It's no secret that the Valley has a quirky urban fabric when it comes to the restaurant scene.
Some cities have stretches of restaurants along busy, walkable blocks, but here, it doesn't faze us to find fine dining in a strip mall or a high-style hangout in a souped-up vintage building that was a bank or post office or fire station in its former life. Not to mention, there are so many eateries tucked into historic homes that nowadays, just about any old house with character near a busy thoroughfare is likely fair game for an ambitious restaurateur.
But here's something truly unexpected and a little surreal, even for the Valley: an upscale restaurant located inside a hair salon, of all things.
Michele Laudig's Cafe
7045 East Third Avenue, Scottsdale
www.crudoaz.com Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday
Butterfish crudo: $12
Albacore crudo: $12
Rolled veal breast: $16
Yellowtail stew: $14
It's called Crudo — a culinary term for an Italian raw fish dish — and it's the brainchild of chefs Cullen Campbell (Fine's Cellar, Camus) and Brandon Crouser (Atlas Bistro).
The friends became business partners when they took over an existing in-house cafe at Scottsdale's Steven Paul Salon late last summer, starting off with simple breakfast and lunch options (panini, flatbread pizzas, and so on) to feed salon clients and folks in the neighborhood. After getting a liquor license, Crudo finally started living up to its name in January, serving actual crudo and other creative, Italian-inspired dishes for its long-awaited dinner service.
If it sounds a little schizo, well, it is, but apparently this is what it takes to flex one's creative muscles in Old Town Scottsdale, where the past year has seen a lot of closures and turnover, and plenty of talented chefs have found themselves sans financial backers. Campbell and Crouser serve open-face tuna melts to pampered, well-to-do ladies by day so that they can bust out the bottarga and truffles and lardo by night — and more power to them.
I should point out that even though Crudo is literally inside a salon, you won't see women getting highlights or detect any chemical smells. The beautification process is all behind closed doors. Peek in the front window, and you'll notice a boutique-y, bling-filled reception area where rhinestone-studded bras, jewelry, and sexy summer frocks are clustered around a display counter. Crudo consists of a few tables at the front and a tiny open kitchen off to the side, where Crouser and Campbell will greet you personally.
They're likely hoping you'll sit out on the front patio, a prime perch on Marshall Way. On a balmy night, especially when the art walk is going on, you can actually have a relaxing dinner while people-watching and perhaps even chatting with friends passing by, like I did one night. No salon vibe here.
However, great food was the real reason I enjoyed myself. The menu changes frequently and usually consists of only 10 or 12 items, but a couple of crudo dishes that have remained in the lineup have clearly stayed put for a reason. Delicate butterfish, scattered with crispy bits of lardo and sweet oven-dried tomato, was so fresh it practically melted on my tongue, while albacore tuna was paired with heady black truffle, its richness balanced with black garlic and sweet-tart shreds of raw apple.
Pale, rosy slices of hiramasa (yellowtail kingfish) were scrumptious in a simple dressing of olive oil, chives, and bottarga (salty, grated dried fish roe). Lightly marinated Spanish white anchovies were lined up on a long platter, topped with wisps of fresh dill, olive oil, bits of roasted red and yellow pepper, and paper-thin housemade pickles. I ate these with bites of warm, soft lavosh, and didn't leave a speck.
And one night's special, madai snapper flown in from Japan, tasted refreshing with slivers of preserved Meyer lemon, some lightly sweet, housemade Meyer lemon oil, paprika, and chives. I may never see that dish on the menu again, but I won't soon forget it.
As much as the crudo dishes impressed, the cooked piatti were just as lovely, particularly the tender rolled veal breast in sguazeto (meat gravy) and pesto, with fiddlehead ferns, iitoi onions, carrots, celery, and fingerling potatoes. Fegato grasso (that is, foie gras) was perched on a heap of date-studded polenta (simple but decadent), while wild mushrooms au gratin combined the rustic appeal of buttery breadcrumbs and a fried egg with the luxurious flavor of black truffle.
One night's risotto, cooked to toothsome perfection with a handful of earthy mushrooms, was presented with fork-tender pig's trotters, amounting to an utterly rich dish that was more filling than it appeared. Likewise, prosciutto brodo (broth) added extra richness to handmade gnocchi.
In contrast, yellowtail stew was not the sort of thick, heavy mélange that the word "stew" conjures up, but rather a very summery creation — moist chunks of fish, fingerlings, roasted tomato, baby carrots, chives, and fresh basil in a bright, tangy broth that made my mouth water.
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Although the courses at Crudo didn't appear to be that large, I found myself mustering up extra stomach space for pastry chef Tracy Dempsey's desserts. A trio of ice creams — lavender honey, shoyu (i.e. soy sauce) caramel, and coffee — was interesting and refreshing, but not creamy enough to polish off.
I preferred the excellent pot de crème, a layer of thick, velvety chocolate cream under a blanket of caramel pudding, crowned by a cloud of crème fraîche and chocolate shortbread crumbles. And to think, a gourmet splurge like that can be had at a hair salon.
Say what you want about this city, but it's definitely got some hidden charms.