I hope by now you’ve seen my spring training dining guide for this year, but of course, this is a month when I try a lot of new places because I’m out of the house for games. Here are a few places I haven’t reviewed on the blog previously, and I’ve updated the guide where appropriate.
I’ve been to Davanti Enoteca in Scottsdale twice now, once for lunch and once for dinner, with the latter the far more memorable experience. The restaurant’s publicist had urged me to try their linguine con riccio di mare e granchio, pasta with sea urchin and crab. (Riccio di mare literally means “hedgehog of the sea.”) The sea urchin, which sushi fans among you know as uni, is in the sauce, an umami-filled buttery coating that’s just barely enough for the pasta and small pieces of delicate crab meat, a phenomenal and, for me, entirely new dish that was only marred by a few bits of crab shell. Davanti is the only place in Arizona that I’ve found that serves white anchovies, known as boquerones in Spanish; here they’re served as fillets, lightly marinated and presented with pecorino sardo, marinated olives, and a small salad of arugula and celery. The bruschetta varies daily; on Saturday it was goat cheese, arugula, small crispy bits of prosciutto, and a light balsamic glaze, nicely balanced with the creaminess of the cheese and peppery arugula balancing the salty-sweet prosciutto. I’d skip the honeycomb focaccia, which the server recommended highly – it’s flat, Ligurian-style, almost cracker-like, with a soft cow’s-milk cheese inside, but overall I found it pretty bland. Dessert was also disappointing – they were out of my first choice, the mille foglie (misspelled as “millie foglie” on the menu, which sounds like a supporting character in a Nero Wolfe novel), and my second, the peanut butter mousse, had a great texture but no flavor. For lunch, they offer a small selection of fresh sandwiches, including an authentic porchetta, served with rapini, aged provolone, and hot peppers (a lot of them), for a very reasonable $9. EDIT: Davanti closed in May of 2013.
On Friday night, I tried Federal Pizza in CenPho – that’s what the cool kids call central Phoenix, apparently, although to me that’s just “downtown” – with Nick Piecoro and a colleague of his at the Republic. After a 90-minute wait for a table, the pizza had to meet a pretty high standard to satisfy me, but it did, better than ‘Pomo in Scottsdale and on par with Cibo, which surprised me given how strong both of those pizzerias are. Federal’s crust is soft and spongy, thin but not Neapolitan-thin where the center often can’t support the toppings, but also not as strong and cracker-like as Bianco’s is. The two pizzas we ordered arrived with plenty of char on the exterior but not underneath, which is good. I went with the Brussels sprout pizza, with manchego, large bits of bacon, and a hint of lemon; Nick ordered the meatball pizza, with house-pulled mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil. Both were excellent, although I preferred the Brussels sprout pizza for its novelty and for the great combination of the roasted sprouts, which have a little sweetness when they’re caramelized, with the saltiness of the bacon (a great friend to basically all things green) and the Manchego and the acid from the lemon. Nick’s friend, Amy, ordered the roasted vegetable board, which was both very fresh and very generous, with more cauliflower, roasted to a nice shade of brown on the cut sides, than I could ever eat at one sitting.
I never wrote up crudo, although it’s on the dining guide and I’ve recommended it to many of you individually. Crudo’s menu has four major sections: four or five crudo (raw) seafood dishes that give the restaurant its name, four plates built around fresh mozzarella, four pasta/risotto options, and four grilled proteins, as well as a few sides. Nearly everything my daughter and I ate here was outstanding; she loved the fresh mozzarella with bacon relish, I couldn’t get over the quality of the albacore (with apple, truffles, and black garlic) in the crudo preparation, and we both adored the crispy pig ears appetizer and the squash dumplings with pork ragout (this was in November when that was seasonal). They also feature desserts by the great Tracy Dempsey, and, again sticking with the fall theme, we had an apple tart with crème fraîche that was superb, especially the crust which was firm when you cut the tart but shattered in your mouth so all of that imprisoned butter could burst forth as you bit into the apple. If I were trying to impress a woman on a date, this is where I’d take her.
Further out here in the east valley boonies, I tried the new Whiskey Rose Saloon BBQ location in south Chandler, which they promise will be the first outpost of many … although I doubt it, as the food was pretty mediocre across the board. They are smoking the meats, but there was very little smoke flavor anywhere to be found, and what we got – I went with Phoenix New Times/Chow Bella food critic Laura Hahnefeld and her husband, Jay – was not very hot when it reached the table. About the best I can say for the food is that nothing was overcooked to the point of dryness, but none of it had much taste, and the amount of fat left on the brisket was kind of shocking. The conversation clearly outpaced the food here. By the way, Laura also has the skinny on the awful makeover of Distrito in Scottsdale’s Saguaro hotel.
I’ve also been remiss in failing to mention Queen Creek’s San Tan Flats, which is more of an experience than a restaurant, offering basic grilled fare like burgers, steaks, and chicken breasts with Jack Daniels sauce, but in an outdoor venue with fire pits (bring your own marshmallows … no, really, we do) and live country music. Located on Hunt Highway just east of the end of Ellsworth Road, San Tan Flats gets pretty jammed on the weekends but it’s very kid-friendly and the food is adequate for an evening of hanging out with friends, with the three of us eating there for under $40 unless there’s alcohol involved.