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The burning question of the evening involves cocktails. One pal in my group of revelers has decided that the best drink is the Italian ice-lemon, a liquid candy concoction of lemon gelato, Ketel One Citroen, Triple Sec, sweet and sour, and lemon juice in a sugared-rim martini glass. The other insists it's the elegant Bellini, a tall pour of champagne, peach purée, vodka and peach schnapps. This could be a long night: The discussion is getting fairly heated, and we've only just begun to work our way through the dozen-plus drink choices, bound in a fancy laminated menu complete with four-color photos.
Me? I put my money on the mojito, a potent blend of Bacardi light rum, lime juice, sugar, mint leaves, bitters and soda (also Hemingway's favorite drink when he lived in Cuba; he was said to knock back up to 20 a day on a regular basis).
We're dining at Scottsdale's new Furio, where just opening the front door is an experience -- the huge glass plate swivels from its center, offering opportunity to enter from the right or the left, or to be knocked to the floor if we're not paying attention.
7210 E. 2nd St.
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Central Scottsdale
Shrimp and bay scallop wrap: $7.50
Dusted hearts of palm: $6
Ricotta and sausage calzone: $8.50
Mascarpone and porcini ravioli: $9.50
Seared halibut: $18
Grilled NY strip: $18
Osso buco: $21
Cappuccino cheesecake: $7
Strawberry zepolis: $6
Hours: Lunch, daily, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Limited menu, daily, until midnight.
The calamari appetizer arrives. One bite of the stunning squid and I know: Furio is no ordinary club pretending to be a restaurant. Furio is first and foremost an excellent, big city star-quality Italian bistro, with an excellent, big city star-quality chef. That it also happens to be extraordinarily cool is just icing on the tiramisu.
In fact, Furio is the type of place that, had I discovered it in another city (L.A., San Francisco, New York), I'd be using it as an example to whine about how our Valley has so far to go in the ambient dining scene. For so long, we've had to choose: great food or great modern ambiance. Finally, both are here in one dynamic package.
Furio owner John Casale obviously has done his homework, seeming to be taking the food game as seriously as the glitz. As part owner in Scottsdale's luxe Martini Ranch, the Famous Door and the late Insomnia, he's seen the pitfalls of prioritizing style over substance, and if he wasn't trying really hard to smash the mold with Furio, he's just an incredibly lucky guy.
Critical to the success, he's hired a big-name executive chef, Jagger Griffin, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute and former top dog in the kitchens of Christopher's and Eddie Matney's. Griffin has put together an encompassing menu that, while contemporary, is entirely comfortable. Nothing bizarre, just beautiful, bold, bright combinations that showcase the coming together of many fine ingredients. In a surprising stretch, Griffin manages to marry casual food (the calamari, pizza, panini sandwiches) with high-class cuisine (Parmesan-crusted shrimp with snow peas and prosciutto risotto; mozzarella and vine-ripened tomatoes with field greens and white truffle oil).
This is the first time in almost forever that I can remember rejoicing over calamari, presented exactly as it was meant to be, the tender squid in a greaseless cloak of gentle crisp. I say to my companion, "No fish, no crunch, no sewer," and he knows exactly what I mean. There's none of the heavy fishy flavor that has turned calamari into a junk-bar snack, none of the terrible crunch of overcooked batter, none of the sewer fumes of bad squid saved only by dunking in acidic tomato sauce. This calamari comes instead with a terrific trio of creamy Parmesan, spunky arabiata and mellow marinara sauces that we lick from our spoons like lollipops when the fish is finished.
I'm not expecting to see such finger foods as dusted hearts of palm in a place that looks this good, lined in steel walls punched with giant holes, accented with a row of convex mirrors that looks like an oversize sheet of that dot candy we sucked off strips of paper when we were little. Yet the palm sticks are first-class, long wands of fresh, firm-tender vegetable fried to a feather-light golden brown and absolutely juicy, dipped into spicy hot, thin but assertive arabiata (marinara with chile pepper). It's a completely appropriate dish to eat as we bask in plush seats snug in fat saffron-and-black-striped fabric, wiping our mouths and fingers with linen napkins beneath pin lighting that shines like stars in an amber white-lighted background. The dining room is separated by drapes from a violet-lighted bar furnished with chunky ottomans and a couch stacked with leopard-skin pillows.
Things do start poorly. I'm cranky as soon as I hit the valet, the service a necessary evil given the incredible traffic that central Scottsdale's explosive nightlife scene has created. The valet sign says $4 is the going rate, but the valet himself says $5 is what's expected. Then he asks if I'd like to park my car myself in his lot and take my keys with me.
Then I'm reminded that there's a baseball game being played at nearby Scottsdale Stadium, and the car park is part of the event's deal. People are everywhere, dressed in shorts and fan tee shirts, driving in circles, jockeying for a parking spot. Furio management has simply leeched onto the valet service, since the restaurant has only about five parking spaces of its own. Well then.
