Fine dining has traditionally been a staple of the Valley’s luxury resorts. But a new breed of restaurant — modern and sophisticated, yet also casual and approachable — is popping up at some of the swankiest resorts in town. For evidence of this trend, look to restaurants like Weft & Warp, the refined yet laid-back restaurant at Andaz Scottsdale Resort, or Mountain Shadows Resort’s new signature restaurant, Hearth ’61, whose very name invokes comfort and warmth.
Mowry & Cotton, which debuted at The Phoenician last fall, is part of this new generation of Valley resort restaurants. The restaurant takes pains to avoid coming off as stuffy or old-fashioned. Its folksy name — an homage to George Mowry and James Cotton, local business pioneers who founded one of downtown Phoenix’s first bars — grounds it in local drinking history, while the restaurant’s website invites you to “kick up your feet” in a space “outfitted for the modern bardog.”
Being approachable, in today’s tough dining climate, is both a matter of staying on trend and shoring up the bottom line. “We want more locals to come eat at the resort,” a server at Mowry & Cotton told me on a recent visit. And with its latest restaurant, The Phoenician is making a compelling case for why you might want to come “kick up your feet” in a place that’s historically been the province of well-heeled tourists, business travelers, and the occasional political dignitary.
Mowry & Cotton takes over the sprawling, ground level space formerly occupied by Il Terrazzo, a fine dining Italian spot that played the part resplendently with velvet tufted seating, fancy carpeting, and tables draped in heavy white tablecloths. The space has been dramatically refashioned into a crisp and airy modern American restaurant, faintly tinged with the airs of a modern Western farmhouse. The velvet seating has been replaced with sleek, midcentury modern-inspired leather benches and armchairs. It’s a polished space, quite literally, with gleaming floors and floor-to-ceiling windows. Wood accents, ornamental glass bottles lined up neatly on display shelves, and a hearth oven in the restaurant’s open kitchen help soften the edges of this otherwise cavernous, 340-seat restaurant.
The chef de cuisine is Tandy Peterson, alumnae of chef Kevin Binkley’s restaurants and Il Terrazzo. Peterson’s impressive resume also includes a summer stint at Asador Etxebarri, a restaurant in Spain’s Basque country that’s made an appearance on “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.” You can feel the influence of Basque country — a region known for its refined and impeccable use of ingredients, served with unhurried and unfussy elegance — on the dinner menu. Mowry & Cotton is all about shared plates, often seasonal ingredients cooked by fire, served around a communal table. That means that dishes flow loosely out of the kitchen, whisked to your table in the order they’re cooked, rather than clumped together under a heat lamp until your dinner ticket is complete.
A natural starting point is with the restaurant’s already popular bread menu, and the thing to try at least once are the buttermilk buns. They’re served fresh out of the oven, still conjoined into a shiny, hot, buttery loaf. The bread is utterly melty and indulgent. A smear of citrus and sea salt butter, or some lightly sweet and fruity duck fat fig butter, catapults the hot buns to extravagant new heights. It’s graciously served with some pickled veggies, which even out the richness, and help clear your palate, between bites.
Flame-cured vegetables are another highlight. Charred Brussels sprouts, deftly paired with a salty-spicy chicory kimchi, and kissed with the subtly fishy flavors of bonito flakes, are a clever, Asian-inspired presentation of a familiar restaurant side. Oven-fired cauliflower, seasoned lightly with Calabrian chiles and a creamy pine nut butter, is savory and meaty. And the restaurant’s Spanish-inspired crispy potatoes, served with some tomato brava hot sauce and chorizo, are gorgeously textured and perfectly piquant.
From the “Hearth Oven” menu, veal and black garlic meatballs, served with some gooey mozzarella and tomato jam, are lush and earthy. Flatbreads, meanwhile, might seem like a concession to popular taste. But that doesn’t make something like the wild mushroom flatbread, featuring meaty, succulent hunks of mushroom paired with subtly sweet apricots, any less delicious.
One of the best single bites I’ve had at Mowry & Cotton, though, involved an extra-crisp, nutty crostini layered with glistening, paper-thin slips of bison carpaccio. The natural salty richness of the carpaccio dovetailed beautifully with a lovely, crisp salad of radicchio, thinly-sliced turnips, and grapes, served with the dish.
You won’t find traditional dinner entrees at Mowry & Cotton, but you will find a couple of larger-portioned dishes, designed to be shared among two or three, including a whole Pacific striped bass, dappled with corn and soft, half-melted crumbles of cotija cheese. The fish is served with taco fixings, including sliced limes, a thick lime crema, and some homemade flour tortillas, which are not much bigger than candy wrappers. It’s a pleasure to pick the meat off the fish with the soft tortillas, fashioning bite-size tacos. The dish is nearly too rich, though — the lime crema, in particular, is so thick, it seems more fitting for a bagel than a taco.
The other entree-size dish is grilled pheasant, available as a half-bird or whole, depending on the size of your party. Either way, it’s wonderful. The pheasant, on a recent visit, was impeccably cooked, the rich and succulent meat delicately perfumed with fresh herbs and the sweet juices of cipollini onions, broccolini, citrus, and cherries.
If Mowry & Cotton is serious about becoming a destination for locals, though, its lunch menu will require some fine-tuning. Currently, lunch offerings including some of the more crowd-friendly dinner items, along with a selection of bowls and sandwiches. That means dishes like lamb tacos, the meat braised with harissa and served with house-made pickles and a drizzle of quark cheese. They are meaty, drippy tacos, but altogether, the flavors are surprisingly lackluster.
A smoked brisket sandwich served on an airy ciabatta roll, meanwhile, is overwhelmed by mustard. And a Jidori chicken sandwich features exceptionally juicy chicken, which is unfortunately masked by too much sweet apple bourbon dressing.
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The dessert menu also doesn’t quite live up to the Old World sophistication of a long dinner at Mowry & Cotton. The most popular dessert is a warm s’mores pie — decadently gooey and delicious, but a little too forgettable.
So Mowry & Cotton doesn’t always strike the perfect register, but chef Peterson and her team have a seemingly impossible task on their hands: fashioning a sophisticated yet approachable menu — and dining experience — that resonates with both hotel guests and local foodies. That means some concessions have been made.
For the most part, though, Mowry & Cotton succeeds far more than it struggles. And it might tempt you to head to The Phoenician for more than just golf and business meetings.
Mowry & Cotton
6000 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale
Monday to Friday 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (brunch) and 5 to 9 p.m. (dinner)
Buttermilk buns with citrus sea salt butter & duck fat fig butter $8
Charred Brussels sprouts $10
Bison carpaccio $15
Grilled pheasant $21 (half); $39 (full)