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, 398 South Mill Avenue, Tempe
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.
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.
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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.