Lee's, Barrio Queen, and The House Brasserie - not bad, but there are better ways to spend $100 in Scottsdale
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below:
After a good morning of dining around downtown Phoenix and a few hours of shopping for essentials, clearing out the old condo, and studying I returned to Scottsdale for part two of my food day but (as usual) my plans to check out Barratin and/or FnB were foiled by menus that simply failed to wow. Having heard countless times that I don’t know what I’m missing in passing up these places I guess I’m simply afraid that a menu without something that really catches my attention could prevent me from ever going back and as such I searched for a plan B for dinner-before-dinner and instead ended up with dessert before dinner-before-dinner at Lee’s Cream Liqueur where I would not only meet Lee herself, but also have some rather excellent ice cream.
Apparently more of a side job/pet business than full-time gig for Lee, the “Cream Liqueur” concept admittedly seemed a bit strange to me at first, but with Lee explaining her ideas and time spent formulating the recipes I decided a taste or two wouldn’t hurt and with stomach capacity plus $5 to spare a few bites of Pumpkin Pie Brandy, Cinnamon Bun Brandy, and Caramel Pecan Tequila would all prove interesting enough (and the latter two quite delicious) to justify a full order – one scoop of Carrot Cake Irish Whiskey and one of Red Velvet Scotch.
Now, having admitted already that I quite liked what I tasted, I will note to purists or mavens that the texture of Lee’s Cream is somewhat atypical, an effect of a blending process that that allows the booze to freeze while also using mix-ins like cake and cookies, but if this doesn’t bother you then the flavors are great. Beginning first with the Red Velvet, I loved the chocolate and scotch combination while bits of frosting added needed sweetness to the mix and moving next to the carrot cake – it tasted like a great spice cake, complete with raisins and nuts, mixed with something akin to Bailey’s – it was definitely the favorite of those I tried and even if not the most technically proficient ice cream, all in all a nice idea and an interesting change of pace.
Stepping out of Lee’s and heading back past FnB one more time to re-scan the menu I was heading back to my car with plans to head to LGO for a pre-dinner Pizza when I saw Barrio Queen, Silvana Salcido Esparza’s Scottsdale ode to Mexican cuisine that would only a few days later be named one of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants of 2012. Having debated stopping in for their happy hour tacos once in the past and with somewhat fond memories of my visit to Barrio Café just one year prior I decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at the menu and after weighing the options and noting they were mostly empty with the Cardinals on the television I decided to stop in for a few bites…or a full blown meal.
Having already been to Barrio Café during my interview visit to Phoenix I was not surprised when I walked into the Queen to find it a rather upscale take on traditional Mexican themes but where the café seemed authentic the décor here seemed a bit put on – no thanks in part to the souvenir stand at the door where a young hostess greeted me and subsequently offered me my choice of seats. Pleasant enough in décor with lacquered tables, comfortable wood seats, and overhead lamps in an array of colors while light theme-appropriate music played overhead I eventually settled on a seat in the main dining room, away from the bar, and close enough to the TV to read the subcaptions of a last minute Cardinals win. With menu in hand it would not be long before drinks were offered and declined in favor of water.
Sitting and perusing the menu while the table a few to my left ooh’d and aah’d their selections the first thing that struck me about BQ was the prices – this is not ‘cheap’ Mexican food by any means; particularly the entrees but also including the individual taco prices…a hungry duo at Happy Hour could probably top $100 with tax and tip before filling up. With this in mind, yet also noting that I’m happy to pay for good food, I figured that given the extensiveness of the menu plus my goal of sampling as many of Salcido’s different flavors as possible the best strategy would be to stick to the small plates, appetizers, and tacos – a combined total of 9 plates to be doled out in four courses per my request.
