Small Time Cooks
The best place to eat in all of Arizona is a tiny spot hidden away in Paradise Valley. It's got limited seating: just one formal table, with eight chairs. If need be, overflow can fit more casually at a three-chair glass-topped nook table, or, in a real pinch, four diners can eat standing up at the bar.
The finest place to feast in this entire state is at my mother's home on those rare weekends when my brother Carter visits from Berkeley and cooks for us. When he's in the house, the oven, range and chopping block become a world-class bistro, with Carter crafting one stunning recipe after another.
Watching the chef up-close at work is a delight, as he deftly chops, whisks, seasons and sautés. I love the aromas tempting my rumbling belly, and the peaceful rhythm of a talented cook turning out fresh fare, all from scratch and done to order. But most of all, it's the cozy, comfortable intimacy of the private setting that appeals. Somehow, in this loving atmosphere, a simple grilled cheese sandwich is elevated to culinary art.
Small, intimate spaces appeal to me in real restaurants, too. Perhaps too much; I'm quick to overlook faults in places that comfort me with their coziness while I eat. Let's admit it: It's an unwritten truth that the smaller the cafe, the more we seem to find the food charming. What might not impress us so much in a large, fancy room is cute in cramped, kick-back confines. Salmon teriyaki that is no more than just good fish, for example, becomes truly tasty when it's trotted out at the teeny Toyama Japanese cafe in north Scottsdale. And a BLT that is just above average somehow seems more sumptuous when it arrives at the tiny Table bistro in downtown Phoenix. Toyama seats 12 in its dining room, 30 on its patio, and 11 at its bar. The Table seats two dozen total in its converted old house property, though management is planning a "massive" expansion that, by sacrificing the bistro's office, will add another five chairs.
Brunch with Carter on a recent Saturday catered to seven. We fed on one of the most perfect meals I've ever had grilled cheese (on gluttonously buttered rustic bread with shallots and a tomato spread spiked with molasses and ancho chiles); fluffy quiche (two kinds, with fresh-picked spinach and mushrooms, or with crispy bacon and sweet onion); field greens with roma tomatoes in homemade balsamic vinaigrette; walnuts roasted with cayenne and garlic; and homemade scones capped with real whipped cream and beautiful sliced strawberries. The repast lolled long into the afternoon, so much were we savoring the slow cooking, the blissful communal feasting, the close conversation.
Lunch at Toyama finds me with three friends on a crisp, sunny day not long after my family feast. Even in a group this small, we feel we own the place, drawing the server's and chef's attention away from the couples at the other tables or singletons nestled happily in solitude at the bar with trays of sushi and cold Kirins. And it's one of the best lunches I've ever had, starting with kaisen seafood salad, a petite tumble of two midsize bright orange shrimp and two small but silky pieces of albacore over crisp romaine and a sparkling sharp ginger dressing. I don't even mind that the strings of crab tossed in the salad are kanikama, the imitation shellfish meat usually made from pollock.
Chef Mamoru Kugaguchi keeps it lively behind his sushi bar, slicing through generous slabs of ruby-fleshed tuna, coral-hued salmon and creamy yellowtail sashimi with his glinting silver knife. Superior fish this is, in any size place, and so is the special of the day, cuts of prized toro, the luscious fatty underbelly of the blue fin tuna, stuffed as I request in a hand roll. It feels like he's catering to my group alone, and I don't mind that the hand roll is a bit smaller than in other sushi shops the fish melts in my mouth and is well worth the substantial price tag (a six-piece order of regular tuna tataki is $12; substitute toro and it's $20).
My group works its way slowly and peacefully through almost the entire lengthy chalkboard listing of daily fresh offerings, like tai (red snapper), aoyagi (orange clam), and aji (Spanish mackerel). We wait patiently for the cooked delights, prepared in a tiny kitchen behind a tiny curtain, like hamachi kama (grilled yellowtail jaw), karei karage (deep fried sole), and ka tetsupou-yaki (grilled whole squid with onion stuffing and miso seasoning).
At night, the slinky cafe sparsely decorated with dried framed roses and glittery pin lights is more tightly packed. With the darkness cloaking the windows outside, guests gather together in animated conversation over the softly playing Phantom of the Opera soundtrack in the background, not shy to ask neighboring tables what that pretty dish is that they're enjoying. Like any home kitchen, there's not a lot to choose from. Tonight, chef Kugaguchi lets us select entrees from an abbreviated menu two chicken dishes, two salmon dishes, and vegetable or shrimp tempura.
