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Farm Fresh

I've always loved to read menus. All it takes to make me hungry for a dish I haven't tried yet is a vivid description and a dash of my own imagination.

But I should be up front with you here, before I delve into writing about Quiessence, a charming restaurant/wine bar at The Farm at South Mountain: This restaurant's menu is constantly evolving. By the time you read this, I doubt the delicious Old Chatham ricotta cheese gnocchi with truffled fried chicken mushrooms will still be available. In fact, it probably wasn't even available the day after I had it. If there wasn't already a melodramatic nü-metal band by the same name, I'd say Quiessence could just as easily call itself Evanescence.

As comforting as it is to find a great dish and make repeat visits to a favorite restaurant just for that one thing, the fleeting nature of the food at Quiessence is exciting for exactly the opposite reason. It's the element of surprise that I find myself craving. The menu is consistent enough to feature fresh-from-the-farm salads, a soup of the day, perhaps some homemade pasta, and a variety of rustic meat and fish dishes, but that's about as predictable as it gets. In that way, it truly is avant-garde — a good read, for sure.

When chef Greg LaPrad took the helm this past March (he left Michael's at the Citadel to become sous chef a year ago), he was eager to redirect the menu back toward the original concept of Quiessence. "The idea of local, seasonal food — to me, that's just so Italian," he says, mentioning an internship he did in Tuscany, Italy, at a tiny restaurant in a converted olive mill where they made their own pasta and used local ingredients. LaPrad settled into his new position over the summer, the first time Quiessence didn't close from June to early September. Instead, there was only a three-week break in August.

At Quiessence, all the produce comes from Valley farmers. LaPrad says he's lucky to get a lot of it from Maya's at the Farm, an organic garden right next door that supplies local restaurants and sells produce at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market. (There's also a cafe, a casual lunch restaurant, a garden shop, a kitchen store, a catering company, a spa, and even a naturopathic physician's office at the Farm, a 10-acre property dotted with stately old pecan trees.) Other ingredients, if not local, come from small producers and farms that raise animals in a humane way. Not surprisingly, LaPrad is enthusiastic about the Slow Food movement.

"People have so many different reasons for supporting it, but it's really nice to think the lettuce you're eating only traveled 100 feet and was harvested that day," LaPrad says. "I'm hoping it translates to a better meal for our diners here."

While the menu changes every day, it's a gradual shift, like the seasons themselves. Different farmers bring in small quantities of different products throughout the week, and each morning, LaPrad brainstorms with sous chef Anthony Andiario on the best ways to cook up what's fresh. "It's a lot of work," he admits.

When it comes to meat, they try to use all parts of the animal — roasting a lamb loin one day, braising lamb legs the next — and they get creative with whatever vegetables are in season. "By the end of the summer, we're like, 'What else can we do with eggplant?'"

On my first visit, they marinated it and served it as an appetizer with tangy pickled cucumbers, locally made mustard, and a selection of thinly sliced artisan salumi, Italian-style cured meats. It also figured prominently in my friend's garden vegetable risotto, a creamy, slightly garlicky entree with tomatoes, squash, basil, and Parmesan cheese. At a later date, eggplant made an appearance in a trio of pâtés.

I enjoyed the play between sweet and sour flavors, and crisp and creamy textures, in the Arizona pear and apple salad, tossed with shavings of celery and dressed in a light cucumber-yogurt tzatziki. Queen Creek sweet potato soup was also mouth-watering, a thick, buttery purée with a delicate touch of spice that you could smell from across the table. After one sip, I knew summer was officially over.

Another night, the soup was a smooth concoction of mild roasted garlic — a nice idea, but too salty in execution. It was my lone quibble with an otherwise good meal. Besides, the service was prompt and pleasant, and I felt relaxed in the cozy dining room, where there was wooden furniture, fresh flowers on every table, and some jazz on the stereo.

My favorite entree was the braised Vineyard Road lamb, so tender I hardly touched my knife. It didn't taste as gamey as lamb sometimes does, either. Slices of wild foraged mushrooms gave it an earthy flavor, and mashed Queen Creek potatoes made it homey. I need to work on my lucid dreaming so I can have it again sometime.

While I would've preferred the roasted Cayuga Farms chukar partridge a little more done — if only to make it easier to cut it off those tiny bones — it was very moist and light, coated in herbed glace. Local date stuffing, studded with sweet bits of fruit, was so fluffy it disappeared in my mouth.

What I loved most about the braised Berkshire pork tenderloin — served with roasted red peppers and mild wilted mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) — were thick chunks of bacon that gave a smoky depth to the slightly sweet honey and plum glaze. Ashley Farms Piedmont "Label Rouge" chicken (isn't that provenance a mouthful?) came with a chunky helping of roasted turnips and apples, made savory by a roasted garlic purée.

I wish I had saved more room for dessert. Just a bite of the flourless chocolate soufflé, with a pile of cinnamon-sugar apples and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, jump-started that part of my brain that makes me giddy for chocolate, steak, or red wine. It was probably going overboard to order a cheese plate, too, but the selection was impressive, and my friends murmured in appreciation when the waiter brought it out. I tried Purple Haze, a creamy goat cheese infused with lavender, a sharp, nutty aged Monterey Jack, and a smooth, mild aged Gouda, artfully plated with stripes of wine reduction and honey.

That particular night, we were sitting outside at a candlelit table, watching the full moon rise above the pecan trees. We could hear people singing opera music at a private party nearby, and at one point, I could tell guests were approaching the restaurant because the bright peal of a woman's laughter came from the shadows. Then — I kid you not — a black cat scooted across the lawn.

There's no better place to celebrate fall in Phoenix than at Quiessence.

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