By Eric Schaefer
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Medizona, 7217 East Fourth Avenue, Scottsdale, 480-947-9500. Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m.
You have to listen very carefully to catch the delicate melody of Pink Floyd wafting from behind the small bar at Medizona. The haunting strains of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" float like slender ghosts through the low chatter of dinner guests, and I close my eyes in wonder of what message they bring.
Floyd's Wish You Were Here album is the backdrop every night I visit my new favorite restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale. Come on you raver, you seer of visions. Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner and shine, the music croons, and I think the lyrics must have special significance for Medizona's chef-owner, Lenard Rubin.
Rubin, after all, is a highly creative chef troubled by lack of corporate support in his earlier resort restaurant posts; management tended to clip his wings to "mainstream" his innovative menus. After stints with the Boulders and Phoenician resorts, the last straw came when the Scottsdale Princess neutered his exquisite Catalonian fare at Marquesa in favor of a more approachable Mediterranean theme. But now, this culinary martyr is master of his own very successful kitchen. Rubin's genius finally has found a happy home, and wow, does it shine.
In many ways, Pink Floyd is the musical embodiment of Medizona's cuisine. Both are magic on multiple levels. Both are masterpieces of orchestrated subtlety, combining small sparks of beauty for an overpoweringly gorgeous synergy. And both awaken the senses, uncovering thrilling new discoveries of being. Like Floyd's journey of the mind, eating at Medizona utilizes my every taste bud, even introducing some I don't believe I had before.
Perhaps it's Rubin's rebel nature that inspired his current repertoire of Mediterranean flavors (take that, Marquesa). But, more likely, it's that he simply loves the mischievous zing the region offers our Southwestern staples.
Rubin is used to planting his flag on a resistant culinary landscape. He is the bellwether who introduced Southwest American food to Russia, as executive chef for Moscow's renowned Santa Fe cafe. He has created Southwestern menus for hotels in Malaysia and Singapore, Massachusetts and Alaska. He has traveled extensively across the Mediterranean region, and now he blends the best of his experiences to create his Medizona experience.
Although the Valley's dining cognoscenti have descended en masse since the eatery's December opening, their parties coolly dissecting designer chefs and cuisines, don't be intimidated. After a first visit of meticulous study and copious note-taking, I succumb to pure pleasure and simply eat. Food is Rubin's gift to you: Don't analyze it, don't try too hard to understand it, just sit back and enjoy the performance.
Medizona's stage is simply set. Thirteen tables lounge on lilting saltillo tile, cozy against rough-plastered goldenrod walls tacked with colorful Picasso prints. Comfortable track lighting accented with funky blue glass spots and table lamps cool the tiny space, softening the bustle of friendly, denim-decked servers. While there's a little patio decorated for dinner, we prefer sitting inside for the reassuring rattle and hum of the tiny kitchen.
This eatery isn't heavy on pretense. The menu is small, there are no daily specials and wines are comfortably Californian, dotted with just a couple of French, Spanish, Italian and Arizonan selections. Limited beer choices feature one chile-spiked version; all the rest you've had before. But we're here for the food.
Rubin's symphony begins with an engaging trio of yeasty, crusty, baked-on-site breads nestled in a painted wooden box with ramekins of dips. How easy it is to go overboard with the thick hunks of zesty kalamata olive, chunky green chile and Italian breads. On our first visit, we gorge on spreads of chipotle hummus with the slightest underlying spice, and tart-sweet balsamic eggplant relish. By our fourth dinner, we are more refined, content to nibble a few savored bites tinted with a little butter. Restraint, while difficult, is necessary to appreciate the rapture yet to come.
Rubin is a master of proportion, not just in balance of ingredients, but in serving size. Three petite eggplant tacos ($7) are the perfect introduction to a brilliant meal. I'm not sure which pleases me more: the impact of crunchy shell against tender eggplant and lamb, or the assertive bitterness of arugula, cucumber radish relish and salty Kasseri cheese against a smooth roasted tomato garlic sauce.
My dining companion is whimpering for more bites of my baklava ($7). It's so good I'm jealous of myself for having it. Every butter-drenched phyllo flake is art, studded with nubbins of plump rabbit, tangy fig, quail egg and pine nuts on a swirl of vividly fragrant chive sauce.
There's no chance, however -- none -- that I'm sharing my portobello mushroom ($8). It's densely meaty and enriched with duck and jack cheese. It's true that portobello is simply a clever marketing name for the fully mature variation of a common white mushroom, but aging brings it uncommon character. I slowly, lovingly, cradle the flavors in my mouth, earthy mushroom juices kissed with the chocolate tones of smoky chipotle chile sauce.
After such perfection, it's almost a relief to find Rubin's remaining appetizers just marvelous. I feel like the classic moth and the light; surely too much beauty would cause me to burst into flames. My dining companion and I happily share moist, slightly chewy squab ($9), its dark baby pigeon meat rubbed with curry, its edges ringed with a pleasing ribbon of fat. The bird is splayed on a highly peppery potato pancake, stuffed with graceful apple sauce and chive sour cream.