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Phoenix

The 13 Best Restaurant Meals of 2013

It’s hard to follow-up the formidable dining year that was 2012, with its list of heavyweights including The French Laundry and Noma. Remember, there have been many, many tremendous films over the years since the 12th edition of the Oscars celebrating the films of 1939. That year’s Best Picture winner was “Gone With The Wind.” “The Wizard Of Oz” was also a nominee. Hollywood hasn’t had such a same year 1-2 punch since Gable and Garland. I don’t know if yours truly will have a year like 2012 with Keller and Redzepi. But we’re always trying.

Ramon Freixa, Madrid

Ramon Freixa, Madrid

2013 started strong and never let up even if no destination quite achieved the nearly impossible levels of excellence consistently reached by certain kitchens and dining rooms in Copenhagen and Yountville. This year ultimately was a debate between a dynamic Basque chef in Madrid and one of the emerging forces of the gastronomic world from his emerging on the grand scene flagship dining room in Mexico City. In between, we learned that Portugal knows how to cook far more than just salt cod. The best meals in New York aren’t always reliant on Michelin—or The New York Times—stars. Los Angeles is becoming a real force on the dining scene and not because of chefs who adore the media limelight (that’s for sure in one case). Hotel restaurants aren’t always “hotel restaurants.” (Well, they usually are, but this list has two entries from that category (!)). And the year’s funkiest, most thrilling meal took place in a near pitch black underground bunker—in our nation’s capital after an over four hour long wait.

Pujol's Green Squash Tamal

Pujol’s Green Squash Tamal

I guess in that spirit, I should write a four hour long article? I’ll give you a pass on that.

In a moment, we’ll unveil the year’s 13 best restaurant meals. (more…)


Restaurants: Crudo, Phoenix, AZ

There are all sorts of lessons that the restaurant world should take note of from this dynamic hidden neighborhood spot along the busy Indian School Road thoroughfare at the border of Phoenix and Scottsdale, which I’m told is known as Arcadia. Before you delve further into the countryside paradise concept of Arcadia, this mini-mall filled version is much more akin to Los Angeles’ suburban town Arcadia than Tom Stoppard’s idea.

Though the address says Indian School, it really could be somebody’s backyard or a parking lot alleyway instead, since this desert treasure of a neighborhood bistro is tucked away from apparent view on the rear side of the Gaslight Square shopping center. I would venture to guess at least 50% of diners might do the same as me, parking their car in the front assuming they’ll find the restaurant here somewhere, only to stumble onto it ten minutes later. In Phoenix’s heat, those could be ten very long minutes. For this restaurant, I would walk from Downtown Phoenix for the smoked olives.

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This suburban speakeasy equivalent restaurant is the second iteration of Crudo. The chef Cullen Campbell’s original was a hit from 2009 to 2011, actually sharing space with a salon further east in Scottsdale. I’m not sure what it is with Crudo and hidden locales within shops or shopping centers. It proves to diners that a little research goes a long ways into uncovering where hidden talent is being displayed behind the stoves, behind the jewelery stores.

Phoenix is one of the country’s most underrated dining regions, often only thought of as the faraway scorching hot home to Chris Bianco’s mythical pizzas. Amongst the Valley’s shining dining room stars, Crudo is no doubt one of the elite.

Crudo's crudos

Crudo’s crudos

Crudo Part II just celebrated its first birthday. What a celebration I hope it was for such an accomplished restaurant after its initial year. But hold on folks. The actual birthday celebration will be held tomorrow, Thursday April 25th. Diners in the desert should be on their way to the phone for reservations immediately after finishing this article.

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“Beer” of the Week: White Chocolate Ale, Sonoran Brewing, Scottsdale, AZ

It’s not uncommon for a porter or a stout to present very noticeable chocolate notes. In fact, those two brew genres more often than not have the same repetitive duo in taste profiles: cacao and coffee. Yes, expert food and drink writers such as yours truly who can discern the most hidden of flavors, often vary how to express the cacao and coffee notes. Sometimes, the beer reminds us of milk chocolate and espresso. Other samplings, it’s woodsy 75% dark cacao nibs and single origin Rwandan beans.

