Spring Training in Arizona provides the perfect opportunity to get a taste of a variety of teams for the upcoming season and a taste of a variety of restaurants in the Phoenix area. With games mostly during the day and not meaningful, you can sandwich games with lunch and dinners out, avoiding the mostly unexciting Spring Training cuisine (especially you, HoHo Kam Park in Mesa, home of the Cubs). Yes, the wok tossed Island soba noodles with a myriad of vegetables is very enjoyable for a game, but when they are the best option at EVERY ballpark…that’s when it is great to branch out and explore Phoenix. Having visited Phoenix a few times the past year and a half for various baseball activities, I have thoroughly enjoyed Pizzeria Bianco again and again, including this past visit, along with the excellent cuisine at Noca (only the freezing air conditioning duct above us held the dinner back somewhat), and possibly the greatest cocktail of my life, the beet yuzu gimlet from Jade Bar at the Sanctuary on Camelback.
Now, onto the dining stops of this past visit, besides the soba noodles on a freezing afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium.
The Citizen Public House
A litte over a year old, it’s already the center of Scottsdale’s food and drink community who want both in one place. All the cocktails I sampled were somehow off, in particular the Citi-Zen, a candy sweet-pear vodka based concoction that should not have passed the initial taste test. Fortunately, the cuisine from former Cowboy Ciao chef Bernie Kantak, is far better, often outstanding. The famed Stetson Chopped Salad from Cowboy Ciao has ventured the 60 feet with Kantak for the Original Chopped Salad, a dreamy mélange of smoked salmon, corn, black beans, buttermilk dressing, and all sorts of other treats, in a presentation as rustically beautiful as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Pork belly pastrami sounds like a 2011 nightmare, yet turns out to be exemplary with a touch of Germany from spaetzle and brussels sprouts sauerkraut. Kantak creates a top notch lamb burger dripping with tzatziki, and short ribs on a parsnip puree, perked up by its dry cherry barbeque sauce. Desserts are epic in size and flavor by Tracy Dempsey, also from Cowboy Ciao. Chocolate pecan bars with chicory ice cream, a chicory streusel, and a salted chocolate caramel sauce? Yes, please. I don’t need seconds, but I could always have more.
Chef Charleen Badman and co-owner/sommelier Pavle Milic have created an exceptional example of the tiny, neighborhood, ingredient driven restaurant. There is an all Arizona wine list, prime seating along the L shaped bar around the central open kitchen, and barely enough room inside for a two seat table and a hallway. The much celebrated dish here is strangely enough revolves around leeks. The leeks come braised with mozzarella and mustard marinated bread crumbs, topped with a fried egg to be stirred amongst the others. It’s messy, wholesome, a bit on the excessive side for a vegetable dish, but altogether close to a masterpiece of simple ingredients that work wonders together. Chef Badman has a knack for vegetables, roasting humble carrots to filet mignon tenderness, joined by snap peas, dill feta cheese, and oil cured olives for a beautiful Spring and Greece influenced dish. She spans the globe, pairing mussels with quinoa in a tantalizing fish sauce broth from Southeast Asia and Harissa from Northern Africa, or roasted Jidori chicken atop spaetzle conjuring up Germany, and even crafts her own falafel from swiss chard. You must finish by way of chocolate bread pudding with drunken cherries, but the only slight faux pas is that the dessert menu is recited verbally. It’s hard to avoid proclaiming that every tiny neighborhood bistro aspires to be FnB.
Philadelphia celebrity chef José Garces branches out to the Saguaro Hotel in Scottsdale, a flashy Las Vegas driven joint. The decor tends to dominate the focus of his main dining room, Distrito, but when the Encarnacion nachos arrive, a mountain taller than Camelback, with skirt steak and the like, eyes shift to the plates. Tacos are the centerpiece of meals here, generally excellent such as the fish taco with pleasantly fried mahi arriving still moist. The stand out is the cochinita a la pubil, an impossibly tender carnitas preparation where the pork shoulder is braised for hours in an achiote pineapple barbeque sauce. Garces does this dish proud, the pillar of Yucatan cuisine. Dessert must be the churros with spicy valrhona chocolate sauce and cajeta cream. The menu has far more choices available worth trying than you have space to eat, but do avoid the disappointing margaritas and the cocktails from the next door Whiskey Bar either have too little or too much of its namesake in drinks.
Vincent’s on Camelback
Over two decades old, Vincent Guerithault’s mainstay in a non-descript section of Camelback Road where Scottsdale somehow becomes Phoenix, the chef is clinging to the dying breed of classic French cuisine. Cream sauces, textbook souffles, formal service with tableside preparations, and a dining room that looks like your Grandmother’s living room all are attempting to survive in this gastropub, communal table, farm to table organic generation. Nobody asks where the smoked salmon hails from in the stellar quesadilla, given a peppery southwest tweak, the specialty of Vincent. Another specialty, the duck tamale is a mushy, dry mess that doesn’t in the least resemble a traditional corn masa tamale, and the promised Anaheim chile and raisins inside are barely recognizable. The sea scallops are too far on the rubbery side, their basil beurre blanc tastes of nothing but flavor-less butter and cream, though at least the macadamia nut crust provides some life.
Hits and misses continue with one soaring hit being the roasted rack of lamb with a fiery spicy bell pepper jelly, cleverly presented with a burning sprig of thyme. The desserts and service steal the show though, proving that classic French restaurants still have a place in our dining society. If only every molten chocolate cake (compliments of the chef too and far larger than any petit fours you’ve had before) or souffle were as perfect as these. The tequila souffle, as unwelcoming as it sounds, could be the state dish of Arizona.
The “Blue Bottle” or “Intelligentsia” or “Stumptown” of Arizona, the Valley of the Sun’s outpost of the third wave coffee generation just might even be as good, or a risk to say, better than its big city colleagues. This is Cy Young Award worthy espresso– deep, rich, a touch of spice, of course with a sparkling water shot on the side. The flagship and site of the company’s roaster is a classic hipster college hangout in Tempe by Arizona State, right at home on Abbott Kinney or in the San Francisco Mission. I’m a bit partial to the Scottsdale cafe, reflecting the art and antique shop filled neighborhood, but far more than just coffee. What coffee bar also serves Oskar Blues and Green Flash beers? The hot chocolate here is excellent and the espresso just as good as in Tempe. Cartel just might have to follow the trio mentioned above and start expanding…