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Ivy League

So much eye candy, so little time.

Visiting Olive & Ivy, a new dining hot spot at the Scottsdale Waterfront, is sensory overload in every way. Open about a month now, Olive & Ivy is the latest enterprise from Fox Restaurant Concepts' Sam Fox, mastermind behind a number of other stylish local eateries, including Bloom and North. The Fox folks describe the place as both a restaurant and marketplace, a combination of California and Mediterranean tastes, so I sort of expected it to be a cross between La Grande Orange and Postino.

But for all that LGO and Postino pack into a tiny corner of the Arcadia neighborhood, Olive & Ivy is much, much more.

A wine bar (not yet in use) is tucked behind a crowded bar and lounge area. Beyond that, the airy main dining room sprawls out like an upscale cafeteria (although all dining is seated), with several booths and dozens of tables. The outdoor patio feels like a resort, and there are smaller dining rooms as well. And facing the open kitchen, there's the Trust Table, a long wooden bar where guests will eventually be able to dine on customized tasting menus while watching cooks at work. The compact marketplace, which sells pastries, sandwiches, drinks and gelato, is just past the kitchen. All of these different areas feel as if somebody's brainstorming session led to about seven cool restaurant ideas, with none eliminated.

This all starts to make sense, though, when I get Fox's take on it. Turns out, this is the streamlined version of an even broader vision. Fox and his team actually started with 50 different things they wanted to do. "We narrowed it down to what we can do well, and what will actually work," he says.

I think they've succeeded on both counts.

Originally, the marketplace would've taken up half the space, and even included a flower shop. But Fox and Co. shrank it down as the project progressed, focusing on the food biz. They decided to have the kitchen multitask, with homemade gelato and pastries for both the marketplace and the restaurant. They also reduced the dining capacity from 300 seats to 190, to create some intimate spaces that would also allow flexibility if business was slow. (So far, that hasn't been an issue. Fox says they've had 80 percent more business than expected for the second and third weeks since opening.)

The first time I stopped by, for a weekday lunch, Olive & Ivy reminded me of a big, bright French cafe, where it's all about seeing and being seen. The clientele was a broad mix of ages and attitudes, but the vibe was young and unpretentious. (It helped that my server was friendly, and eager to chat about the restaurant. On another day, I noticed him there off-duty, waiting for a table with his girlfriend.) For Sunday brunch it was laid-back, and things were more glam in the evening, with lots of couples sipping sangria by candlelight.

Mmm, that sangria. It didn't contain any booze-soaked fruit (which is always fun to slurp up), but besides that, it was better than most, with a ripe berry taste. And the white sangria was sweet-tart, perfumed with peach and lychee. Between that and the fresh focaccia with pesto dip brought out as a freebie appetizer, I had to restrain myself to stay sober and save my appetite.

Flatbreads are a big deal here, on the menu for every meal. One with Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and truffled arugula was tasty, with a crisp crust, but the thin-shaved ham got a bit dry around the edges. I preferred the offering with pesto, soft chunks of roasted garlic, sweet, oven-roasted heirloom tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese.

The small plates were surprisingly rich. I'm glad I ordered a few of them, because my dining companions and I gobbled them right up. Bacon-wrapped medjool dates, with fennel sausage and Parmesan, tasted like candy. Garlic shrimp were very tender, covered in a pungent sauce of roasted garlic chunks, fried capers, and parsley. And saganaki, a classic Greek appetizer of pan-roasted kasseri cheese, was simple but effective — gooey, lemony, and gone in seconds, leaving us with naughty grins.

Among the entrees, the Painted Lamb was outstanding, a Moroccan-style dish with a juicy whole lamb shank nestled in a bowl of couscous with thin strips of roasted red pepper, roasted garlic cloves, and thinly sliced almonds. On the flip side, I wanted to smack myself for ordering the strangest thing on the menu, sweet diver scallops with salsify cream, romaine hearts, and pork jus. The pan-seared scallops were fine, but in the dim lighting, I had a hard time convincing myself that the sauce they were swimming in wasn't just thick, warm mayonnaise with some barbecue sauce drizzled around the edges.

However, I had no complaints with the moist brown-sugared pork, a guilty pleasure topped with creamy sweet corn and "melted" leeks, served with a side of heirloom polenta that was as smooth as grits, with a hint of Parmesan — a nice alternative to mashed potatoes.

For dessert, I wasn't keen on the churros — they were caked with way too much cinnamon and sugar — but the "three kinds of chocolate" was a fun finish. There was chocolate gelato, chocolate mousse topped with chocolate syrup, and an orb of hot chocolate floating inside a clear plastic cup. Unfortunately, I started with a sip of the hot chocolate, whose intense cocoa flavor made the other two tastes seem weak. Next time I'll eat them in reverse order.

From the lunch menu, the Greek salad was a new spin on an old standby: tiny leaves of watercress, ripe heirloom tomatoes, chopped Kalamata olives, and chunks of feta tossed with lemon juice and olive oil. The pulled pork sandwich was joyfully messy to eat, served on a homemade bun with caramelized onions and honey mustard sauce. And I loved the sweet potato agnolotti (misspelled on the menu as "angolotti" — d'oh!), pocket pasta topped with Savoy cabbage and bacon. Its combination of velvety filling, Mandarin glaze, and bacon jus was absolutely seductive.

As for brunch, I got a nicely prepared omelet filled with mushrooms, Gruyère, and roasted garlic. Served with truffled arugula salad and herb-roasted potatoes, it was filling. But I was so jealous of my dining companion, who ordered the thick, sugary Saigon cinnamon French toast. It was served atop a drizzle of blueberry marmalade, with sides of syrup and whipped crème fraîche that tasted like cheesecake. The combination of flavors and textures was completely over the top.

At that point, I didn't expect anything less from Olive & Ivy.

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Olive & Ivy Restaurant & Marketplace

7135 E. Camelback Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85251

480-751-2200

www.foxrc.com


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