St, Phoenix, AZ 85018
Fry Bread House
4140 N 7th Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85013
7620 E Indian School Rd # 103, Scottsdale, AZ
7611 W Thomas Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85033
Full review with pictures in blog. Text as below:
Having touched down in Phoenix only 200 minutes prior and already with breakfast under my belt the next stop on my tour of The Valley would be the most famous of all my gastronomic experiences in the area and, all things being equal, probably one of the five most famous pizzerias in the United States. Opened in 1994 and garnering numerous awards since inception Chris Bianco’s eponymous Pizzeria Bianco reads like a familiar story to most gourmands today with its focus on all that is organic, local, and seasonal with an oven made by hand and a dedicated New York raised pizzaiolo, but to consider what Chris has done and how long he has been doing it in such an unlikely place is something else entirely – natural, organic, and entirely American pies in the middle of the desert since 1988 reads like exactly what it is; a work of passion. The sort of passion that inspires people to wait three hours in the desert sun to sample his pies.
With Chris’ health problems related to too many years of asthma and inhaling flour (…sand blasters get silicosis, coal miners get coal miner’s lung, but I guess we’ll just call this pneumonitis since flourosis and pizzaiolo lung haven’t yet been detailed in the literature) well publicized in recent years and some claiming the pies no longer stack up to their legendary standards plus new lunch hours to help stem the tide (and time) my arrival at Pizzeria Bianco would actually precede the lunch time opening by approximately ten minutes but with free valet readily available I opted to park my car and wait a lovely thirty minutes in the sun while browsing the area until my dining partners would arrive, three new friends who had volunteered to lend their palates and opinions to a guy from the Midwest at Phoenix’s most famous eatery.
With the doors now open and greetings exchange our party of four next made our way into Bianco – at this point half full – and were led to a cozy four-top in the back corner of the room. With tables close and ceilings high the noise level at Pizzeria Bianco is certainly something to contend with even at half capacity, but with service excellent (and provided by another Ohio native none-the-less) we were quickly greeted and presented with menus, silverware, water, and the two daily specials – a salad and an antipasto – before we were left to decide; an easy decision that led to one glass of wine, one salad, and four pizzas (from the six on the menu.)
Sitting and chatting while we awaited our food I found the people of Phoenix (both my dining pals, the service, and everyone subsequently) to be friendly and conversant much like Midwesterners and discussing everything from food to the arts to sports and local housing the first item to arrive at our table would be a loaf of the house made bread along with olive oil. Never one to turn down the bread basket and with the selection still warm I grabbed an end piece from the rustic country loaf and was instantly smitten by the intense crunch of the crust and smoky notes from the oven that laced the open fluffy interior. Excellent on its own and better with the olive oil the bread immediately made me think that regardless of how good the pizzas were I’d definitely be adding Chris’ sandwich shop down the road to my list of “must eats” for future reference.
With bread passed around and conversation freely flowing the salad and wine would arrive next and although I ordered neither I tasted both – the salad a combination of local arugula, spinach, chicory, and apples with a light vinaigrette and the wine a surprisingly fruity yet subtly dry red whose name I do not recall.
Having now sat for perhaps thirty minutes while pies entered and exited the oven being delivered to many around us the time would finally arrive to taste the oft raved pizza of team Bianco as all four of our selections arrived simultaneously covering the table and filling the air with the smells of smoke, yeast, pork, tomato, and basil. With much sharing to be done and pictures taken the next twenty or so minutes would consist of much less talking and far more eating than the previous thirty and beginning first with my selection – well – let’s just say it lived up to the hype as the ROSA with Red Onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, Rosemary, and Arizona Pistachios may just be the best “specialty pizza” I’ve ever tasted. Beginning first with the crust – an expert balancing act between the thinness of a Neapolitan like Lucali and the chewy hole structure of that at Great Lake – it was nearly perfect as the slight char from the wood oven gave each pie a lovely crunch yet pliable interior that could support the ingredients without disturbing them. Moving next to the toppings – no sauce here – just thinly sliced onions, intense salty cheese, crunchy smooth pistachios, and a touch of rosemary to pique everything else. Marvelous.
Moving next to another of Bianco’s signatures, the WISEGUY with wood Roasted Onion, House Smoked Mozzarella, and Fennel Sausage I was pleasantly surprised by the mildness of both the onions and the fennel, both present but not overwhelming, while the slight spice of the sausage floated above the pools of creamy cow’s milk mozzarella. Another well balanced pie, though I do feel it could have done with just a touch less olive oil…a small quibble, to be sure.
For the third choice, the BIANCOVERDE with Fresh Mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, Ricotta, and Arugula would be the only pizza we modified from the menu description – in this case by adding a $3 supplement of Organic 'La Quercia' Prosciutto Americano from Iowa that was every bit worth the cost. Again featuring that same pliable smoky crust but this time topping it first with the trio of cheeses before adding the arugula and prosciutto after it exited the oven this “Salad Pizza” was a valuable addition to the lineup largely because of the quality of the ingredients and the balance achieved by using each lightly. From the smooth mozzarella to the puddles of ricotta and tangy Parmigiano up through the slight bitters of the greens and the powerful saline notes of the pork everything simply clicked though for some the lack of spice was an issue – an issue easily amendable by the red pepper provided on request (try getting that at Una, Lucali, or Great Lake.)
For the final selection, that of the man who’d experienced Chris’ work longer and more frequently than the rest of us combined, there was no way I was going to miss out on the MARGHERITA while I was here and thankfully he’d ordered it (thus preventing me from ordering both it and the ROSA.) With the stars of the show well known – simply the freshest Tomato Sauce with light hints of sweetness, oregano, and garlic plus Fresh Mozzarella, and Basil – this was a no nonsense sort of pie that hit on all cylinders; tangy, creamy, aromatic, smoky, and perfect. While not the absolute greatest Margherita I’ve ever had, a top 5 member for sure and when paired with the rest of the menu, the service, and the setting a pizza definitely worthy of the fame especially considering the fact that Bianco uses all local ingredients including tomatoes from California in the making of his sauce.
Eating, sharing, talking, and then eating some more while the service checked in occasionally to see if we needed anything else our time at Bianco felt much longer than it was and when it was all said and done only four slices remained – two of the WISEGUY and two the BIANCOVERDE – all wrapped up and going home with their respective owners while I took home with me the memories of some of the best pizza I’ve ever experienced and (perhaps more importantly) the experience of meeting with some great people for outstanding pizza in a setting where people have a passion for what they are doing without all the pretense. Yeah Chris didn’t build the oven and furniture by hand like Lucali, and perhaps Pizzeria Bianco doesn’t fly all their ingredients in from Italy like Una, and sure Chris’ health prevents him from being ever present at the oven like Dom at DiFara or Nick at Great Lake but in the end the results are the same…this is some really great pizza well worth going out of your way for.
623 E Adams St, Phoenix, AZ 85004
Where do you compare Binkley's to Chez L'Ami Jean and Chez Dumonet in meal quality
I believe I recalled you going to both of those places this summer (or at least one of them)
I dont think the dining vibe at any of them is really the same but they are all around the same price point (i think)
after typing this i have a craving for rice pudding heh
6920 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Full Text (long, sorry, 27 courses though) below, pictures in the blog.
…when you really start going out of your way to experience the best of what the world’s dining has to offer it is infrequent that you are shocked and amazed; In the era of food television, flickr, yelp, and any number of food blogs (including the one you are reading) chances are that going into a meal you at least know what to expect. Sure there are times that the meal will wow despite heaps of praise (Roberta’s and Alinea leap to mind) but those experiences become fewer and further between as time goes on and often, perhaps unfairly, lead the you to being jaded and searching for that next “wow” moment – a moment I honestly did not expect to find in the middle of the dessert, especially not during a meal serving as part of a job interview.
