Jose Garces' Culinary Star Power Shines at Old Town Whiskey and Distrito
Jose Garces is an Iron Chef, but then, if you're a fan of Food Network's Iron Chef America, the popular culinary game show based upon the Japanese cult sensation, you already knew that.
And now the Iron Chef has come to the Valley.
At just 39 years old, the Ecuadorian-American Garces, in addition to debuting on Iron Chef America in 2010, has opened eight restaurants in Philadelphia (his home base) and Chicago, authored the cookbook Latin Evolution, and received the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Mid-Atlantic award in 2009.
Late last year, the Iron Chef pointed his star power to the west, specifically Scottsdale, which means that here in the Valley, we can do more than simply witness Garces' culinary style — we can taste it, too. He's secured himself a prime location in the newly rehabbed Saguaro hotel on Scottsdale Mall. It's here that Garces has brought in two of his Philadelphia concepts: Distrito, a modern Mexican restaurant, and Village Whiskey (altered for Scottsdale to Old Town Whiskey), an upscale tavern. He offers custom-roasted coffees and homemade baked goods as well, at Garces Trading Company (GTC) Coffee To-Go.
When it comes to hotels in Scottsdale, the property on 4000 North Drinkwater hasn't exactly been the most successful. Since 2003, the onetime Holiday Inn has been The James and the pink-feathered Mondrian, which brought along the flamboyant East Coast-based restaurant Asia de Cuba. The new Saguaro certainly isn't as flashy, sporting nothing much more than a fresh coat of paint, but by contrast, Garce's concepts inside, designed by Jun Aizaki of Brooklyn's Crème Design Collective, are cool and imaginative, bringing a big-city feel to an otherwise basic spot.
And Garces' foray into Scottsdale hasn't gone unnoticed. In its January issue, Food & Wine called The Saguaro a hotel for foodies.
Of course, being a star chef with several restaurants means trusting the day-to-day details to a capable number two. In this case, the job has gone to Dave Conn, a "kitchen-taught chef" who's been with Garces since he opened his first restaurant, Amada, in 2005.
Garces' celebrity chef status means a higher cost of entry for the privilege of tasting his fare, but it also amounts to high expectations from diners. The tavern-style fare at the smooth Old Town Whiskey is most definitely worth a visit, but the modern Mexican cuisine at Distrito, Garces' dazzling dining experience of small plate offerings, offers more of a bumpy ride — with dishes ranging from spectacular to so-so.
Let's make one thing clear: Old Town Whiskey is all about whiskey.
Garces' small, stylish saloon not only stocks more than 100 varieties of whiskey, bourbon, rye, and scotch, but the spirit also can be found in exceptional cocktails, served in one-ounce tasting flights, and, for the whiskey-timid, mixed with homemade ice cream in a frozen version of the Irish Car Bomb. A small but tight menu of upscale bar snacks and burgers ensures the whiskey complements the cuisine. And the cozy interior, wood-covered and tucked away from The Saguaro's bright swaths of paint, feels like an upscale version of a speakeasy — with dim glass-jar lights, caramel-colored leather couches, and chairs whose legs look as if they've been dipped in burnt orange wax. There's even a patio where, in the evenings, the whiskey's palette of browns dances to the flames of a roaring fire.
All of which make Old Town Whiskey a perfect pairing of strong pours and satisfying tavern fare.
If it's bar snacks you're after, it's a good idea to start with the housemade cheese puffs. But you may find that the light, pillow-like balls of choux pastry made with Gruyère and then topped with even more Gruyère go faster than expected. In which case there are tater tots with a dreamy onion aioli dipping sauce or several selections of housemade pickled seasonal vegetables, like herb cherry tomatoes and truffled cauliflower, served in tiny mason jars with black olive tapenade, whipped ricotta, and crunchy pieces of toasted sourdough.
The duck fat French fries — hand-cut Idaho potatoes, confited in rendered duck fat with rosemary and garlic — are as swoon-worthy as they sound. On the lighter side, they can be enjoyed with a fresh Cobb salad with pieces of blackened chicken or, perhaps more appropriately, a burger.
If, like a crocodile, you have the ability to unhinge your jaw when confronted with large chunks of meat, the Old Town Burger should be a cinch to consume. The flavor is there, but its block of premium, eight-ounce beef is more flashy than functional — even more so with its beefy brother of splurge, the Whiskey King, in which, for nearly double the price ($26) the oversize patty is topped with maple bourbon-glazed cipollini, Rogue Bleu cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and seared foie gras.
Curiously, selections such as a stellar barbecue pork sandwich, lobster BLT, and a buttermilk fried chicken that tasted like the gourmet version of KFC have disappeared from the menu since my earlier visit, leaving only the burgers intact. Why such a drastic slash in selection? The staff was as puzzled as I was.