Prior to a recent tasting at the O.H.S.O. Eatery and nanoBrewery (Outrageous Homebrewer Social Outpost) right at the border of Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, I had never experienced fully a beer that truly tasted like chocolate, no strings attached. Literally. If a Godiva white chocolate truffle’s ganache were transformed into beer form, this would be the end result.

White Chocolate Ale: 3rd from left Carrot Cake: 3rd from right Coconut Joe Coffee Stout: far left

White Chocolate Ale: 3rd from left
Carrot Cake: 3rd from right
Coconut Joe Coffee Stout: far left

Call it cold fermented chocolate or hop chocolate. This being the Valley of the Sun, who wants hot chocolate anyways? (If you’ve ever sat through a Spring Training rain delay in Arizona, you’d know it’s not always warm here…)

The Sonoran Brewing Company of Scottsdale, Arizona has somehow mastered the challenges of making both a white chocolate ale that makes wheat beer drinkable and a chocolate ale that isn’t an artificial, sugary mess. (more…)


Cocktail of the Week: Beet Yuzu Gimlet at Crudo, Phoenix, AZ

Is there anything more virtuous sounding than beet juice? Just think of the ills of the world that could be solved by drinking beet juice. So many nutrients could be acquired to brighten up so many days by pressing the violet juice out of those ugly, gnarly root vegetables. It seems like you could go run a marathon or start tackling bikram yoga when you embrace the power of beet juice.

Then, the sound effect of polluting such pristine, vitamin laden juice with spirits could be fingernails attacking a chalkboard. It’s almost a crime. What would be the perfect food pairing with beet juice? Quinoa and heirloom Nantes carrots?

O.K., enough on the fact that beet juice is very representative of yoga cuisine. Beet juice can be incredibly enjoyable, whether you practice yoga or ride Harleys.

In the other corner, yuzus evoke virtuous thoughts as well. The Mandarin orange-like citrus, common in East Asian cuisines (in particular Japanese), is treated with reverence in the hands of chefs and bartenders. Tender, petite yuzu segments carefully toe the line between sweet and sour, much more delicate to the palate than any other citrus. A few years ago on a trip to Tokyo, bartenders (known in Tokyo as “masters”) at some of the world’s most exalted cocktail dens, including Star Bar Ginza and Bar High Five, asked me if I would like to try a yuzu cocktail since they were in prime season at the time. I figured they knew best. What surprised me was how the yuzu cocktails each created were virtually identical and essentially pure yuzu juice. Spirit driven cocktails these were not. With a little Gin and sugar added, these were essentially a classic Gimlet with yuzu in place of lime juice.

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Halfway across the globe, I found myself on the patio of the gorgeous Jade Bar at the Sanctuary on Camelback, a spa- driven resort nestled at the northern base of Phoenix, Arizona’s iconic mountain. It must have been the coldest night of the year in the desert, causing us tourists to curl up next to fireplaces as if this were Alaska, not Arizona. A Hot Toddy would have been an appropriate cocktail.

Always on the lookout for the unique cocktails of a menu, I gave the Beet Yuzu Gimlet a chance, a perfect representation of a health-forward cocktail at a health-forward bar at a resort focused on your well being. I had seen classic cocktails re-interpreted to vastly differing results. Beets and yuzu? We’ll see about that (more…)


The Bites of March

The Alembic, San Francisco:The Promissory Note cocktail

A spectacular, mellow blend of Reposado tequila, dry vermouth, canton ginger liqueur, honey, and a brief bite from absinthe. Served up, this is everything you want from a cocktail: some spice, some sweet, some booze notes, all together refreshing and thought-provoking.