Having already noted the circumstances surrounding this review the night began when the practice I was interviewing with asked me where I’d like to eat and after a quick search of my typical spots I read of Binkley’s – perhaps Arizona’s most well thought of house of gastronomy (especially of the new age sort.) Not wanting to seem ‘greedy’ but knowing that the dining scene of a place I was considering as my future home was an important part of the decision I made the suggestion and the pair of interviewers gladly agreed. Explaining to them in brief that I’d have a camera in tow they learned a bit about my hobby and although not “foodies” by any means they seemed quite intrigued by the concept and with the reservations made by them all I had to do was arrive: 6:30pm, 9/29/11.
With expectations tempered given the circumstances but certainly higher than with a traditional “interview” dinner my arrival at Binkley’s was timely and finding the couple already present and waiting in the lobby we exchanged pleasantries before reservations were confirmed were quickly led through the spacious dining room to a table just out of view of the kitchen. With noise moderate and the front-of-house surprisingly smiley and professional yet whimsical and conversant from the moment we arrived I knew we would be in good hands (but little did I know HOW good.)
Seated at a comfortable four-top it would be mere moments after seating that our captain would greet us and after confirming water choices we were presented with a wine list and menus while the a la carte vs. 4/5/6 course tasting menu option was explained. With my co-diners having never experienced such a place and with many of the items on the menu rather novel to them we were left to decide and largely allowing them to dictate the pace we settled on the five course tasting…or so we thought.
Having heard much about Chef Kevin Binkley’s training as well as his propensity for amuses, mignardises, and all sorts of small bites it would be mere moments before the deluge of creativity would begin, but not before perhaps the most unexpected coincidence in all my dining experiences; a moment of mutual recognition when our captain realized that she and her husband (a Chef at Binkley’s) had sat directly next to me just one month prior at The Restaurant at Meadowood and I recalled their commentary about working in the industry (and the fact that she too had been photographing Chef Kostow’s beautiful food throughout the meal but had forgotten to snap a picture of the final savory.) With my potential employers thoroughly amused by such a chance occurrence and conversation freely flowing as our service remained perfect from here on out what followed would be a twenty-seven “course” three hour and forty five minute rollercoaster unlike anything either of them had ever experienced.
Beginning the meal first with bread, Binkley’s house made selection of the evening consisted of Dill Onion Brioche, Hickory Smoked Bacon and Thyme Baguette, Honey Wheat with Apricots, Yellow Raisins, and Walnut, plus standard Sourdough, and butter brioche all served with salted California Cow’s butter. From a man who dabbles heavily in the small plates I was appreciative to find the breads equally petit and sampled plenty throughout the meal with a particular affinity of the warm butter brioche, the hickory smoked bacon, and the honey wheat with fruits.
Having mentioned the myriad small bites, the first two plates to arrive at our table after the bread service would be Chilled Watermelon and Star Anise Soup with Lime Oil and Yellow Curry Pate a Fruit – two entirely different flavors and textures but each miraculously clean and well balanced with sweet, savory, and spice all present in spades opening the palate up fully and already making my dining partners say “I’ve never tasted anything like that.”
Arriving as another duo (or trio depending on how you look at it,) our second round of bites would consist of something traditional and something entirely off the wall – the first House made Brown Sugar Coppa with sourdough crostini, whole grain mustard, caperberry, pickled pearl onion, fried sage, red wine eucalyptus gelee, plus preserved lemon and fine herbes ricotta and the second Brioche Cinnamon Doughnuts with Bacon Butter. Beginning first with the charcuterie, everything was good though rather standard save for the ricotta and sage which were both quite tasty, the former particularly on the crostini. Moving next to the doughnut – piping hot and minimally greasy they were peerless, particularly when smeared with the umami-savory flavors of hickory smoked bacon.
Arriving as a solo the next dish, “Vanilla Poached Cantaloupe with Lardo and Cypress Salt” required a bit of explanation to my dining partners, but once they got over the concept that they were about to enjoy compressed melon topped with pork fat they quickly ate the bite and expressed a collective smile. A simple bite with mellow notes I personally did not note the lardo, but rather the cantaloupe and salt – a flavor that to me overwhelms everything in any situation.
When the next course arrived my dining partners showed some signs of recognition – apparently Chef Binkley had prepared it for a church group they belonged to – and with the announcement of “Miniature Sloppy Joe with Cornichon on brioche Bun and Banhmi with roasted Serrano Ham, pickled daikon, cucumber, carrot, pork aioli” we all dug in quickly to each of the one bite sandwiches and nodded our heads in agreement; the flavors were spot on.
At this point realizing that there was no real “progression,” per se, to the flurry of bites but rather a whole lot of whimsy that had my dining partners comparing this to a restaurant “adventure” and myself at the very least amused (and also somewhat taken with how much FUN I was having at a fine dining establishment) the next pair of bites to arrive would be Deep fried Padrones Chile with Romesco Sauce and Pinenut Froth and Fried Okra with Ranch Foam, the first a crunchy bit of heat balanced nicely by vinegar, garlic, and nuts while the second was quite literally the most flavorful okra I’ve ever tasted – equally crispy to the Chiles but vegetal and powerful underlying the smooth cream and dill notes.
For the next bite, at this point easily an hour or so into the meal, Popped Sorgum with walnut, Caramelized Onion, Romano Cheese, and Chive would be presented and with the texture of popcorn providing a light backdrop to the other flavors the dish tasted like suspended chip-dip, a single bite on the spoon that dissipated like a gougere with a single bite.
For the next dish, another that raised eyebrows in its description, we were presented “Deep Fried Butter” with Lobster Cream Cheese and Lobster Roe Powder, Chef Binkley’s take on Lobster Bisque created by dropping a butter cube into the fryer and subsequently injecting it with the cream cheese before dusting it with roe. Sweet, creamy, intense and just like the sloppy joe a faithful recreation of the chef’s intention…if this were served at the bar I’d go and order a dozen.
Moving next to another pairing, Puffed Polenta with caramelized tomato and goat cheese and Fried Chorizo with Honey, Mascarpone, Pumpernickel Powder would arrive nearly simultaneously and again focusing on something smooth and something salty, something crisp and something creamy both bites were tasty if somewhat unmemorable largely because of their placement between the “fried butter” and what would come next.
For the final two amuses of the evening it would seem that Chef Binkley had “saved the best for last,” the first a long acrylic tube carting “Individual Pommes soufflés with purple Peruvian and Kennebec potatoes served with honey mustard, Tonka bean BBQ, Sauce Vert, Rouille, Garlic Aioli, and White Truffle Ketchup.” Long, narrow, and well appointed with the aforementioned ingredients this 11-chip service piece was not only eye catching but also a veritable build-your-own-adventure of flavors with each of the toppings pure and flavorful (particularly the Tonka bean BBQ and truffled ketchup) and the potatoes all light, crisp, and barely oily. Having paid $10 for a vastly inferior supply of pommes soufflés in New Orleans a mere year earlier this dish as an amuse additionally seemed incredibly generous.
Now nearly ninety minutes into our experience and still with no sign of a course we’d actually selected from the menu the dish that would turn out to be our final amuse would be the piece de resistance and for myself perhaps the best bite of the night (though there were many contenders for this title,) a dish denoted as “Foie Gras Beignets with White Truffle Cream and Foie Gras Vanilla Milk Shake with Blackberry Swirl and Blackberry Whipped Cream.” Beginning first with the light balls of dough, each with a wispy crumb studded with whole cubes of duck liver torchon these bites were superlative on their own but even more so with the slightly sweet and ethereally aromatic cream. Taking a bite and then moving to the shake…yes, it was absolutely as good as it sounds – a smooth blend of blackberries and heavy cream with the gossamer of the liver always present yet slightly out of reach.
