My rediscovery of one of the classiest restaurants in Tempe happened, ironically, by way of a rock concert.

I had plans to see a national act with a couple of friends who'd bought tickets months ago. Since these gals have families and busy careers, the show was a rare treat for them. Not surprisingly, the idea of catching up over a cocktail or glass of wine was much more appealing than reading each other's lips at a loud theater where captive audiences nurse overpriced beer in plastic cups. I suggested we hit up Mill Avenue for an early drink.

Our first couple of stops were fruitless. It was happy hour, after all, and it seemed every place in the neighborhood was packed. Then we arrived at Caffe Boa, and lucky us — three seats opened at the bar at that very moment. Before long, we were chatting with an attentive bartender, nibbling on delicious appetizers, and soaking up the sophisticated vibe. We'd all been here before, but for some reason, Caffe Boa really clicked this time.

Caffe Boa owner Jay Wisniewski shows off the poularde (left), short ribs, and Capriatta plate.
Jackie Mercandetti
Caffe Boa owner Jay Wisniewski shows off the poularde (left), short ribs, and Capriatta plate.

Location Info

Map

Caffe Boa on Mill

398 S. Mill Ave.
Tempe, AZ 85281

Category: Restaurant > Greek

Region: Tempe

Caffe Boa

5063 E. Elliot Road
Ahwatukee, AZ 85044

Category: Restaurant > Cafe

Region: Ahwatukee

Details

Charcuterie: $14.95
Capriatta: $9.95
Cape Cod ravioli: $18.95
Poularde fricassee: $23
480-968-9112, »web link
Hours: Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Caffe Boa, 398 South Mill Avenue, Tempe

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Needless to say, this is one place where I was happy to return for further research.

Although Caffe Boa has a Mill Avenue address, the entrance to Caffe Boa is actually on Fourth Street — and, oh, what a difference it makes. The original location of Caffe Boa was down the street, in a boxy little building next to the old Long Wong's, but this bigger location, home to the restaurant since 2005, feels just right.

It's just far enough away from the crowds of college kids to create a relaxed atmosphere on the front patio, shaded by trees and leafy vines, and illuminated by tiny white lights at night. Inside, it's bustling and cozy, with lots of art on brick walls, warm terracotta drapes, dark wood tables, and wine specials written on a big chalkboard. Plush stools and a row of chic hanging lamps line the bar. Sometimes, a live jazz ensemble sets up in the corner of the room.

Caffe Boa's signature cocktails were certainly a step above the usual frou-frou drinks, from the aromatic Orchard (Absolut pear vodka, pear nectar, and Stirrings lavender essence) to the refreshing, not-too-sweet Anastasia (muddled strawberries and fresh basil with Stirrings basil essence, Skyy vodka, and lime juice). Meanwhile, the 25-page wine list, which boasts a Wine Spectator 2008 Award of Excellence, was impressively eclectic, featuring biodynamic and organic selections, several wine flights, and 48 by-the-glass offerings.

When I remarked to a server that his wine recommendation was spot-on, he mentioned that many Caffe Boa staffers have passed an introductory sommelier-certification program. Nice touch! It only makes sense, I guess, since chef-owner Jay Wisniewski and his wife, Christine, are both certified sommeliers.

Attention to detail extended to the rest of the service as well. Servers weren't just pleasant to talk to — they actually knew what they were talking about, describing dishes in mouthwatering detail and making helpful suggestions. The main thing that could've used improvement, though, was the timing of clearing away dirty plates, silverware, and crumbs between courses.

Fresh baguettes and sliced multigrain bread from Mesa's Breadsmith Bakery, served gratis with housemade hummus and extra virgin olive oil, got things off to a pleasant start. Bruschetta was piled high with diced tomato so ripe and garlicky that I scooped up fallen bits with my fork. The Capriatta plate was also alluring, basically a glorified caprese with both fresh mozzarella and creamy handmade burrata, plus ripe slices of red and green heirloom tomatoes. (By the way, Caffe Boa uses organic produce from Maya's at the Farm.)

Every time I've ever ordered charcuterie, it's been served cold — except here. Caffe Boa lightly grilled the sausages, which was odd at first glance, but it took only one bite to appreciate it. There was a nicely browned piece of Merguez d'agneau, a plump pork Bearnaise sausage, some wonderful boudin blanc with crispy seared edges, and moist, crumbly boudin noir, whose subtle spiciness kicked in after a couple of seconds. The platter came with three dips — marinara, tzatziki, and coarse mustard — but I was happy to eat the sausages straight up, with a few bites of cornichon in between.

