Best Of :: Food & Drink
Chef Country Velador's (Super Chunk Sweets & Treats) sweetly inspired creations at Old Town Scottsdale's Cowboy Ciao are a kind of revolving gourmet dessert tray. Her menu changes regularly, tempting us to choose, perhaps, from treats like luscious Angel Food "Bread" Pudding with a vanilla bean custard sauce, warm apple cobbler kissed with brown sugar and topped with a melting scoop of rich and buttery duck fat ice cream, or a decadent peanut butter bar tricked out with mascarpone, coconut ganache, and a graham cracker crust with toasted coconut and peanuts. Dessert first? At Cowboy Ciao, it's to be expected.
Chef Kevin Binkley's first restaurant in Phoenix is a place where vegetables and fruits meet the future. Decidedly different from the upscale Binkley's Restaurant in Cave Creek and the more contemporary Cafe Bink in Carefree, the James Beard Award finalist's newest spot specializes in small plates of local produce re-imagined by a culinary powerhouse who just as easily could be pictured in a lab coat as an apron. From a menu that changes with the seasons, there might be roasted cauliflower with almonds, dried currants, and curry foam; juicy melon lit up with pepitas, chile piquin, ricotta salatta, and sangria granité; or sharp and peppery I'itoi onion and black-eyed peas interspersed with barbecued octopus. Fresh fruits find their way into inventive desserts like layered push-up pops and sorbet "soup" frozen with liquid nitrogen, and a well-crafted cocktail list reads like a kind of liquid science farmers market. The setting, a cozy neighborhood spot of wood floors, wainscoting, and white linen, makes Binkley's modernist take on cuisine feel right at home. (And good news: A second branch of Bink's Midtown is planned to open in Scottsdale by the end of the year.)
Thanks to Charleen Badman, there's never been a better time to eat our vegetables. At FnB, the venerated Scottsdale restaurant she co-owns with partner Pavle Milic, Badman celebrates produce like cellist Yo-Yo Ma celebrates classical music: with a reverence for the classics but with an eclectic repertoire. Turning what were once considered side dishes into centerpieces, you might find her rustic, seasonal, and locally focused creations in the form of grilled butternut squash with yogurt, marinated beluga lentils, and spiced seeds; heirloom tomatoes with crispy polenta croutons and oregano from Badman's own garden; or as her Food & Wine award-winning braised leeks topped with mozzarella, a fried egg, and mustardy bread crumbs. No matter which you choose, you'll never look at an eggplant or a broccoli floret the same way again.
Are you a diner of the adventurous sort? If so, you may want to remember the words "Chef's Special" when visiting this tidy home of satisfying Cantonese cooking in Glendale. More or less an off-the-cuff version of omakase (the Japanese term that leaves your meal up to the chef) and invented by Lucky's owners, Kitty and Kwok Pat, the Chef's Special is not so much a menu item as it is a passionate parade of very good dishes the Pats will pick for you. There may be crispy Shanghai chicken, ginger-spiked lamb and bean curd stew, or, for intrepid diners of the offal sort, pig's stomach mixed with crunchy, sour vegetables. The fun's in the not knowing. The flavors speak for themselves.
We should thank our lucky stars that James Beard Award nominee chef Shinji Kurita is in the Valley and not some other major city, where he certainly could hold his own in the area of foodie fanaticism. At his refined restaurant in Scottsdale, which accepts only a few reservations per night, Kurita prepares exquisite Japanese cuisine with a fervent dedication to top-notch ingredients. His omakase, or chef's choice dinners, are nothing short of spectacular. Then there's the luscious bluefin tuna tartare, a giant Madagascar prawn in black bean sauce, and a stellar carpaccio of seared halibut drizzled with ponzu. Nearly impressive as the fare is the selection of wines, sakes, and Japanese craft beers.
Leave it to Hong Kong-born chef Johnny Chu (Lucky Dragon, Fate, Sens) to bring flavor, fashion, and a house-party vibe to the heart of the Central Avenue business corridor. You'll find his fans, the city's young and chic, regularly dropping by to sip on sake-based martinis and nibble on small plates of Chu's top-notch Asian fusion fare, including five-spice quail, BLT spring rolls, and spicy basil tofu. The spacious white room, alive with purple lights and thumping beats, makes it easy to play it low-key while still staying "seen."