Many well-fed tables have turned since FnB opened its doors in 2009, and Charleen Badman and Pavle Milic began their upward trajectory toward becoming one of the Valley’s most adored restaurants.
At the time, they were holding court at an intimate space with lower ceilings, the centerpiece of which was a U-shaped bar that overlooked an open kitchen. While you drank early squeezes of southern Arizona’s burgeoning wine scene, you could watch Badman and her crew braising leeks — before they became the leeks with mozzarella, topped with that fried egg and those mustardy breadcrumbs, the dish that kicked off a list of Food & Wine’s 10 Best Restaurant Dishes of 2010, a few scrolls above Saison’s sea urchin and cauliflower dish and Olympic Provision’s pork rillette handpies.
Many of those original diners still frequent FnB, a few years into its digs at the nearby Craftsman Court, and, still, they’ll inundate fresh dining companions with stories of a time when an FnB barstool was the most sought-after seat in town, describing the colorful mosaic tiles they dangled their feet over — the kind that, if Instagram had been around then, would’ve filled so many friends with instant envy.
Then again, that’s what the Twitter hashtag #leekapalooza became known for.
Turning a new leaf at the tail end of 2016, FnB’s next-door Bodega grocery space re-emerged as Old Town’s newest wine bar. It doesn’t have its own name, exactly, but it does have a hashtag: #FnBar.
The new tiles, meant to evoke the ones from the original location, are a few colors brighter, keeping the gold but trading in olive green for a primary set of red and shades of blue. They will surely tempt a new generation of social media sharers to take photos of their shoes.
In mid-February, both Milic and Badman were named semifinalists for 2017 James Beard Awards. FnB received a nod for Outstanding Wine Program category — Milic’s first ever — and Badman received her fourth straight nomination for Best Chef — Southwest. (Neither made it to the finalist list, announced earlier this week; no one from Arizona did.)
On a recent Thursday, it was no surprise to see noteworthy Valley cocktail savant Travis Nass behind the stick. He’s known the FnB duo for a long time, he says, having worked with Badman while she was a sous chef at Rancho Pinot. But, most recently, his task has been consulting on the cocktail end of the FnB Bar through the first few regions covered thus far in the bar's jet-setting beverage program, which, every month or so, sees Milic diving into a completely new set of grapes.
Nass’ cocktails follow Milic wherever he goes on the map. This, Nass says, is easier said than done.
“If we were being super literal about it, we’d only be making cocktails that they drink in the area,” Nass says.
Which has worked, on occasion. “When we were doing Austrian wine, we did a cocktail that’s popular in the region called the Hugo, which is just mint, elderflower syrup, lime juice, and sparkling wine,” Nass says. “We thought that was a little under-potent, and a little one-note for American palates. So we kind of kicked it up a notch and tweaked it a little bit to make it more interesting,” and tested more than a dozen elderflower syrups in the process.
Outside of the Hugo for Austria or a Mediterranean-flavored gin and tonic for a spell in Spain, it “just is not possible with the regions he wants to do. And it’s a lot less interesting,” Nass adds.
“So we’re doing cocktails inspired by the area.”
Nass says he’s been consulting The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil’s exhaustive guide to wine regions around the world. Therein, he begins the search for quirky facts and tidbits about the cuisine of the region placed under their microscope.
By our visit, Nass and Milic had whittled down a list of proposed cocktails to a lean five for the debut of their newest locale: the Loire Valley wine region, given shape by the Loire River that bisects central France. The wine list sprawls across the region; however, Milic gravitates toward Touraine, the province home to sub-regional specialists; wine producers from Vouvray, who excel in the chenin blanc varietal, some of which becomes bubbly; and those in the red, Cabernet franc-dominant appellations of Chinon and Bourgueil.
It’s a quarter to 5, which is when dinner service begins at FnB. As Milic scurries overhead in the office, Nass describes the Loire-centric desserts that inspired two of the cocktails from the list. For instance: a tarte Tartin, the upside-down style pastry where gooey, caramelized apples, flipped after baking, find a home on flaky, buttery French pastry, inspires a sour flips-style cocktail by the same name. In it, Calvados, the French apple brandy, is shaken up with Apple Pie Liqueur from Tempe-local CaskWerks Distilling Co., salted caramel syrup, lemon juice, and egg white, shaken until foamy, strained into a coupe glass and garnished with Figgy Pudding-flavored bitters from local AZ Bitters Lab.
Another dessert, the sable biscuits — shortbread cookie-like pastries flavored with almond powder, vanilla, and cinnamon — inspires an old-fashioned-like mix of cognac and a touch of orgeat, the orange-flower water-tinted almond syrup, dashed with Orange Sunshine bitters (also from AZ Bitters Lab).
"Loire is a very specific area in terms of wine. It has a very specific feeling. So I try to work off of that feeling,” Nass adds.
It’s almost 5 p.m. and music — Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald — begins to fill the space.
As if on cue, suddenly, blushing and touching the back of his wrist to his brow, Milic has just jogged down the staircase to the bar below. He’s been wrapping up the loose ends that unravel each morning and need tying by each afternoon. Except, on this Thursday, it was a brand-new menu, at a relatively new wine bar, fresh off a James Beard nomination. Many of the guests that evening, awaiting their reservations, will be making memories at FnB for the first time — and they will have heard the news.
“We’re not overdoing it," Milic says modestly.
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“But, at the very least, it will be on par with that lady’s food,” Milic adds, hand stretched toward the dining room and kitchen where Charleen Badman and her crew are capping off some prep work of their own, in anticipation of a busy Thursday night in Craftsman Court.