There was a lightly seared slice of very good ahi nestled in my niçoise, while the roasted beet salad was dressed up with creamy Black Mesa Ranch chevre and a bit of pesto. And as for the Prince Edward Island mussel plate, what else do you need when the mussels are this tender? Well, just one thing: Caffe Boa's scrumptious sauce of leeks, garlic, shallots, parsley, white wine, and lemon, with a little cream.

Simple spaghetti with marinara was jazzed up with huge meatballs ("Luca's Meatballs," actually) made with beef, pork, veal, and Italian sausage. They were very moist but toothsome, with delicate spicing. In contrast, rigatoni puttanesca was truly eye-opening — spicy, garlicky, and earthy, with plenty of Kalamatas and capers.

The Cape Cod ravioli was also over the top, though in a completely unconventional way. It was bizarrely but deliciously close to dessert, with cranberry-studded vodka cream sauce spooned over huge handmade ravioli filled with creamy ricotta, roasted chicken, and herbs. Fresh grated Parmesan made it even more decadent. I didn't detect the promised rosemary in the pasta, but considering how heady the sauce was, I didn't really care.

While pastas are a big draw here, and made up a big portion of the menu, the entrees were also inspired. A daily special of branzino was presented whole, then filleted behind the scenes. Just after it was brought back to the table, our server drizzled it with a simple parsley, lemon, and olive oil dressing, which only heightened the freshness of the mild fish. Painted Hills Farm short ribs, braised in Burgundy wine, were fork-tender, although the accompanying purple fingerling potatoes had been roasted just a bit too long.

But I had nothing but raves for the milk-fed poularde from Pennsylvania's famed Four Story Hill Farm, which supplies some of the best restaurants in the country. That's right, it was a plump hen fattened with milk, just as they do with the legendary poulet de Bresse in Burgundy, and prepared as a traditional fricassee with mushrooms, garlic, and cream. There was a touch of truffle oil in the ethereal sauce, which gave it an incredible aroma, while the meat was remarkably succulent and flavorful. For contrast, it was paired with black forbidden rice, a chewy, inky-colored rice with a nutty, unique taste.

After all that excitement, how could any dessert live up? Well, the sweets held their own. Cabernet ganache-filled Belgian chocolate tartlette tasted nothing like Cabernet, but it was fine for a chocolate fix. A brûléed meringue topping distinguished the creamy lemon tartlette. And the homemade tiramisu was definitely distinctive, more about thick, velvety cream than rum-soaked cake.

In the midst of student-centric Tempe's hectic main drag, Caffe Boa is a surprisingly sophisticated spot for the grownups among us. Consider me impressed.

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This is my story of the injustice and mistreatment I received while working at Caffe Boa on Mill Avenue in Tempe.

Everything in this story is 100% true. All of the quotes are correct down to the word, as well as dates and times.

I am a student at Arizona State University. I was looking for the right part time job to have while finishing my last semester in school. I saw an advertisement on Craigslist for servers & bartenders at Caffe Boa on Mill Ave and I went and applied. I met Casey Garden, the general manager. I�ve only had two or three interactions with Casey, but from those she seemed like a good person.

I was hired a week later on Monday October 5, 2009. I went to a meeting that night at 9 p.m. for all staff. Owner Jay Wisniewski inspired me with his talk of creating a genuine experience for the guest, engaging in real conversation with them. He encouraged us to inflect our own personality into our jobs � something nice to hear after working a corporate restaurant job for two years.

The following Friday I started the first of six training shifts. Since I was only able to work weekends, it took me three weeks to finish the training shifts and take the menu knowledge test. I took the test with the manager, Gabe, who was following reports from other servers about my progress. I sat down with Gabe after every shift and we discussed how things were going, and everything was always positive.

The day I started my first shift on the floor, Wednesday October 28, was when I met Shantal Abdo Curry. There were a lot of changes going on in the restaurant. Some we knew about it. A lot of others we didn�t. I introduced myself to Shantal because I didn�t know who she was and she seemed like she was learning about the restaurant. I had no idea she had been named the new General Manager at the same time her husband, Payton Curry, was hired as the new executive chef. Payton is a very popular chef in the Valley and coveted by a lot of employers when he left his job at Digestif in Scottsdale. I can�t say for sure, but it�s pretty reasonable to assume that wherever he went, he and his wife were a package deal. Essentially she was hired to run and manage Caffe Boa because of her husband. From October 9th � 28th I was paid for two of the six training shifts, a total of 13.5 hours of the 41 I was owed. My hours were never called in so I received a handwritten check with a computer print out of the tax information. Shantal promised me another check for my other four training shifts on Nov. 4. My hours weren�t called in again for that payroll so she said she would figure it out and have a check for me two days later.