The service, like the scene, is laid-back and friendly. And, like whiskey, demanding that time is taken to enjoy properly.
If Old Town Whiskey is Garces' version of the sophisticated adult, then Distrito, his Mexico City-inspired restaurant named for the capital's designation as "Distrito Federal," is a splashy 20-something who loves to party.
Perfectly appropriate for its Scottsdale address, Distrito's neon white sign leads its guests down wooden steps, past a wall of brightly painted Día de los Muertos skull masks, and into a sprawling this-is-where-the-action-is interior. A marquee-style sign over the bar, which features more than 100 varieties of tequila, sits next to a margarita stand and near another where tortillas and guacamole are made. An eclectic array of bright pink, glitter, and plaid and floral patterns find their way onto tables, seating, and walls, where a huge display of small, colorful balls of felt sits center stage and rear windows lead out onto a patio that overlooks the grassy park of Scottsdale Civic Center.
Big, colorful, and at times incredibly loud, Distrito's lively ambiance grabs your attention before its "modern Mexican" lunch and dinner menu of small plates does. This is a bit of a shame considering Garces' cuisine — twists on the street food of Mexico City and Mexican barbacoa (barbecue) — delivers, with a few exceptions, on both inspiration and flavor.
Because Distrito is a tapas affair, bringing a gaggle of pals along to share in numerous dishes makes the experience a more communal one and most suited to the restaurant's effervescent environment. But if you've come with more of a "me" mindset, then it will be suggested that you order two or three dishes.
If your tortilla chips are fresh (unlike on one of my visits), you could start with a decent traditional guacamole or spicy salsa Mexicana, or skip them both and jump right into the good stuff.
On the lighter side, there is a wonderfully bright salad — an array of greens, sweet green apples, cranberries, and spicy pecans dressed in a spirited honey-lime vinaigrette — called the Chilango Chop, the name a nod to the inhabitants of Mexico City. And there's a stellar yellowfin tuna ceviche, with raw slices of the fish set up like a row of squat red chairs on a carpet of diced pieces of coconut gelée and tomatillos, the tiniest tostadas, and the clever addition of a miniature scoop of refreshing lime sorbet.
Although difficult to share, you should order the green pozole anyway, even if it means just a taste or two of Garces' version, where, in a rich and deeply flavorful tomatillo stock, float pieces of pork belly with crispy skins, littleneck clams, smoky chorizo, and satisfyingly stinging discs of serrano peppers, with a side dish of lime, radishes, and onions to add as you please.
I expected more from Garces' two gourmet huaraches (a dish originating in Mexico City and named for the popular Mexican sandal), oblong beds of masa with various toppings. While some of the ingredients certainly were divine — forest mushrooms, black truffle, and braised shortrib — the huaraches as a whole were rather uninspiring. Better to order the mahi mahi tacos in a light, crispy breading with chipotle remoulade and creamy slices of avocado or, better yet, a trio of tender pulled pork street tacos with black beans and pineapple salsa atop warm, handmade tortillas.
Thanks to Arizona's weather, the Scottsdale Distrito, unlike the original location in Philadelphia, features a barbacoa, or barbecue section on the menu, with meats cooked in a smoker and rotisserie on the patio. Skip the Black Angus beef brisket — although perfectly prepared, it was lacking in the dry adobo rub — and order the spicy and garlicky chorizo rojo or the traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish cochinita a la pibil. Earthy, smoky, and sweet, pieces of Berkshire pork shoulder arrive in a small pool of the meat's achiote and pineapple barbecue sauce and come topped with crunchy onions and peppers.
Similar to the pozole, Garces' Yucatan-style smoked chicken, available as a half or whole, may be difficult to divvy up, but the meat's nearly creamy texture, crispy skin, and a dynamic marinade of orange and guajillo chili pepper warrant a bite and easily make it one of Distrito's best dishes.
If you are hungry for stellar sides, take a pass on the average plantains topped with a bean spread and queso fresco and order the esquites (sweet and spicy corn cakes) or the creamy and highly delectable poblano corn rice.
When it comes to dessert at Distrito, two are more fancy than flavorful, which makes the decision to walk over to nearby Old Town Whiskey for a simple homemade ice cream shake an easy one. Looking more like a breakfast yogurt parfait than an after-dinner dessert, the frutas con crema (with a Mexican interpretation of the classic Italian panna cotta) was sour enough to be left alone after one bite. And a vanilla flan strewn with diced mango and too-hard almond cakes, a smudge of dulce de leche, and a half-scoop of ice cream proved to be confusing to consume and, when it did happen, without payoff.
The service, although friendly, is often chaotic, and seems far too casual for an establishment where fare from a celebrity chef like Garces doesn't come cheap. Distrito may have the ambiance of a party, but in this case, it shouldn't mean the hostess is experiencing it in the same manner the guests are.
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