With the proper meal finally coming to light here more than fifteen plates and two hours into our “adventure” I honestly wondered what the team at Binkley’s could do to woo us further, yet what followed would prove that Kevin’s kitchen was every bit as inspired with their large plates as with their bites – the first of which was entitled “Bacon & Egg Custard with summer truffles, guinea hen egg, fingerling potatoes, English peas, brioche crouton.” Always one of my favorite items on any menu and here utilized to great effect, the “egg ” aspect of this dish would actually prove to be a poached yolk served over a creamy pork infused Chawanmushi, light in texture and smooth on the tongue. Not one to skimp on ingredients or presentation, the dish was additionally fortified with a hefty shaving of fresh Australian summer truffles, lightly cooked fingerlings teaming with butter, shelled English peas, as well as baked bacon and brioche to add some crunch.
Realizing next that not only did the amuses and small plates flow freely before the meal but also between plates the following dish would be another selection familiar to my hosts from their church group, a liquid nitrogen “dippin’ dots” exploration of Frozen red, green, yellow tomato salad with mozzarella anglaise, a light, smooth, and shockingly accurate representation of a caprese salad that reminded me of something that could just as easily come out of the kitchen of Andres or Cantu.
Continuing with our five course tasting my second option of the evening would prove to be every bit as delicious as the first and despite my myriad experiences with foie gras this was truly the first time I’d ever experienced it “crispy.” Entitled “Crispy seared Foie Gras with apple, raisins, pomegranate, spiced Brazil nuts, popover, chervil” and finished tableside with a spritz (literally from a spritzer) of cinnamon Ice Wine vinegar this preparation of duck liver would arrive as a linear stripe on a square plate and harkening the plating style of Michael Carlson the flavors would also compare favorably as the crackling exterior of the foie gave way to the melting interior and each bite lent itself to a new form of explanation with the accoutrements – most sweet, many smooth, and all interesting; particularly the popover stuffed with a creamy puree of liver, nuts, and aromatic spices.
Returning to the mg stylings of the previous intermezzo “Cherry Bomb encapsulation with verjus and extra virgin olive oil” would be straight from the book of Adria and served on similar porcelain spoons we were instructed to consume the bubbles in one bite – a swash of pungent cherry that reminded both myself and one of my co-diners of an intensely sweet yet slightly medicinal Luden’s Throat Lozenge.
As if anticipating the overly sweet numbking effect of the Cherry Bomb, a second intermezzo arriving before our third course was described as Yuzu Cucumber Soda and with the topnotes clearly lemon the base of cucumber was readily apparent on the finish washing the palate clean and making me think that perhaps Binkley was on to something with these small bites between meals, particularly for those of us who do not refresh between plates with wine.
For my third course of the evening, Duck with bok choy wrapped breast, confit leg, matsutake mushrooms, daikon, pickled ginger, foie gras-port vinaigrette, and sherry duck consommé would be my third round of foie gras for the evening and although the most conventional of the three still an excellent presentation with the breast and crystal clear consommé served in a bowl teaming with mushroom umami while the confit was plated centrally atop the ginger and daikon with a dusting of five-spice adding a pleasant aromatic note. If I had one quibble about this dish, I rather wish the mushrooms on the plate would have been warmed…nitpicky for sure, but just a personal preference as all else was room temperature or warmer.
Opting against the nightly fish preparation in favor of cheeses there would surprisingly be no treats between course three and four as our server would arrive with the night’s cheese board suggesting I should select three from the eight available – a difficult choice given the quality of the collection, but a decision eventually leading to Boschetto, Lamb Chopper, and Castell de Morella landing on my plate. Served alongside house made fruitcake, pitted prunes, spiced pecans, and crostini all three were nicely aged but I particularly loved the Boschetto, a mixed cow/sheep selection from Italy whose semi-firm texture and notes of white truffle and sweet rind were both new and unexpected to my palate.
Moving towards dessert as we chatted about the meal that just was it seemed obvious that Binkley would transition from savory to sweet with style, but little did we know it would be with style befitting a college dorm room more so than fine dining in the form of “Jello Shooter Lava Lamp with Strawberry Consommé and pineapple, guava, ginger, lychee gelee.” Served on a lighted platform and alongside Elderberry-Elderflower Lollipops this slurpable delight and its accompanying candies would prove a surprisingly restrained one-two punch of flavors, both clearly sweet but not overly so like the cherry bomb and again a bit of whimsy that I personally found as refreshing as the flavors.
For the next intermezzo all I can call it is a tease – a bit of dining refinement between novelty desserts that absolutely wowed – a two-bite Peanut Butter Souffle with Raspberry Jam every bit as “soufflé” as the sloppy joe was its namesake and along with the foie gras beignet perhaps my favorite bites of a great meal. Really – if this was offered on the menu I’d have ordered a full sized one in a heartbeat.
With the dining room now dwindling and just passing the three hour mark in our experience the final desserts would soon arrive and for myself it seemed only appropriate that this dessert would be a collection of small bites from a team that has seemed to master the art; a dish entitled “Horchata in Forms” featuring cinnamon rice pudding, horchata milk shake, sweet milk panna cotta, caramel beignet, and a sugared almond; each tasty, each true to its namesake, but none save for the flawless quenelle of rice pudding even close to on par with the sorbet that had preceded them.
Opting for coffee while we sat and conversed a bit more whimsy arrived with the hot but rather nondescript brew in the form of warm cream in a vessel shaped as a cow. With our captain and one of the female servers next stopping in to see if there was anything else we desired I requested a copy of the night’s menu and received not only that, but also a complete detailed listing of each and every small bite served along the way – a wonderful touch I’ve honestly not seen done anywhere in the past – and along with the menus we additionally received a trio of mignardises; Coconut Meringues, Blackberry Pate A Fruits, and Double stack brownies with milk chocolate ganache – none particularly memorable but all tasty just the same.
With the bill paid and our captain stopping by one last time to chat about what I’d thought of this meal and where else I’d been both in The Valley and during the previous month in The Bay one of the ancillary servers would stop by with one last treat – a bite I fully anticipated to be jolting to my dining partners but something I’d experienced a few times before; Passionfruit “numb” with Sancho Button, an intensely sweet with all the anticipated ‘wow’ that left my colleagues fully convinced that they had definitely never experienced a meal quite like Binkley’s before.
Standing up and making our way to the door as I suddenly realized just how full I was after a long day of eating topped off by such extravagance Chef Binkley made his way quickly from the kitchen to shake hands and bid us farewell – a nice gesture to be sure – and with menus in the left hand my right was filled by the hostess with an admixture of Cinnamon Nuts wrapped in plastic and a Binkley’s ribbon to take home for the next day; one last small treat from a place that had already given us so many, a place that would dominate conversation in clinic the following day, a place that no matter where it was located would be special, and a place that I’ll undoubtedly return to with frequency if my career path should indeed land me in the desert long term.