Bi-Rite Creamery, San Francisco: Mexican Chocolate with Salted Peanuts flavor

The salted caramel and roasted banana flavors can be the most memorable bites of any month, so we’ll go with the rookie here. Available only in pints, cinnamon meets dark chocolate with some crunch. It’s the perfect teammate to either of Bi-Rite’s legendary flavors.

The Citizen Public House, Scottsdale, AZ: The Original Chopped Salad

So good it has its own facebook page. It looks like a rainbow and has every ingredient of the rainbow. The keys are the buttermilk dressing to add a unifying central taste, the smoked salmon for a unique touch from the usual salad ingredients, and the crunch of the pepitas.

Claudine, San Francisco: Avocado Toast with Dill Gravlax, Lemon, and Spanish Black Radish

The most satisfying lunch possible, especially with the green goddess salad on the side. Pristine smoked salmon, a squeeze of lemon acidity, the bitter radish, the creamy avocado, all on thick, buttery toasted sourdough. I could make this a weekly habit.

Destination Bakery, San Francisco: Irish Soda Bread

I still can’t figure out how to make an Irish soda bread not dry. The folks at Destination Bakery in sleepy Glen Park, known for its busy BART station at rush hour and the excellent pizzeria Gialina, sure have with an excellent special rolled out for St. Patrick’s Day, packed with raisins and carraway seeds. This is sweet and savory baking at its best, perfect with a Guinness.

Flour + Water, San Francisco: Squid Ink Corzetti with Pork Sausage, Clams, and Calabrian Chiles

You could pick any dish at Flour + Water as a stand out. I was fascinated by the corzetti, circular, flat, and large ravioli, stained black by the squid ink, mixed with the rustic taste of the sausage, the ocean notes of clams, and spice from the chiles. A perfect example of what makes Flour + Water some of the most riveting cooking in the country.

FnB, Scottsdale, AZ: Roasted Carrots with Snap Peas, Oil Cured Olives, Dill, and Feta

As beautiful as it tastes, Charleen Badman elevates carrots to unforeseen levels. With the freshness of spring in the snap peas and influenced heavily by Greece’s cuisine, a truly special vegetable side dish from…carrots?!

Gary Danko, San Francisco: Horseradish Crusted Salmon Medallion with Dilled Cucumbers and Mustard Sauce

The key to this dish is the restraint: not too much mustard in the cream sauce but enough to be there, enough horseradish to make you aware but without the overboard nasal kick. Wrapped in brioche, the salmon melts upon the touch of a fork. Excellent signature classic by Chef Danko that hasn’t worn out one bit.

Nopa, San Francisco: Grass fed Hamburger with Pickled Onions, French Fries, and Harissa Aioli

The juiciest of beef patties needs no help, though the teammates of this perfect hamburger elevate this to an even higher level. Nopa has got this down pat, from the meat temperature to the homemade brioche bun that doesn’t let the package fall apart.

Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix: Wiseguy Pizza with Wood Roasted Onions, House Smoked Mozzarella, and Fennel Sausage

Throw a dart and pick your favorite pizza at Bianco, it’s impossible to choose. I’ll side with the Wiseguy today, with its smoky toppings that create a fascinating sensation with the smoky crust, tempered gently by the sweet notes of the onions. No big deal, but maybe the best pizza at the premier pizzeria in the country.

St. Michael’s Alley, Palo Alto, CA: Ahi Tuna Salade Niçoise

Take the greatest salade niçoise and eliminate the decent tuna fish for beautiful ruby red seared ahi tuna. With plenty of hard boiled eggs, green breans, oil cured niçoise olives, this is the perfect entrée salad.

Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco: Smoked Salmon on Rye Toast

It is as it sounds. Add a few capers perhaps. Bite after bite of smoked salmon elegance, enhanced by the funk of the rye base.

Vincent’s on Camelback, Phoenix: Tequila Gold Souffle

No, it doesn’t taste like a margarita. A textbook fluffy souffle meets a creme anglaise enhanced by the sweetness of agave will make everyone forget about what bad souffles and tequila taste like until the next time you have one too many Jose Cuervo shots.


