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They're not stunning takes chicken and salmon teriyaki are predictable; grilled salmon is boring; chicken katsu is notable only for its expertly crispy and flaky panko breading. But I love the firm white rice, the careful presentation of fresh romaine, spring greens and purple cabbage salad, and the thick, authentic katsu sauce alongside. And as the chef clucks at us over his sushi bar to see if we're happy, we really are.
When Carter cooks, he plans his menu only after a visit to that morning's market. Sunday's brunch at Mom's was fashioned around fat slabs of butcher-carved peppercorn bacon, French goat cheese from Vincent's farmers' market (picked up the day before from Vincent's parking lot fair), nine-grain toast from a fresh-baked loaf, homemade strawberry preserves, lace-thin prosciutto and capicolla, and eggs poached just until the outsides were set and the yolks were golden runny. His meal took an hour to shop, an hour to assemble, an hour to cook, and two hours to slather ourselves through like we were in a luxury day spa.
When Peter Dayo and Viné Sascento, owners of The Table, cook, it's with the same approach. Like Carter, they follow the "slow food" philosophy, focusing on quality of ingredients and personal, unhurried attention to each and every dish.
23415 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85255
Region: North Scottsdale
905 North Fourth Street, 602-254-2772. Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Private parties available Sunday.
Farmers' market salad: $8
Brussels sprout and turnip soup: $7
Group with fennel: $21
Ham platter: 12
I come in for lunch (the bistro just opened last Tuesday for the noonday meal), and Dayo apologizes that he hasn't decided what he'll be serving for dinner that same night. But I can anticipate, after several previous evening visits, that any day's menu, lunch or dinner, will be a sparse but meticulous mix of farm-fresh vegetables, farm-fresh meats, lots of love and a bit of repetition from plate to plate.
At one dinner, my girlfriend and I take our seats in sturdy, farm-style wood chairs, tucking linen napkins into our laps and resting our elbows on a well-used wooden table. How could we not be swayed by the offbeat, homey decor of bright paint carelessly slapped on the walls, crumbling brick, clusters of real roses on each table and a toy monkey hanging above the miniature, exposed kitchen? At one point, Dayo emerges from behind his stove leaving a skillet leaping with wicked flames to crank open the old-style windows so as to release the cooking smoke settling like fog over the room.
First, we're courted with crusty, excellent Willo Baking Company bread, dipped in sweet balsamic-olive oil. Our choices are tight three appetizers , three entrees and two desserts. We've packed in our own bottle of Pinot Grigio ($7 corkage), and though our server opens it for us, it's a pour-our-own proposition (just like home!). A farmers' market salad is topnotch, with crisp string beans, brilliantly fresh beets, field greens, red onion, tomato, red peppers and plump raw peas slicked in a light vinaigrette. And while I was expecting a cream base to my Brussels sprout and turnip soup, it's a clean, savory stew of chunked, perfectly al dente vegetables that's novel if not exciting after the first few bland bites.
Grouper is more interesting, in a compelling fennel sauce stocked with the chunked veggie, plus tomatoes and onion, the broth cooked down to a rich brew of natural juices. Chicken, I don't like so much the whole, baby-size bird is well-prepared with crispy skin, but overwhelmed with too much harsh rosemary. Sides of properly bitterish broccoli rabe and creamy luscious porcini risotto are superb. And panna cotta doesn't get any better than this, the silky Italian custard refreshingly unsweetened except for immaculate strawberries sliced alongside.
It's lunch that lets me down, though home-style doesn't mean sloppy, and this meal is. An hour and a half into opening, The Table hasn't yet brewed any iced tea. My server isn't sure if they have diet soda (they don't). He doesn't know what's on the antipasti platter, leaves to check, and comes back with "vegetables, meat and cheese" (no kidding). He tells me a ham plate is a sandwich, but it's three chunky slices of heavily smoked, fatty pork with broccoli caps, tiny roasted potatoes, yam wheels and caramelized onions. My BLT is so-so, on onion-herb focaccia with great greens, tomatoes, lacy provolone and caramelized onions, but uninspired bacon (skinny slices, flabby, not half as good as what Carter made at home). My favorite, in fact, is that mystery antipasto, with no cheese, but plenty of expertly roasted asparagus, baby carrots, beets, mushrooms, red peppers, fennel and tiny potatoes, plus a cold salad of corn kernels, tomato wedges and greens, all lightly dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper. The crowning touch: a generous curl of smoked salmon and sliced salami that I eat with tears of soft white roll.
Toyama and The Table aren't my mother's house. They don't have Carter in the kitchen. But during those long, dry spells that leave me hungry for an intimate, it-feels-like-it's-just-for-me dining experience, I've got two more places to go and feel almost as good as at home.