6920 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Full review with pictures in the blog, text as below:
A native of a small town in the Midwest surrounded by farms heavily populated by Latino workers each summer of my youth I’m a bit ashamed to admit that overall my experience with “Mexican” food in general has been quite abysmal. Sure there were childhood experiences with Little Mexico in Detroit before or after games at Joe Louis Arena and yes I’ve visited a few of Rick Bayless’ spots in the Second City but beyond that and Border Grill in Los Angeles the closest I’ve been to South of the Border cuisine is Don Pablos…or perhaps Chi-Chi’s before they filed for bankruptcy. With these glaring omissions in my culinary education admitted and in part due to my overall lack of enthusiasm for spicy foods I promised myself going into this trip to Arizona that I would make an effort to at least hit some of the more upscale spots in order to “ease myself in” and the first of these stops would be at The Barrio Café.
Owned and operated by Beard Award nominated Chef Silvana Esparza and reportedly featuring refined modern takes on traditional Mexican cuisine The Barrio Café was recommended by many, including the local press, and with lunch hours fitting my schedule best I made the drive from Northern Scottsdale just after 1pm to find the small parking lot packed, yet with my loaner a Fiat I managed to squeeze in close to the door and making my way from the car I was greeted with myriad street murals and yet another triple digit temperature as I made my way around front to find the restaurant much bigger than expected, but still quite full. A Friday afternoon with many business sorts discussing weekend plans and friends already enjoying tequila and cervesa my entry to The Barrio Café at first went unnoticed but after a few moments browsing the ornate art collection out front I was greeted by a young Latina hostess who led me quickly to the only open seat in the house – a four-top in the second (larger) dining room.
Seated for mere moments before one of the back-waiters filled my water I was soon greeted by my primary server, Esequiel, a friendly man who seemed to be one of only two servers working the entirety of thirty tables. Perpetually with a smile Esequiel asked if it was my first time at The Barrio as if expecting an affirmation and on hearing my answer presented the menu with a brief description of the sections and told me he’d be back to answer any questions “in a couple of minutes.”
Having done due diligence with the online menu I quickly assured that my targeted items were present and with that took to watching the scenery and checking out the ornate paintings on the wall adjacent me as I waited for Esequiel to take another table’s order before a nod of the head brought him back. Inquiring about portion sizes as there were two entrées that I was interested in Esequiel, a large man, smiled and said “it’s a lot of food, but I like the way you think – I bet you can handle it” and realizing right then that we’d get along just fine my order was placed and I made my way to the restroom largely to check-out the myriad awards and newspaper speckling the back walls as well as the multitude of crosses and religious figures decorating the bathroom itself.
Returning to my table, sturdy but with chairs relatively lacking with regard to comfort, the same back-waiter who would keep my water brimming throughout the meal would deliver a basket of bread – chef Esparza’s father’s recipe from his days as a baker – along with a spread consisting of at least Chilies, Tomatoes, Olives, and Avocados plus a number of spices – a bit like salsa, but far more nuanced and texturally refined. Having never received bread in a Mexican restaurant before I have to say this was an interesting choice and while the bread itself was overall lacking in flavor the coarse crumb and thick crust were nicely suited for supporting the spread and soaking up sauces later.
Going light on the bread as it was somewhat uninspiring and the plates coming from the kitchen were surprisingly large it would be around twenty minutes after seating that my “appetizer” would arrive in the form of Tacos de Cochinita Pibil, four Mayan style slow roasted suckling pig tacos wrapped in house made tortillas with a side of Yucca fries, chipotle ketchup, and salsa Yucateca. Beginning first with the tacos I’ll simply say that while it may not mean much considering my lack of experience these were without a doubt the best tacos I have ever had. Double wrapped due to the moistness of the succulent meat each bite was savory and smoky with a light acidity kissing the tongue as the queso fresco tamed everything. Deftly spiced with any number of flavors foreign to my palate and going back and forth with the tasty fries I think the thing that really stood out to me with this dish was that while the “heat” was there, it served a purpose – pushing forward more unique tones like cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and even sweetness from the meat.
With the tacos consumed with great zest Chef Esparza herself stepped into (and through) the dining room to say hello as the hour approached 2pm – apparently she was heading out to pick up some more peppers and rice – and moments later Esequiel would arrive with my main course; a dish titled Pato en Tamarindo or “Seared breast of duck in a striking sweet & sour tamarind & chipotle pepper sauce.” With my love of duck well documented and already quite impressed with the flavor profile of the preceding tacos I have to say I went into this dish with high expectations and was met only half-way. Beginning first with the accoutrements – mashed yucca with poblano peppers and asparagus with onions, both were tasty and well prepared if not particularly memorable. Moving on to the duck, similarly well prepared with the breast first pounded thin and then sautéed prior to a final sear, the issue with this dish would flash back to my complaint about “spice” because while the menu said “duck” my palate merely said “protein” as the flavors of the fowl were entirely obliterated by the thick notes of smoke, pepper, and slight bitters. A good dish, sure, but for someone who truly loves duck I simply wanted to be able to taste it.
With the duck now consumed and feeling reasonably full but certainly not “stuffed” Esequiel again stopped by with a big smile stating “Nice job, I knew you could do it. But did you save room for dessert?” – an obvious ‘yes’ which led to perhaps Barrio Café’s most famous dish arriving at my table just ten minutes later. Entitled “Churros Rellenos de Cajeta de Cabra” and trumping either of the previous dishes in overall mass this marvelous plate was composed of essentially five things and all five of them things I love; deep fried cinnamon doughnuts, chocolate, caramel, strawberries, and ice cream.
Beginning first with the Churros – flawless, light, and crisp on the exterior with molten goats milk caramel spilling forth as they were cut…in all honestly they could have stopped here and I’d have been happy, but instead opting to pair this with an enormous double scoop of fresh vanilla bean ice cream drizzled with more caramel, slightly peppery “Mexican hot chocolate” and fresh strawberries...sure it was $12 for churros, but it is $12 I’d gladly spend again as I ate every last bite of the crunchy yet creamy concoction and spent another three or four minutes scraping the plate clean with my spoon.
With Esequiel returning yet again and asking, jokingly, if I’d enjoyed the churros he inquired (I hope jokingly) if there was anything else he could get me and telling him no, that the bill, I waited for a few moments while my tab was calculated – an admittedly pricey $58 after tax and tip – and with the bill paid I thanked the my servers for such a great afternoon before making my way back out into the sun. Thankful for the meal that just was for opening my eyes in to a cuisine I’ve far too long overlooked I’ve no doubt that Barrio Café is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Valley’s Mexican scene, but considering what they say about first impression’s I’m glad Chef Esparza and her team made a good one.
2814 N 16th St, Phoenix, AZ 85006
I am really loving the reviews-! It's nice to see a fair but enthusiastic evaluation of some of my favorite spots. I know they're not to all 'hound's tastes, but I like that you seem to go into each spot with the love of well-prepared food first and foremost. It comes through in your writing.
I get some of that criticism - that I "like everything" - but as you'll see if you read enough I don't - I just like well prepared and passionately made food. I never go into a place wanting/expecting to be underwhelmed, nor do I go in wanting to dislike anything. By using Chowhound and local bloggers thoughts I can invariably avoid "bad" places and focus on what is "tried n' true" when I visit a place. Then, if the meal is poor, it is either my issue (as with Barrio's Duck - people love it, but definitely not my style) or the restaurant not performing up to the hype.
Too many people on CH come and ask for opinions and never give feedback. I try to correct for that. :-)
Kai: Full review with pictures in context in blog:
Text as below.