They're not stunning takes chicken and salmon teriyaki are predictable; grilled salmon is boring; chicken katsu is notable only for its expertly crispy and flaky panko breading. But I love the firm white rice, the careful presentation of fresh romaine, spring greens and purple cabbage salad, and the thick, authentic katsu sauce alongside. And as the chef clucks at us over his sushi bar to see if we're happy, we really are.
When Carter cooks, he plans his menu only after a visit to that morning's market. Sunday's brunch at Mom's was fashioned around fat slabs of butcher-carved peppercorn bacon, French goat cheese from Vincent's farmers' market (picked up the day before from Vincent's parking lot fair), nine-grain toast from a fresh-baked loaf, homemade strawberry preserves, lace-thin prosciutto and capicolla, and eggs poached just until the outsides were set and the yolks were golden runny. His meal took an hour to shop, an hour to assemble, an hour to cook, and two hours to slather ourselves through like we were in a luxury day spa.
When Peter Dayo and Viné Sascento, owners of The Table, cook, it's with the same approach. Like Carter, they follow the "slow food" philosophy, focusing on quality of ingredients and personal, unhurried attention to each and every dish.
I come in for lunch (the bistro just opened last Tuesday for the noonday meal), and Dayo apologizes that he hasn't decided what he'll be serving for dinner that same night. But I can anticipate, after several previous evening visits, that any day's menu, lunch or dinner, will be a sparse but meticulous mix of farm-fresh vegetables, farm-fresh meats, lots of love and a bit of repetition from plate to plate.
At one dinner, my girlfriend and I take our seats in sturdy, farm-style wood chairs, tucking linen napkins into our laps and resting our elbows on a well-used wooden table. How could we not be swayed by the offbeat, homey decor of bright paint carelessly slapped on the walls, crumbling brick, clusters of real roses on each table and a toy monkey hanging above the miniature, exposed kitchen? At one point, Dayo emerges from behind his stove leaving a skillet leaping with wicked flames to crank open the old-style windows so as to release the cooking smoke settling like fog over the room.
First, we're courted with crusty, excellent Willo Baking Company bread, dipped in sweet balsamic-olive oil. Our choices are tight three appetizers , three entrees and two desserts. We've packed in our own bottle of Pinot Grigio ($7 corkage), and though our server opens it for us, it's a pour-our-own proposition (just like home!). A farmers' market salad is topnotch, with crisp string beans, brilliantly fresh beets, field greens, red onion, tomato, red peppers and plump raw peas slicked in a light vinaigrette. And while I was expecting a cream base to my Brussels sprout and turnip soup, it's a clean, savory stew of chunked, perfectly al dente vegetables that's novel if not exciting after the first few bland bites.
Grouper is more interesting, in a compelling fennel sauce stocked with the chunked veggie, plus tomatoes and onion, the broth cooked down to a rich brew of natural juices. Chicken, I don't like so much the whole, baby-size bird is well-prepared with crispy skin, but overwhelmed with too much harsh rosemary. Sides of properly bitterish broccoli rabe and creamy luscious porcini risotto are superb. And panna cotta doesn't get any better than this, the silky Italian custard refreshingly unsweetened except for immaculate strawberries sliced alongside.
It's lunch that lets me down, though home-style doesn't mean sloppy, and this meal is. An hour and a half into opening, The Table hasn't yet brewed any iced tea. My server isn't sure if they have diet soda (they don't). He doesn't know what's on the antipasti platter, leaves to check, and comes back with "vegetables, meat and cheese" (no kidding). He tells me a ham plate is a sandwich, but it's three chunky slices of heavily smoked, fatty pork with broccoli caps, tiny roasted potatoes, yam wheels and caramelized onions. My BLT is so-so, on onion-herb focaccia with great greens, tomatoes, lacy provolone and caramelized onions, but uninspired bacon (skinny slices, flabby, not half as good as what Carter made at home). My favorite, in fact, is that mystery antipasto, with no cheese, but plenty of expertly roasted asparagus, baby carrots, beets, mushrooms, red peppers, fennel and tiny potatoes, plus a cold salad of corn kernels, tomato wedges and greens, all lightly dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper. The crowning touch: a generous curl of smoked salmon and sliced salami that I eat with tears of soft white roll.
Toyama and The Table aren't my mother's house. They don't have Carter in the kitchen. But during those long, dry spells that leave me hungry for an intimate, it-feels-like-it's-just-for-me dining experience, I've got two more places to go and feel almost as good as at home.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.