House of Tricks has everything going for it — excellent food, a great location near ASU that feels serene despite its proximity to the hustle and bustle of Mill Avenue, and a reputation that's been building since 1987. The restaurant is really a rare gem, a local institution that survives not on hype, but on quality.

In fact, House of Tricks keeps such a low profile in the food community that I think it's often overlooked. Although it usually seems busy, the place gets no community buzz, for the most part — and I really think it ought to.

Have you tried chef Kelly Fletcher's food lately? Looking over his menu and sampling quite a few of his dishes recently, I was impressed by his intriguing take on New American cuisine. He creates luxurious fine-dining-worthy dishes with classic French cooking techniques (the sauces here are wonderful) and occasional hints of Southwestern and Mediterranean flair — aside from Caffe Boa several blocks from here, there's nothing this upscale in this student-centric part of the Valley.

Plump, harissa-spiced PEI mussels with chorizo and charred tomato-cilantro vinaigrette will get your mouth watering at House of Tricks, a longtime fave in downtown Tempe.
Jackie Mercandetti
Plump, harissa-spiced PEI mussels with chorizo and charred tomato-cilantro vinaigrette will get your mouth watering at House of Tricks, a longtime fave in downtown Tempe.

Indeed, House of Tricks is fine dining, except it's deceptively cozy and relaxed, a haunt so familiar that people come here just to lounge on the patio with wine and cheese, or linger at the romantic outdoor bar that connects two dining areas: one in a 1920s cottage, and another in the 1903 adobe brick house next door. Either spot works as well for an intimate date as it does for a feast with friends and family.

I love this laid-back, approachable aspect of House of Tricks, because how many other restaurants of this caliber would you perhaps just drop by, if a table happened to be available? It's likely the secret to the restaurant's long-term success.

As much as that casual, homey feeling appeals to me, I do think there's room for improvement when it comes to service. I received very professional, attentive treatment, mind you, but I'm a big fan of getting a mouthwatering, intriguing food description when a dish arrives. Here, artistic plates of food arrived at the table without anything more than a declaration of the protein. When my server can succinctly explain what I'm about to eat — especially when the food is this sophisticated — it makes the first bite all the more exciting.

(Not that such a thing is limited to fine dining, although that's where one usually finds it. Even at casual Pizzeria Bianco, one of my favorite aspects of dinner is the waiter's description of each thing on the antipasto plate. I can see clearly what's on it, but I enjoy the details all the same.)

Seared foie gras has always been a highlight of dining here, and this time it was just as good as ever, a sweet take on the dish that made it like dessert. Perfectly caramelized on the outside and melted like butter on the inside, the foie rested on a small ricotta-hazelnut Belgian waffle with chunks of caramelized apples and a drizzle of vanilla gastrique. Crème anglaise, as light as a cloud, gave it depth thanks to a whiff of five-spice.

But my new darling is harissa-spiced PEI mussels with kicky chorizo, topped with charred yellow tomato and cilantro vinaigrette. The potent, lipsmacking broth was so good that my friends and I soaked up every last drop of it with big pieces of crisp grilled bread. I think I'm addicted now.

Similarly, chewy Spanish chorizo boosted San Marzano tomato-braised oxtail, which was rich enough to be a main dish. Saffron parsnip puree on top was a nice aromatic addition, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the meaty, savory flavors of the stew.

Meanwhile, a delicate curry cream didn't compete with red apple chutney, butternut squash, and a hunk of braised veal bacon in the "Veal Two Ways." In fact, it was beautifully balanced and made the accompanying seared sweetbreads (served with celery root puree and watercress) seem almost tame.

Smoked tomato vinaigrette, fresh microgreens, and a smidgen of salty black tobiko (flying fish roe) added bright, acidic contrast to plump seared scallops, creamy mascarpone polenta, and oyster mushroom beurre blanc. Meanwhile, hidden underneath a lovely salad of pea tendrils, Brussels sprout leaves, frisée, beet chips, Pommery champagne vinaigrette, and creamy French feta were big, tender chunks of candy cane beets. Stellar.

Golden, crispy skin and moist meat made the half-roasted chicken confit shine. It was served simply, with roasted fingerlings, beets, and parsnips. The lone vegetarian entrée — a mushroom Wellington — was equally comforting, with tender spinach and chard inside a flaky crust, chunky mushroom gravy, roasted Peruvian potatoes (colored blackish-purple, they looked mysterious but tasted very familiar), and a pile of caramelized whole baby carrots.

Seared, sashimi-quality ahi tuna, served rare, got a Southwestern spin with a pungent chile rub and a dose of mole amarillo, a deep, complex red guajillo chile sauce, while seared duck breast was jazzed up with a bold coffee-cardamom crust. Bacon-caramel apples, creamy pureed yams, and pomegranate gastrique provided sweet contrast and luscious textures that enhanced the juicy meat.

And on a cold night in the midst of our fleeting winter, I fell hard for the braised osso bucco, made with pork from local purveyor Tender Belly (which I'm starting to see on a lot of top-notch menus lately, including the acclaimed Binkley's in Carefree and new Citizen Public House in Old Town Scottsdale). Smothered in apricot-cherry mostarda, with a heap of creamy squash-mushroom risotto underneath, the meat was so succulent that I could cut it with a fork. Citrus-sage gremolata added welcome tanginess, although I wished for a bit more.

Come dessert time, I got full-on greedy with some of the best confections I've had in ages. A dense, dark chocolate torte was incredible with port-soaked figs, while ricotta cheesecake was so tasty that even my cheesecake-hating friend couldn't stop eating it. It was just sweet enough, topped with a few blackberries and served with an amazing rosemary-caramel sauce that was the perfect consistency.

And one night's crème brûlée was made with foie gras, its heady flavor and gentle sweetness teased out with an unexpected dash of sea salt on the brûléed sugar topping. What a stunning finale.

To start and end a meal with foie gras is decadent, indeed, but at irresistible House of Tricks, you just might surprise yourself.

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