…how do you begin to describe a meal at Kai – the only Forbes 5-Diamond restaurant in Arizona and perhaps the only “fine dining exploration of Native American Culture” in the world? Would it be easiest to discuss it as a “resort restaurant” where the meal is begun with an offering of citrus selections for the water and silverware is presented temperature appropriate? Would it make sense to talk about the culinary pedigree of head Chef Michael O’Dowd and his heavy reliance on refined French technique to display the beauty of rarely utilized locally farmed ingredients? Or perhaps I should start off in the manner that a meal at Kai begins – with a lengthy and informative story about the location, tribe, and inspirations of the meal that will follow. In reality I think any of the above would be appropriate, but in the end I think the best way to begin is in the mindset of a “destination” meal because from start to finish that is precisely what Kai is.
Stepping back for a second to set the stage, my original plan was to dine at Kai with a friend who was to be in the area but unfortunately had to cancel last minute. Having originally planned to order a la carte and swap dishes in order to taste a broad spectrum of O’Dowd’s more unique seasonal options I e-mailed the restaurant and inquired as to whether larger a la carte choices could be portioned down in order to fashion a tasting menu fitted to my interests I was told that not only would this not be a problem, but that they could do it for the same price as the restaurant’s traditional $200 “Journey” tasting menu – a nice touch to be sure as I’d expected to pay more. With these things in mind and a reservation set for 7:00pm I set my GPS and after navigating a long stretch of pitch-black road I found myself in front of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort at 6:55 on the dot.
With the car valet’d (my rental Fiat sandwiched between a Ferrari and a Jaguar) and an escort leading me from my car through the lobby of the resort and to the restaurant’s door I was handed off to a pair of young ladies who were clearly expecting me (I’m rather certain the whole place was wired – more on this later) and on greeting me by not only name but title I was led through the bar to an enormous two-top in the dining room. Seated and with comfort assured here again was a sort of handoff because despite the restaurant being booked to capacity it would be less than a minute after the hostess wished me “have a lovely evening” before my server Quenton would arrive to welcome me to Kai and to offer me my choice of still or sparkling water.
With still water poured by one of the back waiters who appeared seemingly without bidding from Quenton it would be mere moments before yet another member of the team stopped by with a tray of oranges, lemons, limes, and starfruit with the inquiry of “some citrus for your water, sir?” – a presentation I’ve honestly never seen before and one which I declined largely out of surprise. Now seated and comfortable amongst the spacious confines (easily six feet between tables, perhaps ten) of Kai as light ambient woodwinds and nature sounds played overhead and the mountains appeared as dark giants in the distance through the windows I would next find myself greeted by the sommelier and his wares; a large wine tome which I declined but a diverse cocktail menu which commanded my attention.
With my menu largely preselected save for the final main course that I left up to Chef O’Dowd depending on what he felt was best Quenton would return after my beverage selection was made not with my first course but rather with two copies of the menu – one, a hand painted original by a former member of the tribe and the second a replica with my specific menu detailed inside so that I could follow along. Detailing that each menu at Kai comes with a story Quenton next explained to me the story of my specific menu and the details of the tribe and local history within – a nice touch in my opinion, though the details have since been forgotten.
With the menu now in hand and the kitchen sending a multitude of dishes to the full house around me my first taste of Kai would actually be my cocktail, shaken and poured tableside in the form of the Mesquite Bean Martini with Makers Mark Bourbon, Mesquite Bean Syrup, Fresh Lime, Sweet Vermouth, and Grapefruit Juice. Always preferring my drinks sweet this was a stunning example of balance with the sweetness of the syrup deftly tempered by the acidity of the grapefruit juice while the bourbon and vermouth blended nicely with the mesquite to form a nearly savory quality quite unexpected yet complex, warm, and pleasant.
Slowly enjoying my beverage the first food item to arrive from Kai’s kitchen would be the nightly amuse. Entitled Roasted Garlic Falafel with Lobster Salad and Cilantro Yogurt Pesto this was a tasty one-bite morsel with a nice crunch to the chickpea fritter giving some substance to the otherwise light and subtle lobster. A nice beginning, but perhaps a bit scarce in terms of its ability to really open the palate for the meal that would follow I personally would have preferred this served as part of a duo – perhaps and more savory or umami inspired soup.
With amuse consumed the next arrival at my tableside would be my primary back-server porting one of my favorite parts of any meal but particularly so at Kai – the house baked bread service. Always served warm and based on whatever had most recently come out of the oven the selection of breads at Kai consisted of at least nine options (perhaps more, but each time he came by there was something new to taste) delivered with local Arizona olive oil and an admixture of seeds for dipping. Amongst the options for the evening, some traditional Indian recipes and others simply excellent takes on classic hearth breads, my choices consisted of Cinnamon Raisin Pecan, Ground Seed Lazy Bread with Chiles, Jalapeno Cheddar, Roasted Garlic Bread, Cranberry Walnut, Mission Olive and Herb Lazy Bread, Whole Wheat Honey Oat, Rosemary Sea Salt, and Cherry Fig. Always a fan of unique breads each option was quite good but I found myself particularly drawn to the dense chew of the Native lazy breads as well as the crunchy sea salt and cherry fig choices.
Not even pretending to be the sort of person whose mother didn’t have to lecture him to not “fill up on bread” as a child I was nearly finished with my first three choices when the first proper course of the tasting would arrive in the form of “Duck, Duck, Goose,” a clever troika of flavors in parenthesis that would not at all have been out of place on a Thomas Keller menu. Beginning left to right and continuing in that manner this fantastic dish would start sweet and subsequently cycle through savory and spicy before finishing on an aromatic note with Duck Mousse with Foie Gras & Sauterne Foam, Duck Pate with Blood Orange & Candied Jalapeno Crosttini with Black Garlic, and Goose Liver Brulee with Lavender Sugar Crystals. Having rarely seen goose liver on menus stateside I will note that while each of the three selections was textbook it was the last that held the most interest to me by far with the deeper mineral tones of the liver shining through with great aplomb yet nicely smoothed out by the mild sweetness and carefully applied floral notes.
Moving on with more bread, flawless service, and excellent timing the second course of my meal at Kai would prove to be the single best thing I ate during my visit to the desert – a plate where nearly everything screamed “heavy and overly complicated” but a dish where each element added something to the whole with the resultant product even greater than the sum of its parts. Entitled “Escargot, Truffles, Wild Mushrooms & Caramel Goat Cheese” this lovely presentation arrived with a piece of slightly sweetened Native “French Toast” at one end and a stew of Burgundy snails, Oregon truffles, and pork belly nuggets at the other. Teaming with notes of Meyer lemon and black garlic nage plus the sweet acidity of blis vinegar the dish was finally topped tableside with a slowly melting frozen Truffle Crema and dots of Tarragon Oil and Chive Oil that added an aromatic tinge both earthy and herbal that rose to the palate and sinuses melding all the flavors into a truly magnificent dish.
Admitting now that my selections tended toward the heavy and rich, course three would thankfully not be the a la carte ~4 - 5 ounce slice of Foie Gras I saw served to the table next to me but instead an a la minute composition featuring Foie Gras two ways – one mousse and one seared – served alongside Red Currant, Black Currant, Quince Paste, Buckwheat Sesame Seed Cracker, Truffled Black Olives, Maldon Sea Salt, Red Currant Reduction, and Foraged Micro Greens. Generally a fan of cold foie versus hot this was a dish where both preparations worked well with their accoutrements and using bitters in the form of the olives along with the sweetness of various fruits I really enjoyed the overall contrast between each half of the dish and how both highlighted the liver in entirely different ways.
