Manhattan has Drew Nieporent and the Myriad Group, an enterprise that began in 1985 with a single restaurant, Montrachet. Today, Nieporent operates a virtual empire of some of New York's best-loved eateries: Tribeca Grill, Rubicon, Nobu, Layla, TriBakery, HeartBeat, Icon and Pulse.
The Valley has Tom and Chrysa Kaufman. While operating on a smaller scale than Myriad, the Kaufmans follow the same principles of successful expansion. This means that rather than cookie-cutter chain mentality, each new restaurant has its own special menu, distinct personality, and celebrates the talents of an individual chef in residence. The approach has made local darlings of Rancho Pinot Grill in Scottsdale (manned by the Kaufmans), Restaurant Hapa in Scottsdale (directed by chef duo James and Stacey McDevitt), and Valencia Lane in Phoenix (a creation of chef Michael Hoobler).
Now, the Kaufmans have struck again, opening Nonni's Kitchen in Phoenix. And like their other restaurants, Nonni's has hit the pan with a sizzle, drawing in crowds instantly attracted to the charming, Italian-edged American menu and comfortably elegant ambiance. The star of the show, of course, is the cooking, directed by longtime Rancho sous chef Cris Armijo with back-up from chef Chrysa. Dishes are comfort food gone electric, showcasing the virtues of pristine ingredients, dramatic seasoning and straightforward presentation. No vertical foods here, no poke-in-the-eye spears of rosemary, either, just honest, lick-your-plate meals.
Nonni's is named after an Italian pet term for grandmother (in this case celebrating Chrysa's). Fittingly, the restaurant is decorated with lots of crisp black-and-white and color-tinted family photos. The display is clever, with frames resting on a wooden shelf encircling the walls, interspersed with brightly painted ceramics. Wood paneling snakes up from shiny polished floors of caramel concrete, capped with a thick runner of faux painted tile. Lighting is terrific, subdued with warm mocha tones that splash gently over polished wood tables and cozy booths. A thoughtful placing of half-length curtains blocks headlights from cars parking directly in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
The reincarnation of the space formerly occupied by Norman's Arizona is exhaustive, with little reminder of the acclaimed but ill-managed Nueva Mexican eatery except the exposition kitchen. (Norman's, we recall, was hastily and theatrically shuttered after its owners discovered that the Arizona Department of Revenue doesn't find it amusing when businesses ignore taxes.) Simply securing the space was a challenge; local chefs salivated for Norman's abandoned abode, which, while off the beaten path, was well-known among our foodies. Not everyone grasps the change yet; Chrysa has commented that patrons sometimes request she prepare Norman's signature dishes (she declines) or that Nonni's honor Norman's gift certificates (absolutely not).
Nonni's is unquestionably our best new restaurant this season, the dynamite cuisine made all the more appealing by palatable pricing. Appetizers top out at $10, and entrees range from $14 to $22. How good is the food? Two initial dinners are a wash, because I'm so smitten I can't concentrate to take notes. A third visit is more successful, but done in when my dog literally eats my homework after pulling my notebook off my desk. Memory serves sufficiently, but there's no complaint from me when conscience compels a brand-new round of visits.
Several dishes are worthy of any big city eatery. An appetizer of carpaccio is luxury economized, reasonable at $8.50 and indulgent with a deep red wheel of lacy, buttery bovine centered with a chop of celery and mushroom. Humble reaches heavenly, sparkling with a spritz of lemon and shavings of tangy Parmesan. The Sicilian sausage is not your everyday sausage, either, wholesome in the manner only homemade can achieve, the pudgy link expertly grilled and gripped in a thrilling cyclone of pepper. Spices are tamed by a sultry, soupy bed of lentils with pleasantly bitter greens.
Grilled portabella arrives looking like a Nerf football, it's such a generous plate. And flavors are just as big, the heady mushroom juicy and crowning a toss of endive, radicchio and arugula. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a chilled seafood salad soars because it's so restrained. This chop of mussels, dainty rock shrimp and squid is so fresh it smells like crystal. It needs nothing more than its partners of preserved lemon, fennel, celery and radicchio shell. An equally stunning starter is simple salad, tossing crunchy romaine with clean, peppery lemon pecorino dressing, fat and salty grilled croutons plus elephantine shards of sharp pecorino.
