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By Robrt L. Pela
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Quiessence Culinary Center, 6106 South 32nd Street, 602-305-8192. Hours: Dinner, Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., October 1 through June 1.
Sometimes, you must admit, eating out can be such work. First, there's figuring out what you're hungry for. Chinese? Italian? American? Mexican? Then, you have to navigate the menu, with unending choices and "of the day" specials. Oh, and wine -- your server likely will hand you a small phone book of unpronounceable liquid grapes from which to select.
On a night like this, the worst moment will come after you finally decide and your dinner arrives. Is it your imagination, or does every plate parading past you to other tables, bearing dishes you passed up, look so much better than what you've got?
6106 S. 32nd St.
Phoenix, AZ 85042
Region: South Phoenix
Of course it does. You're not crazy. There is, in fact, a little-known law of restaurant dining called covetous culinarius, which simply stated means that, sometimes, no matter what you order, everyone else's plate is going to seem more appealing. It's a little joke invented by the gods of sustenance to ensure that man never overestimates his power in this universe; after all, what strength hath a fellow who can't even make a wise choice between the steak and the salmon? This cruel trick ensures that every now and again, you'll creep away from a restaurant slightly embarrassed, slightly unsatisfied, and wholly confident that there exists a much greater power than you -- one that knows what you really should have eaten.
For those days I'm feeling a little pressured, I find solace at Quiessence. Here is my happy place hidden within The Farm at South Mountain, named after an interpretation of the word quiescence, meaning "quiet." Calm settles over me like a down comforter as soon as I pull into the gravel driveway canopied by pecan trees. At the end of the lane, buffered by flagstone walkways and trellises, a little home awaits. It's decked in white lights and scalloped with rough-hewn wood fencing under a tangle of mature pines.
This is where I go to escape the world and let Quiessence chef Hallie Harron take control. She tells me when to arrive (Friday or Saturday only, 7 p.m. sharp, please). She welcomes me warmly and parks me in a cozy seat. She scurries off to her kitchen and prepares a seven-course dinner she's positive I'll love. I need only open my mouth to eat.
And joy: every plate that passes by is mine. With just 30 privileged diners each evening, Quiessence offers a prix fixe menu that requires no decisions and results in no entree envy. The only caveat is that reservations are strictly required, often a month in advance, and if Chef Harron is serving something that evening you don't care for, you're out of luck.
At just $55 per person, I can't imagine how Harron makes a profit. It's true that her menus are vegetable-rich, but these are labor-intensive veggies grown under Harron's own hand in pretty little beds scattered across the 12-acre farm. There's little service cost -- Harron runs the entire enterprise including cooking, taking reservations and cultivating clientele -- but working without support surely can lead to exhaustion. Heaven forbid a dining party no-shows; Harron requests a credit-card guarantee, but in such a small space the monetary absence would be glaring.
But such concerns are best left to Harron, because I am now but a noodley melt under Quiessence's welcoming toast of "Quienscia," a home-brewed white wine infused with mint, ginger and a bit too much fresh citrus. It's a benign lead-in to Quiessence's BYOB policy (another tremendous bargain with a corkage fee of just $10 per table. Not per bottle, per table).
There's a wild mix of music playing in the background -- opera, French, Italian, jazz -- yet even at its high decibels it's relaxing. What's not to love, as my dining companion and I unwind in the glow of flickering candles, the flames dancing over tabletop art of fresh flowers, flutes of long-stemmed herbs, skinny crostini breadsticks and carafes of oil.
It's threatening to rain, and through the home's open front door, we savor the aroma of damp air, sawdust pathways lined with pungent herbs and colorful blooms, and curling smoke from the wood-fired bread oven on the front lawn. A thunderstorm would be delicious cinema, viewed through Quiessence's glass walls and skylight-dotted wood ceiling.
When I first heard that Quiessence served dinner family-style, I had pleasant images of long farm tables and making new friends. But this is sophisticated dining, and each party enjoys its own white-clothed table, sprinkled throughout what must have been the home's living and family rooms. Plates are presented family-style to each table, however, with large serving spoons and plenty of second helpings to divide and share.
Harron explains that her meals are planned based on "what the garden offers" each day. Dishes showcase the vegetables, although entrees include organic poultry or fish, such as Sonoma duck, gremolata salmon, shrimp with chervil or rose petal quail. It's a fluke -- by popular request of large dining groups, she says -- that both nights we visit feature almost identical menus. (I recommend calling ahead to check your selections or to request a completely vegetarian dinner.)