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Drive, She Said

Ridge Cafe customers feast on grilled paillart of chicken and a soba noodle salad.
Leah Fasten

For most businesses, as the adage goes, location is everything. If a shop isn't easy to find, customers won't bother to track it down.

Unless the business is a restaurant, with really wonderful food. In that case, having a location that's off the beaten path can actually be a plus. Let's admit it -- the only thing better than happening upon a fabulous meal is the smugness that comes from knowing it's your little secret, right?

Discovering that perfect little eatery before everyone else does is a crowning achievement for those in culinary cliques. Go to any cocktail party where the gourmet-minded gather, and it's like that historic E.F Hutton commercial. Folks chat politely while craning to eavesdrop on neighboring groups, hoping to hear whispers of the next hot spot in town. When that lucky diner who just conquered a new cafe finally shares the secret, she has just earned her 15 minutes of fame.

So collect your friends and start the clock. Spread the word: Scottsdale's newest hidden treasure is Ridge Cafe.

Open since May, Ridge Cafe certainly isn't easy to stumble across, tucked in back of a strip mall leading into the Scottsdale Mountain subdivision behind Mayo Clinic. Unless you live in the neighborhood, you'd never think to turn off Shea onto 136th Street in search of good food. Plus, with just 78 seats, the cafe is small enough that we cruise past it twice the first time we try to find it. And forget it's stuck next to an ABCO -- this is the type of food you'd expect to see in the Valley's established gourmet corridors of Camelback or Scottsdale roads.

The chefs are no one you've heard of locally. They're husband-and-wife duo Al and Lisa Pettijohn, relocated from careers cooking at restaurants in the Beverly Hills area. While they don't carry the familiar celebrity names that prompt an upscale restaurant's success here, I think it's just a matter of time before we see them included among our kitchen stars. So take advantage of the slower summer dining season to check out Ridge Cafe -- once word gets out, securing a table won't be as simple as it is now.

Ridge Cafe pleases me as much for what it isn't as for what it is. The restaurant's decor is subtle elegance, pairing cherry wood and copper-speckled chairs with sophisticated white tablecloths, and framing a semi-open kitchen with natural stone tile. There's no trick statement piece (the kind we're seeing all over these days -- gigantic aquariums, crazy statues), with a view of Camelback Mountain providing the only art needed.

There's no "funky din." The room is refreshingly quiet, with an 18-seat bar separated nicely by a partial wall of cherry wood and metal. The effect is calm, and quite classy. The only unsettling feature: The restaurant faces west, making for notable glare before sunset even through the windows' shade screens.

There are no offbeat dishes. I appreciate the same restraint practiced in the Pettijohns' cooking as in their interior design. While their menu promotes itself as eclectic -- an increasingly abused cuisine in the hands of amateurs -- the Pettijohns keep things interesting without being weird. There are a lot of themes jostling for attention here, including classic American, Italian, Mediterranean and Asian, yet the dishes play nicely together. We're not confounded by, say, Mexican sushi (a fusion food currently assaulting diners in San Francisco), but by a variety of regional specialties simply sharing the same menu page.

Starters, for example, bounce from an Italian salad of tomato, mozzarella, arugula and balsamic roasted onions to a Mexican specialty of chile relleno. Entrees tour the globe with a very American New York steak, a Mediterranean-inspired chicken with Kalamata olives and feta, and a decidedly Asian seafood hot pot.

Ridge Cafe also keeps it clean -- with little exception, our meals arrive lightly sauced, expertly seasoned and not done in with the bizarre bells and whistles that too often signify eclectic run amok.

There's also no sticker shock. I really like the prices at Ridge Cafe. When was the last time you enjoyed a memorable dinner, including full complements of side dishes and highly generous portions, for less than 20 bucks an entree? The most extravagant choice here is rack of lamb, still truly palatable at just $22.

While starter prices are more in keeping with a north Scottsdale zip code, fetching up to $9.50 for an asparagus and shrimp combo, we get tasty value for our money. The five asparagus fanned across the plate are some of the most beautiful I've seen or tasted, served cool and crisp under two jumbo shrimp in a tidy red onion and dill vinaigrette. The shrimp are huge, cold and firm, with enough meat to give each in our party of four a healthy bite.  

Chile relleno, too, is a veggie supermodel, summoning a pristine pasilla pepper in a lacy coverlet of batter. Such light coating allows the chile's complex, smoky flavor to shine through its rich stuffing of whole mushroom, chicken breast and jack cheese. Tomatillo sauce and salsa fresca is another excellent foil, the chilled taste just metallic enough to tackle the strong cheese. I love it.

My dining companion is impressed with his mussel appetizer, too, partly because someone with a lot of patience in the kitchen has individually placed each of this baker's dozen of bivalves in a pretty display around the bowl. It shows the unfussy yet unfailing attention to detail that develops as one of Ridge Cafe's hallmarks. We mop the savory white wine, tomato and fennel broth with slices of sourdough bread, careful to avoid the dish's only flaw: overpoweringly large garlic chunks floating about.