With service efficient and gracious, just like that at the café, I spent some time watching the game and reading my study materials before one of many servers arrived with my first course – the two for $3 Happy Hour taco pairing of Nopal and Barrio Polo, plus a $4 addition entitled Champinon, huitlacoche, y cotija. With the Nopal a downgraded version of the egg topped item on the standard menu served only at happy hour and featuring tender cactus with a bit of salt and pepper plus queso fresco atop a four inch corn tortilla I started with it expecting it to be the most mild and as anticipated, it was quite bland. Moving next to better options, the Barrio polo featured the same warm and tender tortilla topped with chicken, onions, green chilis, and hefty cream sauce plus Oaxaca cheese while the corn smut iteration proved to be by far the most complex and balanced of the trio, the woodsy mushrooms and aromatic shallots heavily perfumed by the huitlacoche. All in all a good start, but certainly not the best I’ve tasted and skewed far to the left in terms of cost/quality.
Curious as to how the pork at BQ stands up to others in the valley I next opted for the carnitas appetizer but was instead served a carnitas taco – cheaper at $3 compared to $9, but not what I’d asked for. Not really wanting to make a fuss and figuring I could save the stomach capacity this was another decent taco – fatty pork with ample notes of marjoram, thyme, and garlic served with a light accompaniment of onions and cilantro…2 good bites, but nothing to write home about, especially when compared to what arrived with it.
Presented along with the carnitas, the “El Rey Vasito de Elote” is apparently a signature dish and as much as one may find it hard to see corn as a signature, this is pretty darn good. Described on the menu as sweet grilled corn in a cup topped with butter, mayo, aged cotija cheese, tapatio salsa, cilantro & lime at a cost of $5 what made the dish really shine was mostly the corn and the cotija – sweet, savory, and smoky at once with just a bit of acid to meld all the flavors. Served solo and meant to share this dish is also offered over fries, but for my money it was best taken by the spoonful alongside other plates or wrapped in a warm tortilla, free on request.
For my final round of savories I went with one of the weekend specials and an order from the ‘masa’ section of the menu and having expected more small plates I certainly got more than I’d expected from both. Beginning first with the later, a dish called Tlacoyos arrived with three mashed corn fritters topped with smoky chicken, black beans, salsa verde, oregano, pickled onions, cotija cheese and lightly sweetened cream. Having expected something more akin to a traditional corn fritter form the $9 plate what I really liked about this open-face interpretation was once again the balance – a composition of flavors and textures akin to the Elote but tilted further to the savory yet finishing with light sweetness imparted by the cream.
Moving to the biggest dish of the night – and most certainly the most rustic – the tripe and hominy soup entitled ‘menudo’ arrived in an enormous bowl and at a cost of $5 it was simply outstanding. Featuring a rich tomato stock rife with offal, bones, tender hominy, and myriad spices plus a quartet of onions, cilantro, lime, and pimento pepper with which I was free to further season as I like this was a portion easily big enough for two but so good that those who love tripe should probably just order one of their own.
Still with two and a half hours before dinner at this point my server again stopped by and after perusing the dessert menu I decided to end the meal with another duet, one a must order anywhere I see it and the other a must order at any Mexican restaurant – the Arroz con leche and the Tres Leches, respectively – but at $6 a piece I should have probably just ordered a margarita, entrée, or another half-gallon of menudo instead.
Beginning first with the rice pudding – a small bowl of relatively standard white rice with hints of cinnamon and orange subsequently dotted with golden raisins and curls of cinnamon plus, reportedly, “Vanilla Kahlua sauce” it would be hard to find a less flavorful dish containing such ingredients and with the rice cold and clumpy all I could do was wonder if I’d received the previous night’s leftovers – a suspicion more or less confirmed when I tried the three milk cake, a dense and dry pound cake parfait made palatable only by the berries and most certainly not by the cream I can only guess came from a ready-whip can. As a further note, where both dishes were advertised to contain nuts – specifically pecans, none were detected in either.
