My first Arizona Fall League update went up on Thursday afternoon. The next one will go up on Monday morning … that is, a few hours from now.
I had a bittersweet experience in Arizona last week, my first extended trip there since we moved out of the state in June. The pleasure in seeing Fall League games, catching up with some friends, and visiting old haunts couldn’t surpass the feeling that all of that – plus the spectacular weather – was no longer mine, that the drive south on the 101 was no longer to my house, that winter was waiting for me on the other side of the trip. (I define winter as “not summer.”) I did manage to distract myself by hitting four new restaurants while I was on the ground there, at least.
Crêpe Bar in Tempe is the new brick-and-mortar place from the chef behind Truckin’ Good Food, and you know they’re serious about food when you see they use coffee from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon. Turns out they have a real barista who pulls a damn good shot of espresso, and the drip coffee earned raves from my friend Sam. Crêpe Bar also offers cold-brewed coffee, which they prep daily and allow to steep for about 24 hours, as well as V60 and Aeropress pour-overs, so it’s worth going if only for the coffee. As for the crepes, I’ll just point out that I had a crêpe with vanilla custard, strawberries, toasted slivered almonds, and some 55% Valrhona chocolate, and you’ll just be jealous.
Located in the Bespoke Inn in Old Town Scottsdale, a mere 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium, Virtu Honest Craft just made Esquire‘s list of the 18 best new restaurants in the country, and it might be the best restaurant in the state of Arizona now – something I wouldn’t say lightly, having tried and loved crudo, Citizen Public House, Pizzeria Bianco, cibo, and others. Virtu’s food was just a slight cut above its competitors, offering inventive plates that played with flavors and textures in clever ways with visually appealing presentations. Kiley McDaniel met me for dinner, but was a little late, so I ordered one of the happy hour crostini options, with piquillo pepper jam and manchego cheese, a great twist on the ordinary fig jam or quince paste crostini concept that brought a hint of spice and less straight sugar to the bite. Then the gluttony began in earnest: the chef sent out a large antipasto plate with three cheeses, truffled salami, Sicilian olives, and marcona almonds, as well as honey to pair with the blue cheese. That was free (I think all the early tables got one), but came out after we’d ordered two starters and two entrees, so things got out of hand quickly. The chef’s snack starter is almost a meal in itself: A pile of hand-cut French fries tossed with sausage, mozzarella curd, and what I think was a sweetened balsamic reduction, topped with an over easy egg. We also went with the item that the Phoenix New Times’ Chow Bella blog highlighted, the grilled asparagus with duck egg, bacon candy, peppered feta, and foie gras hollandaise. The chef’s snack was comfort food, hearty, salty, fatty, and of course a little heavy, while the asparagus plate was like brunch for dinner, bright colors leading to brighter flavors if you could manipulate everything into one bite, which wasn’t always easy.
For the mains, I went with the smoked duck, which came on a smashed plantain with small grilled chunks of foie gras and pomegranate arils. Kiley ordered the seared scallops, served on a pumpkin/onion mash with a white chocolate beurre blanc. I think we both preferred the scallop dish, which was better executed across the board, with perfectly-cooked sea scallops paired beautifully with the fall flavors of the squash and onion; my only comment here is that the dish needed a finish of acid, even something as simple as lemon juice (although I imagine a place like Virtu would instead go with a yuzu foam or a champagne vinegar gelée). The duck itself was cooked nicely but smoking duck does rob you of the glory of crispy duck skin, and the plantain mash had been cooked a second time on a griddle to provide that crispness, a process that made it too crunchy and even charred the edges a little bit. The proteins seem to be standard here but the sides change at least every few weeks depending on what’s in season; I’d recommend whatever they’re doing with scallops and would trust in the chef beyond that.
Otro Cafe is the newest spot from Doug Robson, the Mexican-born (really) chef behind the menus at Gallo Blanco and the Hillside Spot. Otro’s menu is simple – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. Kiley joined me for this meal as well, so we split the elote callejero – roasted corn on the cob with paprika, cotija cheese, and a little mayonnaise, which the server will shave off the cob for you tableside. I also ordered the small guacamole because Kiley is a misanthropic devil-worshipper who hates avocadoes. Both were superb, just simple and fresh items with big flavors thanks to the tomatillos in the guacamole or the salty-tangy burst from the cotija in the corn. For tacos, we each ordered the same trio (tacos range from $2.50 to $3.50 apiece) – the pork “al pastor,” the carne asada, and the grilled marinated shrimp, all of which were excellent. The carne asada was my favorite, even though I’m generally not a big steak eater; Otro uses seasoned grilled ribeye, chopped and topped with lettuce, an aji (chili pepper) aioli, cilantro, and guacamole. The shrimp was second, marinated in achiote and topped with red and white cabbage, chili pepper, and more guacamole, all outstanding although the shrimp ended up in the background beneath the spice and acid of the cabbage/chili slaw. The pork al pastor was still good, served with salsa verde, a little pineapple, and more cilantro, although I missed the better bite of the steak and, well, that was the only taco without guacamole and it was going to suffer by comparison. Otro also offers a number of small side dishes, including two rotating options from local farms/CSAs, for just $4-5. Some items are $1 off at happy hour so the two of us got out of there for under $30 combined and had probably consumed too much food.
The Gladly is the new venture from the group behind Citizen Public House, focused a little more on cocktails and small plates and less on the mains that made CPH our favorite spot for an elegant dinner out. The Gladly’s chicken liver pate starter, where the liver is blended with pistachio nuts, was by far the best item I had, and while I’m not sure eating a half-cup of the stuff at one sitting was the wisest nutritional move for me, that is what I did because it was too good to pass up (especially with whole-grain mustard and pickled onions to add to the crostini). The Brussels sprouts starter might be a meal for a vegetarian, as it’s served on a plate of creamy white-corn polenta; I prefer Brussels sprouts a little more cooked than this, as they were still too bitter at the center and hard to cut, but the combination of the sprouts and the grits was excellent. The one dish I didn’t love was the duck ramen – five-spice duck “ham” served in a giant bowl of miso broth with ramen and pea greens. The broth itself was a little bland, light on salt but also lacking any clearly defined flavor, and while I love duck prosciutto, its flavor was muted after sitting in the hot miso broth for a while. I’d love to give the Gladly a second shot, preferably when I can indulge in the drink menu, but also to try some of the other small plates like the paprika-cured pork belly, or the pigstrami sandwich, which turns my favorite starter at CPH into a smoked pork butt sandwich with a Brussels sprout sauerkraut as the slaw.
As for repeat visits, I had breakfast at the Hillside Spot three times and everything was just as I left it, from the chilaquiles to the pancakes to the chocolate chip cookies, so good job there. I also went back to Matt’s Big Breakfast which remained top-notch and swung by Giant Coffee (owned by Matt) and had a great espresso there. Saigon Kitchen in Surprise was a little disappointing, but only in that the bun with chicken I ordered came with these giant pieces of lettuce that got in the way of the noodles and other vegetables that were sort of buried at the bottom. I did have the hilarious experience of watching the seventy-odd woman next to me send back a bowl of pho (soup) that was hot enough for me to see the steam from a meter away because she claimed it wasn’t hot enough.
Some places I wanted to try but didn’t have time to visit: the Welcome Diner, La Piazza Locale, and Bink’s Cafe, all in Phoenix proper, and Altitude Coffee Lab in Scottsdale. There’s always spring training, I guess…