Chatting with my servers for a bit as my next dish was prepared course four would be one of Kai’s signatures, a dish frequently featured both ALC and as part of the tasting entitled Kurobuta Pork Torta Spiced with Chimayo. Presented on two plates – one lengthy and the other a small bowl – and consisting of moist and smoky shredded pork, Arizona harvested Medjool Date and Quince Jam, Wild Lavender & Spearmint Madras Curry Yogurt, Apple Chips, and a Chia Seed Popover I was encouraged to sample the various flavors in varying combinations and like the flag-wrap presentation at Alinea I loved this ability to “play” with my food, experiencing different combinations and textures; the perfect bite for me a spoon of pork, a touch of the yogurt, and a knife-spread layer of the jam on a mouthful of popover.
Impressed by everything to this point the next course would be another highlight reel dish and served at the size of its full a la carte portion the “Prairie Squab & Spiced Cornmeal Dusted Sweetbreads” would also be quite the generous offering. Beginning first with the scarlet squab featuring a flawless sear and the hockey-puck sized sweetbread, crispy on the outside and creamy within, both of the proteins on this plate would prove exemplary. Moving next to the accoutrements – beneath the squab a round of truffled Iberico Lomo Gratinee Potatoes plus Wilted Summer Chard Leaves and under the thymus a dollop of stone fruit & grape Chutney with Truffle Croutons –one sweet and one savory once again, and both complimentary to their respective proteins without being overwhelming.
To cleanse my palate before my final savory I next received a hard Ping-Pong ball sized scoop of sorbet served in an elegant “nest.” Described as Intermezzo of Pumpkin Curry Sorbet with La Saba Syrup I have to say this, much like the amuse, was a bit underwhelming and while somewhat unique due to the savory notes I really did not sense much pumpkin at all. Certainly not the master of small bites like Kevin Binkley I could have just as easily cleansed my palate with a sip of water or some more bread…which I did.
For my final menu selection I gave Chef O’Dowd the choice of the local venison or the buffalo – a decision he made largely based on the quality of specific cut of buffalo they’d received that day from what I was told by Quenton and again arriving in full a la cart portion the Grilled Tenderloin of Tribal Buffalo would not disappoint. Easily a five ounce round cooked medium rare and topped with Sauteed Pequillo Pepper, Grilled French Green Beans, wilted Squash Blossom, and Smoked Corn Puree with Cholla Buds plus Merquez Sausage and Scarlet Runner Bean Chili with Saguaro Blossom Syrup this was the exact sort of dish I’d come to expect at this point in the meal; a tightrope act of sweet meets savory tinged with smoky southwest flavors at times familiar and at others just out of my culinary experience. Generally not a fan of hefty portions of red meat I will admit that a smaller portion of the buffalo would have sufficed I certainly was not about to send any of it back especially considering the smoked corn puree and saguaro blossom syrup which were nearly dessert quality on their own but lovely as a condiment to the chili and tenderloin.
Having hoped for some unique Arizona cheeses my next course would be a bit of a letdown given the non-local nature of the cheeses but to be honest a “letdown” including well aged Formaggio de Capra, Terraluna, Roaring 40’s Blue, and Barely Buzzed alongside Honeycomb with Raspberry Caviar, Peanut Butter Crema, Balsamic Vinegar, Housemade Crackers and Microgreens is not really disheartening at all. Again ample in portion I particularly enjoyed the semisoft goat Formaggio de Capra and, more surprisingly, the Australian sourced Roaring 40’s which married beautifully with the honeycomb.
Having already mentioned the chilled silverware with cold courses and heated silver when warm it was no surprise when a warm lightly scented town arrived prior to dessert – a duo beginning with perhaps Kai’s most well regarded item of “Maize Cheesecake with Indigenous Seeds.” Finally a “tasting” sized portion as I was actually beginning to get full (keep in mind the 9 or so slices of bread) this unique semi-circle of roasted Corn Cheesecake Encrusted in Caramel Corn & Local Seeds was plated at the distal end of a long plate and with just a bit of well-cooked-polentaesque grit the cake itself was creamy, sweet, and surprisingly light. Topped with a tall caramel triangle and paired with Curry & Fig Chutney plus a drizzle of earthy yet sweet Huitlacoche Syrup this was another dish I can’t imagine being served anywhere else with the same balance and effect.
Again chatting with Quenton about his recent trip to Napa (apparently all my fine dining servers in Arizona had been in The Bay Area when I was up there a month prior) my final dessert would arrive in the hands of his assisting back-server along with a warning of “be careful, this is very hot” and indeed it was, the Mexican Chocolate Souffle’s ramekin radiating a palpable heat at easily a two foot distance. Large, tall, proper, and aromatic with notes of cocoa and “Kai’s Sweetened Dry Mole Spices” the soufflé was subsequently punctured tableside with the addition of a thick and smoky Wattleseed Anglaise and without hesitation I can say that although non-traditional in texture the flavor was outstanding…a sweet meets savory brownie with notes of cinnamon, cumin, pepper, and clove punctuating the chocolate and melding with the Anglaise. Like the cheesecake this is the sort of dessert I imagined when I requested its addition to my menu and I’d encourage any and all to do the same.
At this point quite full considering the sizable lunch at Barrio Café and all of the large courses plus bread Chef O’Dowd would now emerge from the kitchen to say hello and to inquire regarding my opinions – thoughts I shared at length complimenting his almost unsurpassed skills at taking multiple hefty ingredients plus complex spices and blending them into surprisingly distinctive masterpieces where no part seemed superfluous. Thanking me for such kind words and talking some more about the nature of my visit I explained to him I was in town for an interview and with that he wished me both luck and a return visit should I decide to settle in the area; a nice gesture from a seemingly very humble and talented man.
With Quenton now returning with the bill and a pair of mignardises – Dulce de Leche and Dark Chocolate Truffles – I was asked if there was anything else they could do for me and on declining I handed him my credit card to run the bill while I enjoyed my last bites of the evening. With the bill paid and yet another thanks from the team to myself and from myself to the team I was again escorted to the front door of the now largely empty restaurant and subsequently to the front of the hotel where I found my car not only ready and waiting, but containing a personalized hand written card from Quenton thanking me for my visit – pure class all the way and again making me wonder if the whole place is wired to achieve such an effect.
No stranger to fine dining whether stateside or in Paris I will simply state that although some may not appreciate “resort” restaurants or the somewhat longwinded ostentatiousness of Kai’s presentations there is not a doubt in my mind that this is a restaurant deserving of its 5-star accolades and the sort of restaurant that would invariably garner at least two if not three Michelin Stars if the Red Guide ever came to town. A refined experience with an exquisitely talented chef preparing ingredients both common and unique in ways that are novel even to the experience diner Kai is not just a restaurant, but truly the exploration of native and local flavors that it sets out to be.
6920 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, AZ 85331
5594 W. Wildhorse Pass Blvd, Chandler, AZ 85226
Stayed at Wild Horse Pass resort for a week this summer...
Found the resort to be a passable 3* resort and though we only dined at Kai for app's and drinks, the second night we were there, didn't want to take it any further.
Maybe we caught it on an off night...everything felt so pedestrian and contrived.
Great report and glad you had a great time uhockey..
Full Review as Below, Pictures in Context in the blog:
…to call the concept, website, and descriptors of Cowboy Ciao eclectic would be an understatement to say the least – it is almost so “out there” that I’d considered skipping it entirely until one of my dining companions at Pizzeria Bianco suggested that not only was it worth inclusion on my agenda, but that he’d be glad to meet me for lunch – an offer I gladly accepted. Admittedly intrigued by the concept of “Border Baroque” and never one to pass on the chance to dine with new friends who can teach me more about the local scene a reservation was made for Saturday afternoon and after a long morning stroll through the Desert Botanical Gardens I arrived plenty early and surprisingly hungry.
