The Valley is big, but when it comes to good restaurants, sometimes it doesn't feel quite big enough.
Between newspapers, magazines, TV, the blogosphere, message boards, and just the foodie grapevine, in general, decent eateries can get barraged with buzz from all directions, all at once.
And then, when the chorus gets too loud, it makes me restless. I start wondering whether there are new, interesting spots that aren't big on the radar but deserve to be — if only we'd look a little harder for them. To actually stumble on such unassuming places (and then spread the word, naturally) gives me a little thrill.
Caf Monarch, 6934 East First Avenue, Scottsdale
Chef's whim for two:$8
Tuna salad plate: $13
Bacon sandwich: $12.50
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner by reservation only on Friday and Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m.
So right now, I'm really big on Café Monarch, a one-of-a-kind oasis of charm hidden in the midst of downtown Scottsdale. It's the brainchild of chef-owner Christopher Van Arsdale, who's a whirlwind in the kitchen and the dining room, too.
You see, Van Arsdale's literally got his own one-man show at Café Monarch. He shops, he cooks, he serves the food at this tiny, ultra-stylish 558-square-foot restaurant, which he decorated himself. (He did have a waiter helping out on a couple of my visits, though.) He chats with customers, answers the phone, and does all the dishes, too. Van Arsdale is not only a Renaissance man, he's a total personality. When I learned that he has a background in theater, I wasn't surprised in the least.
(Example: On my first visit to Café Monarch a couple of months ago, when my dining companion treated me to lunch, Van Arsdale somehow prodded me into channeling my inner Shirley Bassey and singing a few notes of "Big Spender," as my friend laughed at me.)
Van Arsdale spent many years working as personal chef, moving to Phoenix in 1995 from Long Island, New York, to cook for a TV producer client here. When that gig ended in 2003, he continued taking on catering jobs, as well as doing interior design and landscape design work, before opening Café Monarch in March.
This restaurant is all about just living in the moment and enjoying a leisurely meal. That said, I don't recommend coming here if you're in any kind of hurry. Because it is such a small operation, Van Arsdale often has his hands full, and the pace is very relaxed. Honestly, though, it's easy to hang out here.
Inside this mini strip spot that used to be a hair salon, it feels like an eclectic bistro, with an open kitchen, a window view of a trickling fountain, and colorful displays of eye-catching ephemera, from jars of pencils to cookbooks to Café du Monde coffee. Surrounded by jasmine vines that attract lots of butterflies, the lush front patio is beautiful, verging on surreal.
It's about as personal a dining experience as you can have, next to actually eating at someone's home. That means you're really in Van Arsdale's hands when you eat here. There's a printed menu of Mediterranean-inspired appetizers, sandwiches, and salads at lunch, but don't be surprised if he suggests alternatives, asks about your preferences, and goes off on a creative tangent — that's half the fun of eating here. In fact, one of the appetizers is simply called "chef's whim."
Once, we let him whim our whole lunch, and he brought us an appealing feast. We got medallions of baked, herb-coated goat cheese with strawberries and walnuts in a balsamic vinaigrette; warm garlic-sesame crisps; roasted poblanos stuffed with roasted red potatoes, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and feta; a mixed-green salad with julienned apple, grapes, and chunks of pistachio-pesto chicken; and cantaloupe in a tangy sauce.
But another time, when a friend ordered steak salad from the menu, Van Arsdale responded, "How about chicken? Do you just want some protein?" The implication was that he was out of steak, so my friend agreed to chicken. And then the dish showed up with a piece of thin, chewy beef — not the juicy grilled steak she'd hoped for in the first place. It was definitely a letdown.
I wouldn't call that typical, though. When Van Arsdale suggested smoked chicken on a sandwich that ordinarily would've had poached lemon chicken, I was game. (He's enthusiastic about his meat smoker, and has Smokehouse Sundays every week.) Also, it came on a croissant, not the promised focaccia. I loved it anyway.
Van Arsdale doesn't always stray from the menu. A bagel sandwich laden with bacon, figs, roasted chiles, green apple, cilantro, celery, and apple jam was just as decadent as I'd imagined from the description, and red chile-mango slaw was a cool, crisp contrast to its richness. Albacore tuna salad, served with baby greens, was chunky and flavorful, thanks to capers, fresh thyme, artichokes, slivers of zucchini, and a dose of olive oil and lemon juice.
At dinner (Fridays and Saturdays, by reservation only), things get even more improvisational, as Van Arsdale takes everyone's likes and dislikes into account before coming up with the three-course menu. He might do New Zealand rack of lamb, Moroccan-style, or maybe he'll cook stuffed pork loin with Italian sausage. Whatever he feels like.
Saturday brunch is equally unscripted. One morning, my friends and I arrived just as Van Arsdale was putting white tablecloths on the patio tables.
"Oh, I'm running a little behind. I just got back from the farmers market," he said. We didn't realize there wasn't a brunch menu but were up for the vegetable frittata and freshly brewed chicory coffee that he offered. It sounded simple and nonchalant but turned out to be quite an elaborate spread.
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First, huge cups of potent coffee, with creamer served in slender glass beakers. Then, warm croissants dusted with powdered sugar, served with chile mango sauce and gooey, spiced chocolate sauce, followed by a luscious double-layered frittata with meaty artichokes, zucchini, fresh parsley, and smoked Gouda. It had two crisp strips of bacon artfully balanced on it, and a side of roasted, thinly sliced potatoes with garlic, onions, rosemary, and sea salt. Very tasty.
Van Arsdale admits that Café Monarch isn't for everyone, and he's grateful to customers who give him a chance at realizing a longtime dream.
"You know, I'm 46, and I always wanted to open my own place, so I figured it's now or never," he says.
Hey, carpe diem is my favorite expression.