Next up is a severely gorgeous hostess, who makes it clear that, without reservations, we're just an inconvenient pair of diners who'd be lucky to warrant even takeout attention. She makes a big deal out of "discovering" a table to squeeze us in. I'm miffed, until I study the crowd around us and realize: Furio is hot. We really were fools to think we could just stroll in off the street at 6:45 on a Friday night. Unless we want to eat at 5:30 or after 9 p.m., we'd better follow the rules and call in advance. Okay, fine.
Casale is cracking the whip here, servers, bartenders, even busers are smooth, adult and attentive. A manager checks in so often it's difficult to believe I'm in a club and not at one of the Valley's premier resort restaurants.
Another resort-worthy touch: The next-door bar never interrupts our evening. The drapes are gossamer vanilla curtains so elegant yet effective that it doesn't even matter that the little lounge (just a dozen seats) is entertaining its guests with sports television. It's hard to believe we're eating in such a tiny space -- a single wall of booth seating and just a handful of tables under black-painted exposed-duct ceilings -- because each room feels so much like its own individual destination.
And it's not just me getting all gushy. One dining companion (a former Manhattan restaurant manager) is so immediately smitten it takes three hours to drag him out of there. Another companion (another former restaurant manager and current nightclub junkie) calls me the next day, babbling like a hyper puppy about how much he loves the place, its immense flavors and funky mix of music (Gypsy Kings, Sinatra, jazz, acoustic guitar).The appeal spans the ages -- dining side by side are black-clad club crawlers and silver-haired couples in coordinated pantsuits. Guests at neighboring tables think nothing of leaning in and asking each other about entrees, yet sound is moderated so skillfully that we can't eavesdrop without being obvious.
"The only tomato thing I like to sip is a Bloody Mary," one supper companion announces. But he's never sampled Griffin's superb take on tomato soup, a vibrant recipe stocked with tasty jewels of just-firm diced rutabaga, zucchini, shallots and shaved fennel. He sticks to nursing a caramel appletini (SKYY Vodka, Apple Pucker, butterscotch schnapps, sweet and sour, and fresh apple juice).
I'm going into sugar shock, though, after finishing a glass of Sangria (red wine, vodka, sugar, lemons, limes, strawberries, peaches, apricot nectar, oranges and nectarines), so it's time to switch to something lighter from Furio's short but well-rounded wine list.
A floral Elk Cove Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley) goes well with a dish of sautéed shrimp, baby spinach and shiitake mushrooms in a light herb cream sauce, jazzed with lots of thyme and served over a bed of exquisitely al dente linguini. A plate of five fat ravioli sparks the cream sauce with fresh tomato chunks and big slivers of garlic, the blend robust enough to stand up to pasta infused with black truffle, then stuffed with mascarpone and tidbits of woodsy porcini.
And Blockheadia Sauvignon Blanc (California) lends to mild fish the aromas of gooseberry, grapefruit, orange, lime and ripe honeydew. Griffin knows his seafood, treating humble halibut like royalty, the flaky fillet seared and served over brightly bitterish artichoke hearts, caramelized fennel, and braised endive sprinkled with roasted red pepper and parsley. An appetizer of fiery chili-papaya-glazed shrimp and bay scallops is gutsy, presented with spoons of shallots, capers, tomato, ginger and cucumber to be wrapped in pleasantly leathery leaves of lettuce.
For meats, it's red, perhaps a Merlot or Syrah. Though there's really nothing required to set off a stunning plate of tender osso buco, which arrives with the often overlooked fork needed to rescue the bone marrow, and resting atop wild mushroom risotto as creamy and firm as the best I've eaten in Italy. Grilled New York strip is presented expertly medium rare, singed on its edges, pooled with thick, wonderfully restrained cabernet sauce and paired with chunky boursin whipped potatoes.
One dining companion is concerned because I've called him for an impromptu dinner and he's wearing jeans. Yet Furio can be casual. There's nothing lower-level about the flavors, however, such as pesto pizza with homemade mozzarella, roasted red peppers, artichokes and sautéed mushrooms, or a buttery-crusted calzone gorged with zingy ricotta and highly herbed Italian sausage. I eat a simple spinach salad with my fingers, thanks to impressively fresh baby greens with crisp stems; I savor bits of chopped red pepper, a blissfully well-balanced, warm shiitake and shallot vinaigrette, and a cake of crumbly, thick goat cheese encrusted with pine nuts. Even a salami sandwich is above ordinary, since this meat is layered on marvelous crusty Tuscan bread with lettuce, tomato, red onion and a light black olive aioli.
Teetotalers can cap a meal with cappuccino cheesecake, fluffy textured and nicely sour under a mantle of real whipped cream and fresh berries; or zepolis, dainty, handcrafted fritters topped with strawberries and dusted with powdered sugar.
We decide to drink our desserts, no surprise, as a Café Furio (coffee, Kahlúa, Bailey's Irish Cream, Tia Maria, amaretto, chocolate syrup and whipped cream); or a toasted almond (espresso, Frangelico, amaretto and whipped cream).