Seasonal. Local. Organic.
Those three words always seem to go together, and you hear them more and more. They're the unofficial mantra of the Slow Food Movement, which was founded 20 years ago when delegates from 15 countries signed a manifesto against fast food, fast life, and the erosion of local food cultures around the world.
But they've also become an impossible-to-ignore trend. Hardly anyone opens an ambitious restaurant anymore without a tip of the hat to seasonal, local, and organic ingredients somewhere on the menu.
18221 North Pima Road, Scottsdale
Hours: Lunch, daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, daily, 3 p.m. to close
Lamb meatballs: $11
Calistro flatbread: $12
Short ribs: $24
Rice pudding: $5
It's admirable, really, and while some of my favorite things are the antithesis of Slow Food — especially exquisite seafood shipped halfway around the world — I'm a huge proponent of seasonal, local, and organic when those qualities are embodied by a perfect little heirloom tomato at the peak of its summer ripeness.
Calistro Bistro opened this summer at the DC Ranch Crossing in north Scottsdale, and the "farm to table" philosophy is at the heart of its concept.
Executive chef Devin Walsh, formerly of Taneko Tavern, includes quite a few local ingredients in his California-meets-Mediterranean menu, including organic produce from McClendon's Select, olives from Queen Creek Olive Mill, and meats from Cedar Mill Beef and The Meat Shop.
Everything has a healthful spin and, to take things a step further, the restaurant is also a member of the Green Restaurant Association, using sustainable local wood for its oven and environmentally friendly cleaning products in the kitchen.
In theory, I should love this place. After all, Calistro Bistro does seem to be doing more than just paying lip service to the organic trend. In reality, though, even seasonal, local, organic ingredients couldn't elevate certain dishes.
Alaskan scallops with celeriac remoulade, and pork tenderloin with baked tepary beans were the two biggest misses. The former was beyond bland, four smallish scallops (sans a good searing) plunked on a tasteless pile of celeriac and carrot shreds, with a few sun-dried tomatoes scattered on the plate. I suppose the oily, flavorless foam surrounding the scallops was butternut squash-prawn emulsion with fresh black truffle, but there was no sweetness of prawn nor any whiff of earthy truffle.
The pork tenderloin was nicely seasoned with pink peppercorns but was a little too done, while the sweet baked beans were unpleasantly al dente. Cornbread sounded like an appealing side dish, but it was such a thin, flimsy portion that it had no heft to stand on its own, instead soaking up the sauce from the beans and practically disintegrating.
Short ribs were the most intriguing thing I tasted, braised in red wine until the meat was fork-tender and the sauce was lusciously savory. Sprinkled with crispy horseradish breadcrumbs and teamed with a heap of cauliflower, the dish was wonderful — until I dug into the pommes purée hidden under the short ribs. Let's just say that these weren't remotely close to legendary chef Joël Robuchon's decadent take on pommes purée, which contain a sinful quantity of butter. Instead, these lackluster mashed potatoes tasted like cardboard.
Thin ribbons of tender housemade fettuccine were tossed with housemade chicken sausage, sliced mushrooms, carrot, cauliflower, and a light champagne-fennel sauce. Nothing to complain about, but certainly nothing to rave about, either.
I had better luck with such shared plates as lamb meatballs, plump orbs of all-natural meat glazed with zingy pomegranate barbecue sauce and served with toasted almonds, shredded carrots, and crumbled feta. These were moist, flavorful, and fragrant.
Roasted Pacific blue prawns, smothered in kicky harissa marinade, were mouthwatering with salty bits of feta and olive. And freshly baked Calistro flatbread — a thin, crisp pizza topped with heirloom tomatoes, pesto, and housemade mozzarella — was simple and tasty, with a touch of smokiness from the wood-burning oven.
However, that same flatbread, unadorned, was rather ho-hum with a bowl of plain hummus, whose mouthwatering description promised lemon and cumin and sumac (where were they?).
The summer roll didn't blow me away, either — "spicy Hawaiian tuna" filling was actually minced plain tuna with a bit of spicy red pepper, along with carrot, avocado, and some harissa-mango sauce pooled on the plate. Somehow the flavors didn't mesh, ultimately leaving the odd impression of plain tuna and sugary sauce.
I was caught off-guard when the prim-sounding dairy-free rice pudding turned out to be rich and creamy. Calistro used coconut milk as the base and topped it with pistachio, Saigon cinnamon, and some spiced apples. Butterscotch crème brûlée, served with fresh orange segments, wasn't bad, either.
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But a couple of other desserts were bummers. Warm bread pudding with dates was the most literal rendition of "bread" and "pudding" I've ever had the misfortune of eating. Seriously, it was about three chunks of bread steeped in soupy custard, with a faint grittiness that I assume was minced dates.
Meanwhile, peanut butter chocolate mousse lacked the potency of either chocolate or peanut butter — its musty taste reminded me of health food, which is not a quality you'd want in any dessert. A shard of peanut brittle was its only redeeming quality.
With Halloween right around the corner and bags of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups flying off the grocery store shelves, chocolate and peanut butter should be easy seasonal flavors for Calistro Bistro to ace.
Yeah, you'd think.