Ah, the chilly nip of the holiday season. This is the time of year when the covers of Gourmet and Bon Appetit tempt with mouth-watering photos of succulent turkeys, hearty soups and stews, and steaming mugs of cocoa to warm our souls as well as our mitts. But for us, fall in Phoenix is a bit less romantic, with temperatures dipping to the crisp, low 90s during the day.
For Valley dwellers, autumn is still shorts weather, the change of season marked primarily by the migration of diners from air-conditioned restaurant interiors to open-air patios. We soak up the sun like lizards, blinking sleepily in the bright rays while enjoying a fine, al fresco lunch. This is the time of year when the bliss of dining outdoors is as intoxicating as good food itself, even if the views are less than stunning.
Patio seating at Scottsdale's new Twisted Vine Gourmet Deli isn't strong on ambiance, overlooking a parking lot serving an office supply store. Some effort at elegance has been made, with graceful taupe-colored umbrellas and a soothing disappearing-edge stone fountain. Dining at Twisted Vine, though, is all about delightful, market-fresh sandwiches, salads, pastries and artisan breads. Delicious eaten indoors, the dishes taste even better served with plenty of fresh air.
Despite its name, Twisted Vine isn't really a retail deli. A sparse selection of meats and cheeses beckons from mostly empty cooler cases, and a few varieties of bread products are available by the loaf. Spartan decor belies the charms within, the space hesitantly renovated from the former Cafe Nikos, the latest failing in the long line of local chef Nick "Where Will He Turn Up Next?" Ligidakis' restaurants.
It's empty but warm, the leather-look camel-colored walls unadorned, complemented by cherrywood tables and chairs, mocha-and-tan tile floors, and a centerpiece coffee and wine bar. We can amuse ourselves with the activity in the halfway-exposition kitchen, more precisely an opening in the wall overlooking metal prep tables. Ordering is an at-the-counter operation, though on slow days, we can get table service ("We don't usually do this," I'm told on one visit, "but you're in luck today").
Every day is fortunate with Twisted Vine's short but well-constructed menu. A selection of eight salads, six grilled sandwiches, eight cold sandwiches and a few daily specials impresses on every level. Food this good, served in such portions, and at $6.75 or less? Now that is a breath of fresh air that survives all the seasons.
A good part of the experience is the bread, crafted by Phoenix's Willo Bakery. It's hard to go wrong with the starchy perfection, designed in crusty, fragrant loaves with such styles as Kalamata olive, rosemary focaccia, sunflower seed and sourdough French. Another stellar note is the deft handling of salad dressings and sandwich condiments, all perfectly balanced and adding superb nuance without stealing the show.
Baby spinach salad is one of the best in town, the tender, juicy leaves complemented by a suave honey-mustard dressing. Accouterments also are topnotch, including thick slab-bacon shards, buttons of creamy, full-bodied Gorgonzola, sliced Roma tomatoes, caramelized red onion and wonderfully crunchy sugar-encrusted pecans. Finally, a spinach salad that tastes like spinach, instead of buckets of hot bacon sauce or cloyingly sweet vinaigrette. Caesar salad is close to perfect, tossed with shredded Parmesan and garlic croutons. Add in some fresh anchovy, and this would be a poster child for the classic toss.
That old standby, charbroiled chicken breast salad, takes on renewed personality, thanks to an invigorating blend of roasted red peppers, Roma tomato, caramelized pecans and salty feta over crisp field greens. I'm burned out on the aggressive, sweet nature of balsamic, but the vinaigrette here wisely keeps it in the background. The same dressing allows the good flavors of pine nuts, Gorgonzola and sun-dried tomatoes to shine through in a hearts of romaine plate.
One of Twisted Vine's best sellers is the chicken pesto sandwich, and it's terrific. Grilled focaccia bursts with charbroiled breast of bird, Gorgonzola, roasted red pepper, field greens and vinaigrette. Sending it over the top are the addition of artichoke hearts and an excellent, well-rounded pesto sauce. Another top pick comes in the smoked turkey and Brie sandwich, layered with thin-sliced meat, generous smears of silky cheese, field greens and a vibrant cranberry-pecan relish on nutty, crusty sunflower seed bread. Thick-cut turkey breast would make this model marvelous, though; these deli-style pieces are so sheer they're almost see-through.
The only real disappointments are minor. A regularly appearing soup special of split pea with bacon is an appealing textured thick purée of pea and carrot, but the taste is lifeless. Simple salt and pepper could add some depth. A chicken salad sandwich is flawed, the chicken spread in thin strings instead of chunks. And the petite serving of poultry disappears under its gilding of mayonnaise, roasted red pepper, celery, red onion, cucumber, Roma tomato and romaine on that fabulous sunflower seed bread.
