By Heather Hoch
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And who would have thought to serve popcorn and Corn Nuts in a classy room rich with dark woods, vast floor-to-ceiling windows, and a grand entry of a marble staircase? But the snacks are star sides of the Ecuadorian ceviche, served in a big bowl with pumpkin seeds and dried corn kernels to provide crunch against the plump shrimp cloaked in roasted tomatoes with cool avocado espuma (whipped froth).
I grinned when I got to reflecting on Deseo's delightful empanadas. There are three marvelous versions of the pillowy turnovers to tempt: duck confit with sliced foie gras terrine and prune-sherry sauce, roasted onion and cheese served on watercress tossed in black trumpet and truffle mojo (like thin salsa) with creamy morel sauce, and crispy crab with marinated cucumber and avocado.
Rodriguez is a master of offbeat ingredient pairings, I explained to my group. Consider his trio palm salad, uniting hearts of palm, endive, coconut gelle and bacon-wrapped dates in a shallot-thyme vinaigrette with bleu cheese sauce. It's crunchy, soft, tart, sugary and expertly balanced. Chicharron of shrimp, too, lands a double punch of sweet and sour, the fried shellfish tossed in a spiced candy coating of aji Amarillo with endive, cilantro and pickled jalapeños.
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.
Yes, the place can be expensive (starters from $9 to $17; entrees from $21 to $31). Yet there's a remarkable bargain in the soup trio - a "tasting" of each of the restaurant's three blends that really brings pretty much full-size bowls. Just $11, and the intense, unexpected creations are priceless. The legumes in the black bean soup are cooked just enough to release their dark juices in the broth, and their skin pops on my teeth; a creamy-crunchy rice croquette rests atop a drizzle of sour cream. Corn chowder keeps the stew interesting with crisp kernels, cubed calabaza (like butternut squash), ham, carrot, lemony radish sprouts and the surprise addition of beer-battered crab fritters.
The description of coconut calamari soup brought my gathered group to respectful silence. This is the best Thai-inspired soup to be found, I chattered, the milky, opaque broth plump with tender squid, yucca, fragrant garlic, fresh herbs, tomatoes and crisp strings of real coconut. It's impossibly light, not too sweet, and blessed with complex textures and tastes. When I did finally force myself past appetizers, I wasn't disappointed. The big plates were topnotch and clever, such as the plantain-crusted halibut, pan-seared with sliced banana, sautéed spinach, bacon and cherry tomatoes. And I'm quite pleased with a lamb duet, partnering three tender chops gently rubbed in adobo with a potpie featuring shredded lamb under a sweet corn crust. The drizzle of mint sauce on the chops is spoon-licking good. A large slab of sirloin comes sliced with tomato, caramelized onions and bleu cheese a bit boring to me after a few bites, but greatly pleasing to my steak-loving companion.
Desserts at the fund raiser were no better or worse than what I'd seen at a million of these types of events: lemon meringue cake, fudge cake, fruit tart and strawberry Napoleon. Good enough, but a waste of calories in my mind, now that I've had Deseo's dynamite churros, three soft wands of cinnamon-dusted donut sticks to be dipped in dulce de leche (caramel) and smoky, not-too-sweet chocolate sauce.
By the time I was done dishing on Deseo, I was sure that those listening in were already planning their first trips there. I hope I'm right. Discerning foodies that they are, they won't be disappointed.