But it's Nonni's vegetable antipasto that most takes me back to a tour I took of Sicily this spring. A week spent on a wine estate amid sun-bloated grapevines found magic at every meal, showcasing vegetables picked fresh from the surrounding gardens. There was no complicated cooking, just humble, from-the-earth food dressed with vibrant herbs, spices, fresh breads and cheeses. It was mind-blowing.
Here, the antipasto selection varies: sometimes there are big green olives, sometimes marinated button mushrooms, and if we're lucky, the chef sends out long, skinny, raw radish bulbs. One meal finds a roasted sweet onion half, dusted with Parmesan and moistened with tomato. Always on the plate, though, are potato frittata, stuffed artichoke, roasted fennel, tomato and peppers. All are excellent. The frittata is a quiche-like wedge of egg, potato chunks, onion, garlic and lots of fresh Parmesan. Our artichoke half is capped with buttery herb breadcrumbs and pine nuts. Fennel bulbs and spinach leaves burst with black pepper, while ropes of roasted red peppers are dashed with capers. The plate is irresistible.
Fans of Rancho Pinot Grill will recognize some of the Nonni's entrees. The Kaufmans' signature Nonni's Sunday chicken shows up with an extra bonus: it's a few dollars less than at Rancho. The satisfaction is the same, with tender bird braised in a savory broth of white wine, mushrooms, herbs and onion. Thick, toasted polenta triangles alongside are mesmerizing, crisp edged and softly cheesy.
Just the name of another main dish could get me: Crispy flattened hen. This is Chrysa's version of a traditional Italian dish that grills chicken under a brick -- here the kitchen sears its poultry in a cast-iron skillet with another skillet weighing it down. The result is a beautiful bird with a crisp crust. It lounges on snowy banks of mashed potatoes kissed with olive oil, plus Christmas-green fresh spinach cooked wet and juicy with just enough garlic to give it guts.
Alaskan halibut makes a milder entrance, fine fish partnered by new potatoes, baby artichokes and tart lemon-caper aioli. And ever-present seared rare ahi gets a rustic glow with its bedding of firm cannellini beans, chopped Kalamata olives, tiny fresh tomatoes and basil leaves. The fist-sized chunk of tuna is finished by caps of shaved fennel, red-onion ribbons and olive oil.
Beef is another attractive option, a hefty filet marinated and swimming in balsamic alongside roasted potato and arugula. Using less balsamic would be a benefit, though -- after a few bites the meat turns too sweet. Cured pork chop makes an honorable showing, but my boneless cut needs more time with the grill. This is he-man food all around, mounded with braised savory cabbage, sturdy chunks of smoked bacon and mustard sauce.
Diners expecting predictable pastas with red or white sauce will be disappointed. The Kaufmans' only nod to the norm is their handmade pappardelle, fashioned of spinach and ladled with a robust, rustic meat sauce. Handmade fettuccine is more elaborate, the thick noodles smothered with pancetta, sweet grilled corn, and salt-licked spinach and fresh fava beans rivaling Sicily's finest. The sauce is lovely and uncomplicated, tasting like a buttery liquor of olive oil and cheese with slips of garlic and scallion.
Desserts are both casual and decadent. A plate of warm Italian donuts sounds more exciting than it is -- they're nice, but the little rounds could use some sugar other than drizzles of honey. Mom's honey pecan square, another Rancho hallmark, needs nothing other than a fork to make it perfect. The confection is gooey rich, topped with vanilla ice cream and slathered with fudge sauce. And panna cotta is pure bliss, the creamy custard served as a pure white orb on a puddle of citrus syrup with fresh raspberries.
Missteps are minor. I've yet to be convinced that mesquite-grilled flatbread deserves appetizer rating. The dish of puffy triangles is boring, with an off-putting sour flavor. And some complimentary bread offering, even breadsticks, would help fill time while we wait for our meals.
Service is still sorting itself out here and there. A waiter presents us with dishes of ice cream, we tell him we didn't order them, but he leaves them anyway. Moments later he changes his mind, retrieves the desserts and offers them to another table. Boxes of leftovers sometimes fail to return from the kitchen. And I'll never understand why waiters tuck their leather check wallets down the back of their pants, even in the most casual eateries.
From the miracle that was Montrachet, New York's Nieporent now owns 16 restaurants in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Boca Raton. His operations are so successful they've attracted celebrity investors like Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Mikhail Barishnikov and Robin Williams. The Kaufmans are on their way to such fame. Hopefully for us, though, they'll keep all their successes right here in the Valley.
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