By Heather Hoch
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By Rachel Miller
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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.
Yet even Rubin's most predictable appetizer, blackened shrimp ($9), is impressive. Three large crustaceans are perfectly seasoned, imparting a slow burn on the tongue. I'm intrigued by the textures of the white bean hummus base -- its nougat firm in one bite, mashed smooth in another. A mango olive salsa is magic: exotically sweet fruit jostling with tart olive over the lemon-apple punch of charbroiled tomatillo sauce.
I'm curious how many customers order Medizona's grilled lobster and veal cheek minaret ($11), though; even the waitress seems a bit surprised that I want it. Certainly there's nothing wrong with the designer meat -- in fact, it's a favorite selection of chefs at James Beard events. It's simply that many palates -- mine included -- may not appreciate the mushy texture. I find it to be one-dimensional, especially when stacked with soft lobster, slippery avocado and pasty black olive tapenade. Horseradish beet sauce is an inspired accompaniment, but even the pungent root vegetables wilt under this heavy canopy.
Veggies return in fighting force in Rubin's delightful baby green salad ($7). If you think frou-frou lettuces can't excite you anymore, you haven't tried them dressed with lots of honey-caramelized almond brittle, spicy sun-dried pears and salty toasted goat cheese with balsamic cactus vinaigrette. Even a simple watercress salad ($6) excites. These vibrant, dark green leaves unleash their peppery snap against mild-mannered cucumber, tomato and roasted pepper, while briny feta cheese finishes in a one-two punch. Do as I do: Grab a slice of warm Italian bread to chase every drop of ancho chile-preserved lemon vinaigrette.
Here is where I feel the need to confess a dirty secret. As the sumptuous parade of dishes continues, I've found myself searching for mistakes. It's ungrateful, I know, but I have to wonder how Rubin's art can be so flawless. Would-be critics will be disappointed. The only blemish I uncover is tiny: The cream of cauliflower and potato soup ($8) is, on one evening, too heavily seasoned with great chunks of peppercorn. But on another night, the finely blended pottage is, yes, perfect. I love the slow heat of the dish's cute radish sprout and crab "gondola" and delight in the hidden treat of a giant crouton at the base of the bowl.
I can live with perfect. While Floyd's "Shine On" warns its protagonist, "well, you wore out your welcome with random precision," my companion and I are absolutely thrilled to see Rubin return with our entrees. All the basics are covered, with standard beef, fish, chicken, veal and lamb offerings. But you'll never pigeonhole Rubin's presentation of exciting sauces, spices and sides.
Consider the salmon ($24), rubbed to crusty greatness with musky achiote seed. I've eaten a river of this fish, but rarely so joyously. This is firm, juicy, and brought to brilliance under a morel and baby clam sauce. The spongy morel cap, prized by gourmets for its smoky nuttiness, brings such depth to the simple fish. A side of crayfish-corn risotto hits bright notes, too, studded with its baby shrimp, sweet kernel corn and fresh herbs.
I've also consumed more than my share of swordfish. I like its excellent flesh and mild flavor. Rubin keeps it simple ($23), nicely grilled with baby carrot, matchstick-thin crisp haricot verts (green beans) and capers in a sweet orange sauce. And I can't get enough of his crunchy-topped chorizo and potato cake. The highly seasoned ground pork sausage adds a thoughtful whip of heat to the mellow entree.
My dining companion is equally smitten with her potato leek gratin, a hefty portion of broiler-crusted, cheesy nirvana. It's a wonderful side to the healthy chunk of charbroiled beef tenderloin ($26), cooked rarer than requested on one visit but still so flavorful in a sun-dried cherry barbecue sauce. Our Southwestern staple, the green chile, puts on its Sunday best here, stuffed with butternut squash, smoked bacon and provolone cheese.
Side dishes at Medizona are so awesome, in fact, that I initially overlook my roasted loin of lamb. I focus instead on Rubin's wonderful moussaka tart, more like a turnover with its meaty eggplant filling and cinnamon undertones. The pleasant sting of mint oil snaps my attention back to the lamb, however -- the highly concentrated extract is quite dramatic mantled over mild red pepper sauce. And is that lime I taste in the mashed celery root? Either way, it's a cunning combo with snappy string beans and baby carrots.
Bowing to the public's more cautious tastes, the veal offered in entree form is chop -- not cheek. It's excellent. Thick cut, it comes glazed with pimento honey and paired with creamy parsnip mashed potatoes, a garlic-packed ratatouille quesadilla and a scattering of wild mushrooms. It's placed on the table before my dining buddy, and within seconds, all that remains is a carefully trimmed bone.
Some foodies like to think that chefs don't respect diners who order chicken. Such foodies are snobs, and if they take this attitude to Medizona, they are missing out on a very savory selection. I, for one, am quite proud to partake of Rubin's moist chicken breast, fanned around a rib bone and coated with Moroccan spices. It rests on a bed of couscous and black beans; the pearl grains pop in my mouth with buttery saffron flavor.
There's no risk of boredom with Rubin's innovative desserts (all $6) -- which, we're thoughtfully warned by our server, include nuts (take note, allergy sufferers). Crème brûlée is everywhere these days, but how often is it gussied with halvah, a Middle Eastern confection of ground sesame seed and honey? It sounds bizarre, but it's a tasty twist on the now-too-common chilled custard with its caramelized sugar cap.
Prickly pear tiramisu is, in fact, a little odd -- sponge cake drenched in very strong Turkish coffee and dusted with pistachio. I like it, but be forewarned -- these challenging flavors aren't for novices, and I suggest sampling small bites. Chocolate flourless cake is a more familiar friend, a fudgelike confection decorated with peanuts, marshmallow foam, caramelized bananas and fresh blackberries and strawberries.
Even our finishing cups of black coffee reflect Rubin's aggressive approach. This is strong stuff, coffee beans with a definite attitude to share. If you want the weak stuff, I imagine them saying, "Go to Denny's."
While I can see why Rubin's creativity would make resort management squirm in their navy blue suits and red ties, I support his spirit. Sometimes, you've just got to fight for what you know is right.
Shine on, you crazy Rubin.
New Times restaurant critic Carey Sweet has been writing about food and dining in the Valley for 10 years. Contact her at 602-744-6588 or online at email@example.com