First Arizona Fall League update of 2011 is up for Insiders, leading off with Anthony Gose.
When we first moved to Arizona last year, I grabbed a copy of Phoenix Magazine‘s September issue, which included their annual list of the best new restaurants in the Valley – an impulse purchase that led us to three of our favorite restaurants in the area, The Hillside Spot, Culinary Dropout, and ‘Pomo Pizzeria. This year’s list is now online (although I picked up the paper copy a month ago) and I’ve hit three of the 23 restaurants on their list, including one knockout, the upscale Thai restaurant Soi4.
Located in the Gainey shopping plaza in central Scottsdale, at the intersection of Scottsdale Road and Doubletree Ranch (which becomes Via de Ventura, so it’s close to the Salt River stadium), Soi4 is Thai cuisine, updating classic Thai dishes with modern twists in a trendy Scottsdale atmosphere (if you live around here, you know the positives and negatives in that phrase). Soi4′s take on panang neur uses perfectly-braised short ribs in place of more typical, inexpensive cuts like rump steak. The ribs come with a mixture of chopped red and green bell peppers and cucumbers with a slightly spicy red curry/coconut milk sauce with thai basil. The only better-cooked short ribs I have ever had were at Tom Colicchio’s craftsteak in Las Vegas (twice), and that’s a restaurant that specializes in beef – and costs about three times as much. For an appetizer, I tried their kao pode tod, spiced corn fritters served with a cucumber relish and a spicy clear sauce for drizzling, another traditional Thai dish taken up several notches with stunning presentation, almost a work of art on the plate, with crisp exteriors, bright centers of mostly corn with some minced lemongrass, and no sign of grease or oil on the plate. It’s a little more expensive than your typical Thai place – those two items and a pot of hot tea (bonus points for loose leaf) came to $24 before tip – but absolutely justifies the cost through freshness of ingredients and the masterful preparations.
The Arrogant Butcher, a short walk west of Chase Field, was more middle of the road on my visit, solid food marred by a single kitchen error. It’s yet another outpost from Fox Restaurant Concepts, the people behind Culinary Dropout and Zinburger, this time focused primarily on meats, including charcuterie and slow-cooked meat dishes like the short rib stew I tried on my one visit. The stew was hearty and filling, with small (maybe one-inch) chunks of short rib and red beans, served with a fried egg on top and a rich corn muffin on the side. But the stew contained a large piece of connective tissue – I can’t think of the last time I was in a decent restaurant and had to spit out a piece of food, but this was unchewable and certainly not something I wanted in my stomach. It was just one piece, an oversight by a prep cook, but that undermined the whole meal for me. They offer a strong selection of small sides, including grilled mushrooms, marcona almonds, or the one I tried, roasted red peppers, sliced thinly and tossed in balsamic vinegar.
The third place I’ve tried from that list was Spasso Pizzeria and Mozzarella Bar in Phoenix just off 51, a huge disappointment across the board. The mozzarella is apparently made fresh in house, but for $12, the plate of two cheeses (we also chose scamorza, another cow’s milk cheese that’s dried to produce a harder texture) included just two slices of each plus some very unappetizing-looking, drab/grey roasted vegetables, all unseasoned and undressed. Even the mozzarella itself was unsalted, which is a small crime, and was totally unremarkable in flavor or texture – you can buy equivalent or better fresh mozzarella in any Trader Joes (and there’s one next door!) or Whole Foods. The pizza was entirely ordinary aside from the use of the same fresh mozzarella on top, and everything was inordinately pricey given how inexpensive the ingredients are. Even the crème brulee, which I bought only because my daughter wanted something for dessert, was all wrong, served in a deep ramekin so the ratio of sugar crust to custard was way off. With so many better pizza options in the Valley, I can’t see why anyone would go here and pay more for an inferior product. UPDATE: It appears that Spasso has closed. Can’t say I’m surprised.
That same issue of Phoenix Magazine included a great article on the second act for Chris Bianco, the owner/chef/genius behind Pizzeria Bianco and Pane Bianco. He’s become one of the Southwest’s greatest advocates for local agriculture and biodiversity, an amazing adaptation for a man whose first career, making every pizza by hand, ended abruptly as airborne flour particles worsened his asthma, causing his doctor to give him a “quit or die” warning he had to heed.