The phrase “You eat with your eyes first” was born before the internet. Knowing the importance of how food looks, most chefs have long "plated" — arranged food to look good on the dish. Thanks to the black magic of social media, how dinner looks has become more important than ever. Some diners even decide where to eat based on visuals rather than taste.
If you dig stunning food optics, you may find yourself eating at Hearth '61 in Paradise Valley. Open since April, Hearth '61 presents meals in intelligent and beautiful ways.
The restaurant, housed in the resort Mountain Shadows, impresses with a butterfly ceiling, immaculate open kitchen, and windows revealing mountains on all sides. Look into the kitchen, and you'll see executive chef Charles Wiley and chef de cuisine Alfred Muro plating edible art.
“Food is a composition,” Wiley says. “Your eye moves around a plate like a painting.”
Wiley cooks ingredient-driven modern American food at Hearth ‘61. In the 1990s, he worked in kitchens specializing in French and Swiss food. More recently, he was the chef at Hotel Valley Ho before leaving to open Hearth ‘61.
His European bent shines through in plates that are simple yet elegant in how they look.
Like tomahawk rib-eye. The steak’s cuts, hefty as bread slices, arc across an oval plate. They curl alongside an 18-inch beef rib, the same one the sliced meat once clung to, leaving little doubt what the eyes are devouring.
Muro’s visual style is edgier.
Muro cooked under Kevin Binkley for five years. Binkley’s 20-plus-course meals have stayed in Muro’s imagination. He has developed a progressive approach to plating, tending to fragment food and arrange its pieces separately, often raising ingredients into tall structures or dispersing them across the plate. Muro thinks about food visuals in unique ways, saying things like “I really enjoy food that reminds me of a landscape.” He says that when he thinks about flavors, he also sees “visual textures.” He repeats a Binkley aphorism he often follows: “Food should defy gravity.”
Muro and Wiley collaborate on plating. “It’s almost like a band where you have two people playing different instruments,” Wiley says. The most striking plates lean abstract and weird — that is, more Muro.
Beet-cured steelhead leans halfway to Picasso.
The salad rests on a smear of cannellini beans. The beige bean color highlights the orange of the trout, seems to magnify parts of the fish the beet cure has turned violet. Beet chips are curled or folded and all placed apart with surgical precision. Golden beet wedges lay mostly buried. Other ingredients are spaced and methodically placed: whole cannellini beans, pea tendrils, Brussels sprouts (by the half and single leaf).
This is a dish with diverse colors, shapes, and lots of visual texture.
The two piles of salad stand an inch apart. In the space between them, you see the bean purée. Squint, and the two piles look almost like rocky banks. The beige space between could double for water. “The trout has to swim through the rocks,” Muro says.
Another plate the eyes enjoy is tuna tartare.
Normally, tuna tartare comes in a pink blob. At Hearth '61, raw fish creeps across the plate in a line flanked by rice crisps puffed like sails. Below the crisps, the tuns is mixed with all kinds of vegetables: turnips, cucumbers, shishito peppers, and microgreens.
Your eye goes from top to bottom and up again.
But looking doesn't let you taste that the tuna is slicked with shishito paste and tangerine oil. On the other hand, your tongue can't savor the beauty of this curiously tall take on tartare, one that has sees half the plate sprinkled with orange spice (dry esplette pepper and sesame seeds), and the other half left naked.
Muro mixes visual textures — the smoothness of tuna, say, with the roughness rice crisps — for the eye the way other chefs mix flavors for the tongue. Looking at a plate, you can almost sense the crunch and smoothness, almost taste the rush of flavors.
A cool visual allows your imagination to better “taste” dinner before you even take a bite.
Wiley and Muro use mostly off-white plates.They are faintly blue or gray-rimmed, imperfect, or maybe speckled like an egg. Some of the side pieces are made in Arizona. The dinnerware creates a home-thrown artisan vibe that elevates the culinary artistry.
The best-looking dish is a scallop entrée, which has bombshell sex appeal.
On a stippled plate, dinner stretches from rim to rim. An opaque orange romesco sauce pools. Scallops looking brown and crispy on one side are scattered. So, too, are farro clusters and black shiitake caps. Edible flowers lend color bursts: violas, rose petals, and more from Twisted Infusion Farms in Glendale.
Everything is diffused across the curvaceous offwhite surface. Colors are bright and varied, and they jive over the orange romesco. There's space from the paint-thick sauce to the tops of the scallops and shrooms, which gives the effect of orange canyons kind of winding through. If you could freeze the plate with glue, the Phoenix Art Museum could have a nice new addition.
The way food looks is, in 2017, something that can get customers in the door. It's something that in this fierce restaurant climate could keep one eatery in business where another goes under. Fortunately or unfortunately, social media drives food choices. Places as dialed into the eye's appetite for food as Hearth '61 are more likely to succeed than those that aren't.
It also helps to have the flavor to match those shapes and colors. The Hearth '61 chefs have the resumes, the kitchen, the well-sourced scallops and fancy microgreens.
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You look down, blink twice, and absorb all that food, processing its colors, tasting with your mind.
The eye has eaten. It really only takes a second or two.
You mess it all up with your utensils and dig in.
Hearth '61 (at Mountain Shadows resort). 5445 East Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley; 855-485-1417.
Daily 6 a.m. to midnight