Meeting my colleague just outside the restaurant after checking out the condominiums and shops on the other side of the river we exchanged pleasantries and entered the restaurant where we were greeted by our hostess and a nearly empty dining room. Somewhat surprised by the lack of activity but stating our reservation regardless the hostess smiled before suggesting we could have any seat we liked and on agreeing to a linen-covered two-top near the window looking out onto Stetson Drive we were seated promptly.
With somewhat shaky padded wooden chairs at each table and a menu delivered at seating my friend and I sat browsing the interior of Peter Kasperski’s 1997 space with some amusement; From Mardi Gras beads strewn across chandeliers to wall paintings befitting a mom n’ pop Italian space to the largely western themed exposed brick and stucco apparently little has changed in the intervening 15 years. Chuckling to myself as I opened the menu with quotations ranging from Spaceballs to The Addams family it would be mere moments before our server, John, would stop by to fill our water and announce the daily specials. With the afternoon crowd clearly slow and John, a good waiter but a bit more corny than would have been preferred, ever present it would be mere moments before we were ready to order and confirming all our choices as “excellent” we were left to chat
Discussing real estate, travel, and the area of Old-town Scottsdale it would be a mere 15 minutes before our first courses would arrive and presented with full description by John I will admit that I unfortunately do not recall the details of my companion’s “Daily Bowl” save for the fact that it contained Chorizo, spinach, and Chihuahua cheese.
Moving on to a dish I remember better, my appetizer of Duck Confit Relleno with roasted shallots, queso Oaxaca, cheddar, and roasted guajillo-tomatillo salsa, I will fully admit that I ordered this dish largely based on the fowl but what I received turned out to be large, bold, and unexpectedly quite sweet. Beginning first with the Relleno itself, a cored pasilla chili pepper absolutely stuffed with confit and cheese then fried and coated with even more cheese the flavor was exemplary. With fresh sliced avocado and the squeaky cheese taming the pepper while the crisp duck nicely juxtaposed the creamy cheddar it was the green salsa that really served as the most surprising part of this dish – an acidic pineapple flavor with a slightly heated finish.
Appetizers consumed it would be a short wait before our second courses would arrive and with my companion opting for Cowboy Ciao’s most famous dish, the “Stetson Chopped,” I had the opportunity to watch the beautifully arranged salad of couscous, arugula, tomato, cheese, pepitas, corn, salmon, and currants come together before my eyes. Never one to be wowed by a salad, particularly one with a mayo based dressing I will admit that the presentation and composition of this dish did intrigue me enough to take a couple of bites and while indeed a salad I could just as easily make at home I really did love the variety of textures and flavors hiding beneath a dressing that although hefty was quite refreshing with notes of basil, onion, garlic, and lemon beneath the slightly sour creamy tones.
If the Stetson is not Cowboy Ciao’s most fabled item then my main course most certainly was, a dish described simply as the Exotic Mushroom Pan Fry. Again topped with chopped avocados, cheese, and tomatoes and consisting of “mucho mushrooms (including cremini, button, oyster, cepe, lobster, black trumpet, shiitake, morel, yellow foot)” in ancho cream over double-cooked polenta the pan fry would prove to be many things, not the least of which being the richest vegetarian dish I’ve ever tasted. Beginning first with the mushrooms – a blend I have a hard time calling exotic as each can be found at your local Whole Foods – I will admit that the variety of flavors and textures were truly impressive, particularly as they related to the hearty and complex sauce. With each bite a different experience depending on the balance of mushrooms and vegetables this was exactly the sort of dish I love though I really could have done without the polenta – a thick gob that was so wet it did nothing to soak up any of the sauce and as such tasted like a wet sponge in the middle of the dish.
Having requested some bread to assist in sopping up the rest of the ancho cream (bread that is ‘baked to order,’ largely flavorless on its own, and an unlisted $2 for three meager rolls) John would arrive as my friend was finishing his salad and I was sopping up the last of my sauce to ask if we would be interested in dessert – an option I never omit without looking at the menu and an option that at Cowboy Ciao could have led to me ordering three or four as all sounded great, but one much more so than the others.
With my love of bread pudding well documented and my companion opting to pass on dessert two spoons arrived with “Bread Pudding Overboard” and presented on a large plate in a relatively modest portion the dessert went quickly despite my friend only taking a few small bites. Beginning first with buttery brioche – the sort they should have served instead of those dinner rolls – nicely soaked in caramel custard and dotted with dried cherries, craisins, and pine nuts the steaming hot bread pudding was of good quality and firm texture; a good but not stunning representation on its own. Moving next to the toppings – a trio of brown sugar streusel, praline cream, and American Oak ice cream the overall effect was sweet, sweet, and sweet – not inherently a bad thing, but a bit of overkill with the ice cream far less creamy than I’d have hoped…almost like frozen frosting with a slightly gritty texture only accented by the streusel.
With John stopping by one last time to see if we would like anything else we informed him that the check would be all and although a bit annoyed by the unannounced $2 bread charge I let it slide, paid the bill with a modest tip, and made our way to the streets where we would separate – my counterpart to browse antique pens and myself to browse the galleries (okay, and admittedly some kitsch) in Old Town Scottsdale. Having noted my skepticism above in the end Cowboy Ciao would prove to be the worst meal during my short visit to The Valley but overall a worthwhile experience – a unique place with some unique plates and a couple classics worthy of their reputation.
7133 East Stetson Drive, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
623 E Adams St, Phoenix, AZ 85004
Great set of reviews, and much appreciated. You took some time, to compile these, and it shows.
As for the "mardi gras beads," at Cowboy Ciao's, I think that those were left over from my wife's King's Day Party, shortly after Peter opened. We met him, through Tom Hamilton (then from Zinfandel restaurant, and later the owner of Phoenix Wine, not that far away). We were so impressed, that we booked the restaurant for a Mardi Gras "kick-off party," for King's Day, the next year. Perter, and his staff welcomed our guests and treated them to a wonderful time. Sorry that we left some beads behind, but it WAS a great party... [Grin]
Over the years (over a decade now), the only negative that I have ever had with Cowboy Ciao, has been the noise level, but to most, that would probably be a plus. Though it's now been a bit, since we dined there, we were usually seated at the "quiet table," but that was only compared to some others. Peter knows how I feel. Only reason that we have not dined there that often lately, is because we've been in the air, more than on the ground. I have dined more in London, than in Phoenix, over the last three years, but plan on getting back, as we have always been impressed, and especially by the fun wine flights.
Thank you for taking the time, and many will benefit greatly for your reports.
7133 East Stetson Drive, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
10820 N 71st Pl, Scottsdale, AZ 85254
re: Bill Hunt
Your name actually came up at the meal. I dined with jock and we were talking about the local food scene and food&wine groups.
As it is likely I'll be making the Valley my home within 8 months there will be plenty more longwinded ramblings from me and perhaps we can meet up for a meal sometime.
Still one more review to go - The Mission, which I quite liked despite the "scene"
Ah Jock! We often agree on many things, though sometimes he gets exasperated with me, and I cannot imagine why... [Grin]
We, the residents of The Valley of the Sun, would be honored to have you as part of our community. Now, I think that I have spent more time in San Francisco lately, than in Phoenix, I still consider The Valley as my HOME. I just do not seem to get out to dine here, like I once did, and I regret that.
I am glad that you got to spend time with Jock, as he's a most pleasant individual, and I miss our discussions, way back when.
