From now 'til we publish the 2012 edition of Best of Phoenix, New Times and Chow Bella present 100 Tastemakers -- Valley residents who make the cut in our culinary scene. Some you'll know; for others, it'll be a first introduction (but likely not the last). While you're here, check out our 100 Creatives on Jackalope Ranch.
Today, a guy with impeccable taste -- and, sometimes, a rather crass mouth.
You might remember Tastemaker Eric Schaefer from his blog ericeatsout.com -- his prediction that whale milk will be big in 2012 comes to mind. Schaefer's fallen silent of late (unless you're lucky enough to be his Facebook friend), but he's still moving and shaking among the local food scene, and we wonder what he'll come up with next. We just hope it doesn't involve whale milk.
I arrived in Phoenix with.... high blood pressure. Although I grew up in Scottsdale, my career took me to Southern California and, ultimately, the Bay Area. Although I never had a bad meal in San Francisco, my technology-boom lifestyle meant that I was either going to die young from a heart attack or lose my mind altogether. Ten years ago, I moved back to Scottsdale, and I have opened my eyes to a community full of culinary promise and potential. When my family initially migrated to Phoenix from the Midwest in the early 1980s, the food scene was dominated by Oscar Taylor's, Lunt Avenue Marble Club, Café Casino, and L'Orangerie. Potato skins were avant-garde. We've come a long way, but I'm still a sucker for a good potato skin.
If I was sitting down to dinner for six, my five dream companions would be.... Nora, my wife. And I'm not just saying that to score badly needed good karma. Raised just outside New York City, she has great perspective when it comes to food, and just about everything else. She always picks up on aspects of a restaurant's food and service that I fail to see. More importantly, she's smart, beautiful, a great conversationalist, and one hell of a great mom to our two kids. Anyone who has met her knows that I married up -- way up.
Mahatma Gandhi. Yeah, that Gandhi. To make things interesting, he was a vegetarian and led an epic hunger strike. Militant vegetarianism drives me crazy, but somehow I think that Gandhi could convince me. Right now, I'm all about slowing down my life, and his quote "there is more to life than increasing its speed" has a lot of meaning to me, but it's easier said than done. The world would be a much better place with more people like him in it.
Anthony Bourdain. Don't we all secretly want to be like him? Irreverent, street-smart yet sophisticated, and equally at home with food from Joel Robouchon or a food cart on the streets of Saigon. Bourdain's No Reservations 100th episode, filmed in Paris, is the best hour of television I've ever seen. He is a modern-day James Dean or Steve McQueen and, for me, he's the epitome of cool. Yeah, I've got a man-crush. His Les Halles Cookbook is rarely far from reach.
The dishwasher at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Any great organization practices excellence from top to bottom. Many of the world's finest restaurants don't allow their service staff to dine in their own restaurant, nor would they necessarily be comfortable doing so. Splurge on a meal at Restaurant Guy Savoy and then try to tell me that the guy washing the dishes isn't as focused on doing a great job as the cooks working the line . . . and does it for a pittance. The best chef in the world isn't going to go very far if the restaurant has dirty dishes. I'd like the guy washing my dishes to know that his work is part of the total equation, and I appreciate his sacrifice. Plus, the guys washing the dishes are probably a lot more fun than stuffy famous people.
One place everyone who comes to Phoenix must eat is.... Rancho Pinot. It might not be today's media darling, but Chrysa Robertson was focused on locally sourced ingredients long before it was cool, and she remains committed to sourcing top-notch products. To me, Rancho Pinot's dining room has a casual and comfortable Arizona feel to it, and her cooking is first-rate. People travel to Napa from all over the world for great food, and they could find the same thing at Rancho. When it's on the menu, there is no better veal chop in this town. To me, it epitomizes the notion of taking old-world cuisine with classic technique and giving it a modern, Southwestern edge. After dinner, have a night cap with a Sonoran Hot Dog from a food truck in a Central Phoenix parking lot. Worth noting: Chrysa Robertson is nuts. The good kind of crazy.
One menu item this city could do without is... Sorry, New Times, but I can't pick just one. Hey, I haven't written in a while and I have a lot to say.
For starters, bruschetta. A toasted piece of stale bread with some chopped tomatoes on top really shouldn't excite you, and I groan every time we're dining with another couple and they want to order this. I just can't get excited about it because it is the pseudo-Italian version of shitty chips and salsa. Sure, a few places like Postino change it up with a white bean puree and other ideas, but it still makes me yawn. I think it was the ridiculously overpriced bruschetta served at Chris Bianco's Italian Restaurant (4 small pieces for -- wait for it -- $12) that finally made me go postal on bruschetta.
Next on the list would be fried calamari, not because I don't like it (I do!), but because it is usually so poorly prepared. Soggy, greasy, and chewy are not words that should apply to squid. For an example of how calamari should be done, visit Andreoli Italian Grocer and order the grilled calamari. It is tender, has a perfectly blistered char, and tastes like the ocean, not a bouncy ball that my kid purchased from the 25-cent vending machine at Walgreens. For the record: I declare Andreoli Italian Grocer the best Italian food in Phoenix. Nothing else even comes close. Not that you asked.
Last would be cedar plank salmon. Unlike much of the culinary cognoscenti, I actually like salmon. A lot of people find salmon boring. Throwing second-rate fish on a piece of wood doesn't make it good. Wasn't this idea dead 15 years ago when Olive Garden started doing it? In my opinion, salmon is done best when the fish is high quality and prepared medium rare on the grill with little adornment. I've yet to have salmon at a restaurant that is better than what I can cook on my grill at home. Nothing quite says "we don't give a fuck about our menu" than cedar plank salmon.
My last meal in Phoenix would be.... A mash-up of greatest hits from my favorite restaurants in town.
Nobuo Fukuda (Nobuo at Teeter House) can bring pork belly cha siu bao. Hiro Sushi can bring its spicy green mussels and fried oysters. James Porter (Petite Maison) can haul in some escargot and a boatload of Scotch. Don Carson (Don & Charlie's) is bringing chopped liver and baby back ribs, while Eliot Wexler and Matt Taylor (NOCA) can basically cook me whatever they want, and bonus points if it involves some sort of soft-scrambled goose egg. Josh Hebert (Posh) can make soup, because his soups are to die for. Charleen Badman (FnB) can go slaughter some innocent vegetables and prepare then however she damn pleases. Christopher Gross can put caviar on everything, bring champagne from his cellar at home and just hang out, because he's really funny and totally insane.
I'm not really into dessert. I'll have a Fausto Robusto by Tatuaje, my favorite cigar, while my wife has a pizza cookie from Oregano's. I might have a few bites and then slurp up the melted ice cream and crusty bits with a straw.
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But who am I kidding? I'm not leaving Arizona. I love it here.