Round Up Around Phoenix

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.

FnB

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.

Distrito

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.

Cartel Coffee

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…


Monday Neighborhoods: 5th Ave. and Stetson, Scottsdale, AZ

The Phoenix metropolitan area is truly fascinating, rapidly becoming Los Angeles in everything from freeways and sprawl to a city so focused on suburbs that now has re-connected with its actual downtown core years later.

Often when people imagine Phoenix, they actually imagine the cactus and palm tree landscapes of the resorts in Scottsdale. Scottsdale interesting enough, is a virtual miniature clone of the entire Phoenix area, with diverse pockets from Old Town to luxury resorts to regular suburbia to rural Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s western home) to our focus today, the East 5th Ave. shopping neighborhood. East 5th, Stetson Dr., and Scottsdale Road create a three road ring of sorts with this region inside of it. The shops sell mostly upscale western gifts for the tourists who wander a few blocks from the much more touristy, over the top, western Disneyland-Cheesecake Factory excess of Old Town Scottsdale just to the east along Scottsdale Road.

This time of the year with Spring Training, the area seems like its San Francisco East with all of the Giants fans, including yours truly, in town. The E. 5th Ave Shopping Area is fascinating, with a touch of that touristy old west excess, combined with a little high class European influence, and some sleek cosmopolitan modern designs.

Fortunately for diners, food happens to be the heart of this shopping district.

Anchoring a prominent spot in the center of this ring at Stetson and E. 5th is the eclectic, funky, refined Cowboy Ciao, whose name is a perfect representation of the culinary mash-up served. The Stetson Chopped Salad and mushroom stir-fry are as legendary in the area as Chris Bianco’s pizzas. Along Stetson next door to Cowboy Ciao on both Stetson and E. 5th is the emerging empire of chef Charleen Badman and co-owner/wine guru Pavle Milic, anchored by the outstanding bistro FnB on the Stetson side. FnB’s braised leeks with mustard bread crumbs, and mozzarella, and a fried egg has acquired mythical status, and deservedly so, but I still can’t get the mussels in fish sauce with harissa or the homey chicken with spaetzle out of my head. On E. 5th, the team now have just opened  a new market called Bodega, a wine bar focusing on  Arizona wines called Arizona Wine Merchants, and a charming cafe for lunch, Baratin. The group reflects the neighborhood perfectly, with a focus on everything local, a touch of sophistication, and a slight flair for the old west.

Sticking with wine bars, Kazimierz World Wine Bar resides next to FnB on Stetson. Across the way on Stetson the Old West turns into the New West with the sleek, modern SouthBridge complex, including its Casablanca Lounge, along the riverwalk style revamped Arizona Canal. Continue the loop to E. 5th St., with gallery after gallery after shop, and you’ll find the Scottsdale outpost of the exceptional Tempe based coffee roaster and shop Cartel, who makes an espresso on par with the giants of Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. This Cartel shop, one of 4 in Arizona, happens to also have a shockingly impressive wine and beer list (Oskar Blues, Green Flash at a coffee shop?!), and a very satisfying hot chocolate too on the two days of the year its cold like during my visit.

Kitty corner to Cartel is Citizen Public House, run by the former chef of Cowboy Ciao, Bernie Kantak. Everything is spectacular, particularly that same chopped salad from Cowboy Ciao that made the trip across the street to the pork belly pastrami over spaetzle (what’s with this area and spaetzle?) that marries German influence with barbeque to desserts by Tracy Dempsey, again formerly of Cowboy Ciao. Again, the atmosphere is charming with a touch of old west and Manhattan sophistication, like the neighborhood.

The stunning centerpiece of this neighborhood is just outside the ring at E. 5th and Marshall. The traffic circle there rings around a central fountain, just like you might find in Paris or London…except this being Scottsdale, instead of Napoleon or Charles V., the fountain boats sprinting mustangs. This is the Old West after all. Except the Old West never tasted as good as those braised leeks at FnB.