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The hook was a good one: the opportunity to hang out with a dozen of the nation's favorite celebrity chefs and purchase autographed copies of their cookbooks. Yet really, the only truly big name in attendance at the recent Scottsdale League of Arts fund raiser was Jeremiah Tower, chef/owner of Stars restaurant in San Francisco, James Beard Award winner, and author of Jeremiah Tower Cooks and California Dish. Unless you count Ethan Becker, grandson of the original author of The Joy of Cooking and new author of revisions for the ongoing Joy of Cooking series, though I don't.
If the guests of honor at the Princess Resort's swanky Marquesa were a bit second-rate, the food was equally underwhelming. Oh, Princess Resort chef Reed Groban did a fine job of preparing selections from recipes featured in the guest authors' cookbooks. But it's hard to work up much excitement over such typical fund-raising fare as miniature salmon cakes, sliced pork loin, little plates of pasta with white beans gone gummy after sitting out for a while, big breaded shrimp, and salad with bleu cheese dressing.
I found myself daydreaming about a daring escape. And just to make the time pass more quickly as the fest dragged on, I began talking to my friend about Deseo, a new restaurant I'd discovered. As I described the place in deep detail, I couldn't help but attract a gathering of eavesdroppers - other foodies drawn to tales of a local culinary find. When I wound up my tale, my listeners couldn't help but give out a gentle "ooh." I admit it. The attention went straight to my head.
6902 E. Greenway Parkway
Scottsdale, AZ 85254
Region: North Scottsdale
480-624-1030. Hours: Dinner, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
But all the credit has to go to Deseo, the creation of Douglas Rodriguez, celebrity chef-owner of the popular Chispa and Patria cafes in New York City and Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia. He's won the James Beard Award for his eclectic, creative approach to Latin cooking and is considered the father of the unique cuisine now known as Nuevo Latino.
A few months ago, he arrived at the Westin Kierland Resort, and he is doing amazing things we've never seen in this bland burrito town. I'm absolutely impressed that, while our Deseo is under the direction of talented local chef de cuisine Mark Dow, Rodriguez himself makes time to visit our humble burg on a regular basis, maintaining his role as specialty chef for the resort bistro. Rodriguez is one of the chefs selling his book here tonight, in fact, and I point him out proudly to my new acquaintances.
A week after discovering Deseo's arepas dish, I tell my epicurean eavesdroppers, I was still stuck on how much I love it. Arepas is a simple snack, a comfort dish of Latin America. The griddled corn cakes can be eaten plain, similar to that staple of the U.S. South, cornbread. They're sometimes topped with salsa, spiked with crab meat, or blended with chicken, cheese and olives. One of my favorite variations has a creamy interior of goat cheese and a topping of freshly made chunky guacamole brightened with lemon juice and chopped tomatoes.
Those arepas before me at Deseo were better than any I'd had before. The crust on the two tidy cakes was thin and crisply golden. The insides were moist and rich, with sugary kernel flavor. The center of each cake was scooped out, donut-style, and filled with a shimmering, raw quail egg yolk. On top were thick eyebrows of decadently salty osetra caviar, and below was a crosshatch pattern of crème fraiche.
Even though I was in Deseo's fancy dining room overlooking a lush golf course, and though my mother taught me better manners, I scraped up every last bit of everything edible on my plate. I even studied my fork, searching between the tines for any remaining speck of fish egg, golden streak of quail ova, or an errant crumb of corn.
It's not a dig to say I could go to Deseo (Spanish for "desire") and be thrilled never to make my way to the entrees. With so many different flavors and so much variety in the starters, I found it difficult to commit to a single big entree plate. Several times, my girlfriend and I very happily made dinner of two appetizers each, along with glasses of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Cabernet.
Rodriguez's ceviche is spectacular, I told my party pals. Forget the sole and red snapper we usually see in the traditional Mexican dish, the raw meat gently "cooked" by the acidity of its lime juice marinade. The typical chop of onions, green peppers and tomatoes aren't in attendance, either. This is high-class ceviche, and perfect. A "rainbow" presentation brings Asian influences, with sashimi-grade slabs of layered halibut and salmon, capped with thick chunks of ahi and the surprising, wonderful addition of sliced red and green chiles. Once again, I found myself scraping up every last bit on my plate, finally using bits of Colombian cheese bread (stuffed with Parmesan and queso blanco) to sop the brilliant marinade of soy sauce, citrus juices, red onions and cilantro.