Desserts round out our picnic with impressive character, including decadent apple- caramel, chocolate- coconut, chocolate- raspberry, lemon and brownie squares. The carrot cake is noteworthy, all lopsided in the loving style of homemade, and slathered with lots of cream cheese frosting.
The Vine puts a delicious twist on simple, picnic-style food.
It must be the weather. Why else would it be first-come, first-served on the patio at Taylor's Cafe, a new eatery nestled across from the Eggery at 44th Street and Camelback? The fabric-cushioned wicker chairs are comfortable, nap-worthy even, but I'm backed up mere feet from the parking lot serving a grocery store. The menu reminds me that I'm lounging near the foothills of Camelback Mountain, and I can see snippets of the grand rock if I crane my neck over the SUVs. But most of the entertainment comes from watching weekend shoppers try to load groceries into their cars without letting the family dog escape.
And I love it. Dining outdoors at Taylor's Cafe reminds a bit of bistro dining in New York, including the exhaust fumes and the loud, personal conversations of people sitting nearby (something happens when people escape a restaurant's interior; it's suddenly okay to chat about the most private things at the top of their lungs). Even so, it's quieter than it is inside, with conversation echoing off every corner of the small shop.
Taylor's says it has introduced Parisian-influenced, New York-style gourmet cuisine to Phoenix. I don't know about that; the lengthy menu seems more California deli to me, but they can call it whatever they want as long as they keep the quality at this level. These aren't monster plates, but satisfying portions of pleasing sandwiches, salads, breakfast dishes, cakes, tarts and brownies.
And a juice bar is decidedly new age, stocked with a dizzying array of smoothies, specialty juices, "boosters and fixes." This means options such as a smoothie made of banana, soy milk, raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, cantaloupe, plus Colombo fat-free yogurt or Gelato sorbet. Juices are of the exotic persuasion, made from fresh fruit and vegetables in concoctions like skin tonic (apple, celery, mixed greens and aloe vera), and fatigue fighter (apple, beet, carrot, ginseng and ginger). Those "boosters and fixers"? For an extra buck, add in some Myoplex, spirulina, bee pollen or a dozen other health food mysteries.
I prefer to eat my vitamins rather than sip them through a straw, and find ample opportunity in a strawberry chicken salad. Field greens are mounded with fat chunks of grilled chicken, fresh berry halves, toasted almonds and strips of onion bread compellingly crusted with rock salt. A poppy seed dressing is a remarkable final touch, whisper light and not at all sugary. Fresh raspberries crown another salad, a colorful toss of goat cheese, field greens, jicama, carrots and candied pecans in a subtle raspberry vinaigrette.
A chicken Caesar salad sandwich doesn't work as well, partly because it's impossible to eat without utensils, and because there's barely a glistening of wimpy dressing. Essentially, it's thick triangles of onion focaccia mounded with buckets of crunchy romaine, cubes of grilled breast and a couple skinny strips of Parmesan. Nice, but boring. A mozzarella sandwich, on the other hand, is sumptuous. Grilled focaccia is buttery nirvana, while fresh mozzarella is a beautiful cheese, the thick slabs velvety and mild. Bringing it all together is the herbed mayonnaise, romaine and tomato, but the promised grilled eggplant fails to make it out of the kitchen. There's nothing lacking in a roasted turkey and country ham sandwich, grilled with Dofino, mayo and mustard on nine-grain bread.
A portabella sandwich sounds weird, slathered with hummus and topped with roasted red peppers, lettuce and tomato on nine-grain bread, and it's hard to say if it works. Meaty mushroom is an interesting foil to the creamy chickpea spread, but the menu-advertised avocado and sprouts are absent.
Taylor's Cafe doesn't open for lunch until 11 a.m. (and get there quick, it closes at 2 p.m.), but there's a substantial breakfast menu. A BLT on a toasted bagel is tiny but tasty, thanks to thick bacon, but what's with the limp pickle on the side? More filling is the spinach bialy, paired with Dofino and cream cheese, and topped with mushrooms, basil, onion and a $1 add-in of bacon. Oatmeal is comfort food all day long, crowned with sliced bananas and brown sugar.
Desserts are baked on-site, under the direction of owner/pastry chef Jennifer Perry. Lemon cake includes an unexpected but artful addition of coconut butter cream, while vanilla cake offers the extra surprise of chocolate mousse filling.
An uncomplicated repast at Taylor's Cafe takes me almost two hours. Not because service is slow, but because I'm reluctant to give up my seat on a warm, lazy autumn day. Blistering heat of summer be gone -- now is the time for the good life outdoors.
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