Another three days went by and I came in to pick up my check and she told me she was going in the office to figure it out. An hour went by as I sat at the bar and waited for her to come out of the office. She finally came back out, looked at me and went to sit in different meeting. I had to leave for class, so I walked out with no explanation of what happened or when I was going to get my check.

I worked again two days later, on a Wednesday, and was promised that I would have it Friday morning. It was now Nov. 13, nine days after I should have been paid and she still didn�t acknowledge it until the end of my shift on Friday. She called me down to the office, wrote me a check for $126.13 and said, �This is for everything up until now, I think it�s best we go our separate ways.� I wasn�t even sure what she meant at first. I thought she meant her and I personally, and then when I realized I was being fired, I was even more confused. There had been no verbal warning of any kind. There had certainly been no written warning with my signature or hers. I asked her for a reason and she replied, �It�s company policy that we don�t have to give one.� She may be right, but it�s a family owned restaurant and she has only been working there three weeks. Two weeks less than me and she is already given the power to fire someone. There is no reason in the world that she couldn�t give me a reason, if she had one. She also told me that she had discussed it with everyone and that it was a group decision. So when I left her office I went to Gabe, the manager who had trained me, and asked if he knew about it. He response: �I just found out after you did.� So my job status was determined without a warning, without consulting the manager who I went through training with, and without any justifiable reason.

For one reason or another, I had been getting the feeling Shantal didn�t like me all that much. There was no work related reason for her to feel this way � I was always on time, worked hard to memorize the menu and wines, and did whatever they asked - but she had some sort of personal vendetta against me. But again, because I valued my job, any interaction between her and I was completely professional. I was completely and utterly baffled. To top off this fiasco, the check she wrote me was for $126.13. I told her it was wrong and she didn�t pay me for four training shifts. I had written down my training hours four different times and given them to her and one of the other managers, Naomi, who�s official job title I am unaware of. Neither Naomi or Shantal entered in my hours and weren�t going to pay me for the remaining 27.5 hours of training, until I basically demanded it. She cut me another check for $186. I still have no official record from them of the hours, the taxes, or how it was determined. I don�t even know what hourly rate they were paying me.

The next day I called because I wanted to ask to sit down with Shantal and Jay to discuss this and determine what was going on. I called the restaurant three times. The phone was picked up and hung up each time. I don�t know if it was coincidence but it happened three times in a row. On the fourth call, Gabe picked up and said he would relay the message to Jay to call me. I haven�t received a call back and there is a little to no chance that I will. They don�t care about anything except their bottom line and acting like pompous members of what they think is high society in the culinary world.

Other notes: I still don�t know or understand the hierarchy at Caffe Boa and the different positions of power each manger has. It is the most chaotic, shady, backstabbing, and just all around strange leadership I�ve ever been a part of. When I first started I would try to have conversations with Jay and I was quickly told by every server and bartender to just, �Do your job, and avoid him.� They said, �The less you talk to him, the better off you�ll be.� I found this odd, but since I valued my job I took their advice. One female employee I talked to who was hired in August said she has only received four paychecks. So her payroll is backed up at least two pay periods. Jay and Christine will come into the restaurant during slow times, sit down for two hours, drink Pellegrino, coffee, wine, etc and have servers bring them food and clean up after them, but won�t pay those same employees on time. They can have these nice articles written about them and make people believe they are genuine and care about others. But the fact is, they don�t and I�m living proof of it. I�ve had jobs in the past where I wasn�t the ideal employee and would have understood if I was fired, but that wasn�t the case at Caffe Boa. I needed this job and treated it that way, and was completely screwed over because of one woman�s personal opinion. I recommend, for the sake of your mental and social health, never to dine, work, or associate yourself with Caffe Boa. There is nothing genuine or real about this place. The food is good, and some of it is healthy, and I sympathize with chef Payton Curry because he is a good chef, and has to live and work with these people. If other servers weren�t scared about losing their jobs they would be saying the same things. Now that I had mine taken away from me, I will say it for them.

 
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