Not one to complain except in the setting of egregious service or truly disastrous food I sat for a while with desserts unfinished before my server stopped by and instead of asking if I was all done or if there was something wrong with the half eaten items he commented “too full to finish, huh?” before gathering up the plates and strolling away before returning with my check and stating “take your time,” as I sat in the empty space watching the game still pondering how I’d spent so much on so little that impressed. Best new restaurant? Um – sure – for corn and tripe…but I get the idea that it was hype as opposed to either of those two items that the local paper and Esquire were rating them on.
After a few more hours spent with my books it was finally time for dinner – a reunion (sort of) one year in the making that would land myself and Dominic of skilletdoux.com plus his friend Joel at Matt Carter’s brand new House Brasserie in Scottsdale just before 9:30pm. Having (ironically) originally met Dominic for a good late night meal at Carter’s “The Mission” on October 1st 2011 during my original interview trip to Phoenix and having read good initial reports from Joel I must note that I still went into the meal with a bit of trepidation since the space had been open for only a few days, yet at the same time a call earlier in the week (and subsequent E-mails) with manager Sal La Via to obtain the most recent menus had certainly heightened expectations.
Set inside (and perhaps more so on the patio of) one of the oldest homes in Scottsdale and featuring modern updates and fix-ups while retaining a sort of rustic elegance in part due to the dated décor and shabby-chic stylings my arrival to The House preceded that of my friends by a few moments and after a bit of exploring I made my way to the doors where the first of a number of young women greeted me and subsequently offered my choice of seats I elected the patio where our primary server, Sydney, presented the menu of both food and drinks – the former unfortunately already substantially changed from what Sal had sent me just days prior. With fewer than ten other tables full at such a late hour and candles flickering in the gentle breeze I sat and spoke with my server for a bit, mostly about the restaurant but the local dining scene in general before my Dom and Joel arrived and once all were accounted for we exchanged greetings and proceeded to order seven plates, four desserts (3 comped), four drinks…and a $1 ‘bread supplement.’
With Sal stopping by next to say hello and to explain the menu changes (basically there isn’t enough room in the kitchen to be as ambitious as the original menu had hoped) and Joel’s first drink poured as conversation flowed it would not be long before our plates began to arrive and with most of the items served as trios the night began with what would actually turn out to be the best savory of the night, “Shrimp and Grits,” a savory and intense composition of sweet and snappy head-on shrimp atop creamy popcorn grits enlivened by charred onions and smoky pork glaze with a touch on honey. Sweet and savory but perhaps a bit steep at $14 this was a dish where the ingredients and the execution came together beautifully.
Dish two, presented with the shrimp, was a vegetal affair titled “Arizona Ricotta, Sicilian Pistachio Toast, Roasted Radish” and at $8 it again arrived as a trio with only a single flaw – a dearth of salt to liven up the otherwise beautifully cooked radish. A bit of a disappointment even despite the high quality of the tender taproot the dish certainly improved in moving on to the bread crisps as the ricotta was ever so slightly melted while the bread itself was herbal and crunchy but at the same time subtle. With a bit more salt this one could be great.
With the first two plates delivered as a duo just after 10pm the rest of the items would arrive as a second bolus and beginning my tasting of round two with the item I’d most coveted I was admittedly impressed, though not as much as I’d hoped. Presented as Duck Confit Meatballs, Foie Gras, White Bean, Tomato Agrodolce it would be hard to say exactly how/why such decadent ingredients did not live up to my expectations, particularly as the meatballs were tender and rife with flavor, but if I had to pin it on one thing I think it would be the expectations arising with the word “Foie Gras” and the $14 price tag as the sapor of the foie was largely lost to the tomatoes while the puree of white bean was okay, but mostly just filler. If I were to recreate this dish I’d say put it on a hoagie, drop the luxury ingredient upcharge, and pair it with some bitter greens and something sweet…and don’t charge me $1 for two pieces of rather mundane bread with which to mop up the sauce.