Dine well and enjoy,
Full review with pictures in context in blog, text as below:
To conclude my visit to the Valley of the Sun on a proper note Saturday October 1st would culminate with another meal and another meet-up with another local – or, well, a recent local I guess – in the form of a blogger whose words I’d been reading as far back as I’d been writing a blog of my own; Dominic of skilletdoux.com. Having utilized his blog for much of my planning to the desert it was with some discussion that we eventually settled on a relatively ‘new’ restaurant for our meal in the form of The Mission – a second visit for him (the first being a brunch) and yet another non-traditional take on Southwest flavors for myself.
Having already noted the restaurant’s location during my afternoon travels around Old Town Scottsdale and having agreed on a late hour of dining given Dominic’s schedule and my driving in from the Coyotes game in Glendale I arrived at the Mission well past dark and with ample parking available made my way to the restaurant’s door. Having heard Phoenix dining doesn’t often extend past 10pm I was admittedly surprised by the people waiting out the door but judging from the number of halter-tops and guys wearing sun glasses at night I quickly realized that The Mission was not all about “dining” after all and on my new friend’s arrival we exchanged greetings and made our way through the crowd, across the patio, and into the dimly lit room.
Greeted on entry by up-tempo music and a pleasant hostess who confirmed our reservation before leading us to a nicely sized two top along the right wall the mood and feel of The Mission instantly caused me pause; it felt like a “scene” more than a restaurant, yet with nearly every seat in the dining room full and the bar likely past fire code capacity I assumed there had to be something to the place. Setting aside prejudices and continuing our conversation from outside it would be mere moments before my colleague was greeted by one of the waitresses (known to him from a former restaurant) and shortly thereafter we were greeted by our own waitress, a friendly young woman named Jenna.
With menus in front of us and adult beverages declined it was at this point of the evening that Dominic deferred to my ordering stating that he could “come back any time” and after I confirmed that he could indeed keep up with my appetite (no small feat I’ve been told) Jenna returned to take our orders – 3 appetizers and a main course to be brought out in a 3-course progression (1-2-1.) Confirming that this would work well we would once again return to our discussion of all things food and culture, two Midwesterners in the middle of the desert chatting (or perhaps yelling) over the din as we sat in the glow of candles and ambient light from a Himalayan Salt Block wall.
With the kitchen moving surprisingly quickly despite (or perhaps because of) the late hour it would be perhaps fifteen minutes before our first course of the evening would arrive and although something I’d not have traditionally ordered the Almejas Al Vapor would prove to be well worth its “best in the valley” designation. Described as Peruvian in origin and served in a large low-bowl along with dense “pan de yucca” bread with a good sponge for dipping this complex amalgam of spicy aji Amarillo chile powder, tender clam stew, rock shrimp, chorizo, roast corn, basil, garlic, and turmeric was everything its ingredients suggested and then some – hot and spicy, smoky and garlicky, sweet but saline, and all the while complex without being overwhelming. While I personally could have stood for just a bit less salt and a touch more sweet to temper the spice this was a small quibble balanced nicely by the sweet rolls.
With my water not particularly doing a good job at quelling the aji amarillo’s punch I was glad to see that the kitchen continued to move things along swiftly for our second course and within 15 minutes of finishing the clam stew we would see two dishes set before us; the two strongest plates of the evening, in my opinion. Beginning first with the lesser of the two, “Crispy Cola Pork” was presented as three gem lettuce wraps cupping a heaping mound of pork belly braised in coca-cola, pickled red onions, chopped peanuts, chiltepin, and a squeeze of lime. Having heard of chiltepin before but having never actually experienced the wild pepper I half expected this dish to be too hot for my delicate Ohio born n’ bred taste buds but surprisingly the chef used a very delicate hand with the slightly funky and smoky heat allowing it to shine without crushing the rest of the ingredients. From fatty pork to pungent onions right down to the crunchy peanuts this was a dish where everything contributed to the whole in a very necessary way.
For the second of this round of appetizers my favorite plate of the meal would be presented as “Duck Carnitas Empanada,” an invariably upscale take on the traditional empanada with a golden flaky shell harboring orange glazed duck confit and an admixture of habaneros, mushrooms, cilantro, and queso Oaxaca. Delectable on its own but certainly open to further adornment the empanada was subsequently topped with a chunk of seared foie gras and finally with a foie fortified queso Oaxaca pan sauce and a drizzle of tamarind oil with the end result sweet, savory, and totally decadent.
Left with a bit more time to digest and a lot less noise as the restaurant’s population had literally dwindled by half a mere forty-five minutes after we were seated the final savory of the evening would arrive just after 11pm and as I was doing the ordering it just so happened to be a second round of my favorite fowl, this time the “Green Chile Duck Confit.” Ample in portion and more so in flavor this pile of two legs and two thighs featured a whole lot of duck for the dollar but unfortunately was just a bit less crispy than one would have hoped – a small quibble as it was not greasy, but not “textbook” confit by any means. Again spicy without being “hot” the duck subsequently topped with sultana serrano peanut mole and paired on the plate with savory “cheesy fried hominy” that tasted something like a cross between popcorn and corn nuts plus smoked mushrooms to help ground the rest of the flavors.
Not full by any means and largely impressed by the flavor profile Chef Carter’s food to this point dessert was prerequisite (and all the more so once I looked at the options.) Deferring on the fried bananas and opting for two desserts it would be a short while before they would arrive in tandem, both looking top notch and served with serviceware for sharing. Beginning first with the Churros, in this case espresso and cinnamon dusted before being lacquered with Ibarra chocolate, the crispy doughnuts were good but certainly not on par with Barrio café’s. Served alongside a cocoa and coffee milkshake and slightly spicy but mostly sugary the infusion of coffee tones was a unique touch but overall this was probably the weakest course of the evening – a shame as they seem to consider this their “signature” (and most expensive) dessert.
Fully admitting my biases the second dessert would prove much more appealing to me than the first and where other bread puddings on the trip were a bit hit and miss The Mission’s Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Scotch, Caramel, Pepitas, Pomeganate, and Chipotle seasonings was quite outstanding. Beginning first with the pudding, almost a steamed sticky pudding in texture, the flavor of the pumpkin, cinnamon, and clove was present in spades and the scotch tones blended nicely with the sweet caramel giving it all a heavy handed boozy bite. With a touch of spice from the chipotle cooled by quickly melting dulce de leche ice cream I additionally found a lot of appeal in the pumpkin seeds and pomegranate with their respective salty and sweet crunch adding some texture.
With conversation continuing well after dessert plates were empty Jenna returned and asked us if there was anything else we would like and on declining the check was left with a “whenever you’re ready” before she departed. A modest tab, particularly when split, we opted to divide the bill down the middle and with that we made our way to the streets where, as I’d been told, few people were to be found at 11:30pm even on a Saturday. Saying our goodbyes and contemplating the possibility of meeting up for some ethnic eats in Chicago just over a month later I made my way to my car satisfied with my meal at the Mission and realizing that perhaps my bias against “scene restaurants” was a bit unfounded, much like my preconceptions about “Southwest cuisine” – a fitting conclusion to my first trip to Arizona and a bit of reassurance that I could undoubtedly live here. Sure the city shuts down early but to be completely honest by the time we left The Mission it was already nearly 2 hours after my typical bedtime anyway.
Cheers to all the excellent Arizona Chowhounds who made the trip excellent. Barring major changes in the gameplan I hope to have plenty more to say about the Phoenix dining scene in the near future.
Please do me a favor though - start supporting your Coyotes - that arena is nice and lets just say I kinda need an NHL team in a city I'm cosidering as a home. :-)
enjoyed our two lunches and your company. your svelte frame belies your ability to consume.
foodwise you will likely be satisfied with the valley. our dining scene has come a long way in recent years.
hockeywise not so sure. this is a desert after all. :)
look forward to crossing paths in the future and dining together.