Crab cakes are perfect, four toasty nubbins dressed with tangy chipotle tartar sauce on a bed of garbanzo and kidney beans with chopped red pepper. They're softer than other variations I've had -- more like sautéed tuna salad than firm patties -- but wonderfully moist. I'm less charmed with Ridge Cafe's soba noodle salad, largely because the rice wine and soy vinaigrette is too sweet for the shrimp served alongside. More soy, less rice wine, I say -- the salt would coax better flavor from the skinny, taupe noodles and thread-thin slivers of carrot, green onion, red pepper and delightful baby peapods.

Why a soup of the day -- menu-listed at $4 -- brings a charge of $5.50, I'm not sure, but our server does tell us the cost in advance. The New England clam chowder is worth the extra $1.50. The entree-size bowl is enough for two to share, even if we discover it to have a clever false bottom that makes the dish look twice as large as it is. As rich as the cream broth is, and packed with soft potato, shellfish and oyster crackers, we'd never finish it otherwise.

The appetizers are good, but I suggest splitting them and saving valuable stomach space for Ridge Cafe's entrees. More than once I find myself remarking to my dining companions that we've discovered a contender to Lon's at the Hermosa Inn, out here on the outskirts of Fountain Hills. Granted, Pettijohn's at the Mayo Clinic is no kind of name, but it's how I catalogue this place in my brain's hard drive.

How else to ensure I remember the fantastic seafood I find here, the lovely grilled salmon, exotic-for-these-parts escolar and fresh catches of the day? One evening's special of herb-encrusted, pan-seared tuna is among the best in town. We're distressed to hear that the herbs include mint (surely too strong for tuna?), but the harsh flavor keeps a low profile under basil and Italian parsley, and the fillet is gorgeous. And we'll just take the kitchen's word that accompanying rice is Jasmine-infused; it's wonderfully subtle with its side of crisp snow peas. Another evening's special, herb-encrusted halibut, pays equal spice respect to the fish's mild manner; the folks in this kitchen know their flavors. An accompanying casserole of summer vegetables jumpstarts the dish, with aggressive mozzarella layered over sliced red potato, tomato and squash.

Seafood absolutely swarms Ridge Cafe's signature hot pot. We're expecting soup, and yes, there's broth in there, tasting of chicken stock, ginger and lemon grass. But it's hidden under mounds of mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari, Chinese sweet sausage, egg noodles, spinach and Swiss chard.

The absolute standout at Ridge Cafe, however, is a regular menu item: grilled trout. This whole fish (sans head) is fin to tail fantastic. Plucked clean of bones, it's soft and moist in one mouthful, firm and crisp skinned in another. We always share our plates, with random snaring, but this dish is much too good to subdivide. Its partnering cherry tomato salsa is more specifically sliced pear tomato, and completely delicious when the fruit is split and its juices slopped in neighboring potato leek gratin (those who've tasted the tart little tomato before will appreciate its presence here).

The Pettijohns are spending a lot of time choosing their product; it's obvious as soon as the New York steak is set down at our table. The flesh has been cut into manageable medallions that show off the beef's glorious rose-red interior and is drizzled with just enough rich cabernet sauce. Gracefully escorted by buttery garlic mashed potato and sautéed spinach, it's why Americans are returning to a lusty meat-and-potato diet.

Ridge Cafe's double-cut pork chop is so much of a meal for just $17.50. Even my carnivorous dining companion is intimidated by the huge portion, juicy and grill-striped to a medium-rare in a caramelized shallot and port wine sauce. Rack of lamb is another winner, a quartet of double ribs so tender and toothsome it nudges beauty. Sides are well-thought classics, too: roasted red potato and Swiss chard for the pork; sautéed red potato, string beans, roasted tomato and mint for the lamb.  

I'd bet we're served the same pork in a luncheon special of an Asian barbecue sandwich. This is top-quality stuff, but also the first victim of eclectic meltdown. The complicated sauce is overkill, combining a too-sweet combination of sherry, orange zest, ginger, honey, oil and on and on. Served atop a thankfully sharp coleslaw, it's too good a thing on its own merits, without being tarted up like this.

A lunch entree of rigatoni, though, would benefit from a looser hand with flavor. Shredded chicken is fine, broccoli is crispy and fat tube pasta is admirably al dente. But where's the marscapone? Its creamy being wilts under too much garlic-studded butter, and the dish tastes like little more than Land O'Lakes and noodles.

It takes just one bite of Ridge Cafe's lemon tart to bring our taste buds back to full attention -- lip-curling citrus slams like cymbals over whisper-light crust. The tart's more exciting than the cafe's chocolate cake, a standard presentation of triple-layer cake with chocolate mousse, ganache (chocolate butter cream) and chocolate ice cream. If the chefs have prepared their special, though, rhubarb and apple tart with strawberry ice cream, pounce. Finally, an operation that can serve a hot dessert as it should be: hot, not lukewarm.

Part of me doesn't want the rest of the world to discover my new treasure. But, at the risk of never again being able to commandeer a table for myself, I've got to let people know. At Ridge Cafe, the secret's just too good to keep.


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