Berkshire Pork Belly, Kimchee, Udon Noodle, Fried Egg arrived with some joking at the table about the ubiquity of pork belly these days and as much as I cannot argue that said ingredient is delicious I just didn’t find it well utilized here as the fattiness of the swine simply overwhelmed any semblance of kimchee while the noodles were soggy and limp. Decent flavors though garnished by a rather inconsequential egg I had a few bites and that was enough.
A $12 side dish consisting of what had to be less than half an uncooked cup of rice with far less lobster, “Maine Lobster Fried Rice, Mullet Egg, Aji Amarillo” was actually a rather nice plate of risotto with a lot of umami and a touch of heat but “fried rice” it most certainly was not. Nice enough, but certainly not a sharable plate, one of my tablemates summed it up perfectly when he commented that all this dish really did was make him want to go elsewhere and get a dish of “kick ass” fried rice – something he could have done at 1/3 the tab and had enough for lunch the next day.
Moving last to a pair of sides, each $6 and far more generous than the rice, Grilled and Buttered Shiitake Mushrooms, Truffle Honey along with Grilled Broccoli Carbonara, Pancetta, Egg, Black Pepper arrived and where the first showed strongly in its simplicity the second fell flat once again due to a lack of salt – a lack so pronounced that frozen broccoli straight from the bag has more flavor thus making me wonder exactly what sort of pancetta was even present.
Deferred to as some sort of dessert guru – or glutton – by Dominic and put in charge of our dessert order the decision seemed logical enough for me…there were four desserts on the menu, three of us, and as such we should order them all. It was the best call of the night, and after talking to Sal that turned out to be with good reason as each of the house made confections were the work of The Mission’s longtime pastry chef – home of a bread pudding that you need to put on your shortlist if you’ve not been.
Beginning first with what I think we all felt was the ‘worst’ of the options – a far stretch from bad and kind of like finishing last in the Olympic 100m dash – the Buttermilk Blackberry Crumb Cake arrived as a dense butter cake with a downhome toothsomeness that I really enjoyed, but with ample notes of buttermilk dominating the sweetness of the berries I think this one could have benefitted from one of two things – a dollop of ice cream or a cup of coffee. I’d definitely order this as a breakfast item anywhere.
Next up, the most “elegant” of the quartet would be Caramel Apple Upside Down Cake, Salted Caramel, and Pistachio Ice Cream. A long and linear presentation with the apple flavor a bit overwhelmed by the salty caramel but still potent and tart what truly made this plate shine was the ice cream – creamy, rich, and rife with nutty flavor…had we been dining earlier I’d have probably driven over to Sweet Republic for another round.
Under almost any other circumstances a Sacher Torte would have been the highlight of the meal and served with “Toasted Almond Amaretto Mascarpone Mousse” this one was a fine example. Dense, intensely cocoa, and appropriately dry without suffering the Americanization of making it too birthday-cake in texture this was another dessert that would have gone great with coffee but the use of the mousse and bold apricot flavor kept everything balanced and bright. It was awesome – but the final dessert was even better.
If there is one thing The House should keep doing from this point until the day they close their doors it should be keeping the Butterscotch Pudding on the menu. A fan of all puddings – from rice to bread to budino – and having had a number of similar presentations elsewhere this version was simply outstanding – sweet and salty, dense and creamy, and bespeckled with chocolate and fruit adding both texture and flavor. It goes on the short list for Phoenix’s best desserts and will likely remain there for some time. If you go to The House this is hands down the ‘must order’ item of the menu.
With the meal at its end and my friends enjoying a post-dinner beverage while we sat and chatted both amongst ourselves and with Sal I think we were all in agreement that The House is off to a decent start but still has a lot of room for growth in every department except perhaps dessert and décor. A lovely setting already with great service I think the focus should start with improved seasoning and working to nail the basics before experimenting with ‘fusion’ and once the kitchen is hitting on all cylinders perhaps improving the portion/price ratio by bringing back some of the “family style” ideas presented on the original menu. For now, if I were to go back it would only be for dessert.