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Starch Reality

Willo Bread is sold next door to My Florist Cafe, which uses the creative loaves in its sandwiches and salads.
Erik Guzowski

My Florist Cafe

Man does not live by bread alone. He also needs some sugar. At least that seems to be the thinking behind the folks at My Florist Cafe, the new adjunct to downtown Phoenix's wildly popular Willo Bread store. Yet we're not talking dessert here: This new restaurant caters to a clientele who seem to crave sweet, sweet and more sweet in their sandwich and salad sustenance. Dressings, sauces and some sides practically drip with the stuff.

For me, the sugary character of the food is distracting, interrupting the enjoyment of otherwise quality ingredients. It seems I'm alone in my quibble, though -- My Florist Cafe been a hit since opening almost two months ago, enticing standing-room only patrons willing to navigate one of the city's most tortured parking lots for a Mandarin shrimp salad or grilled turkey and brie on pumpernickel.

The draw's an easy one to figure. Celebrated for its fresh-baked, all-natural specialty breads, Willo supplies many of the Valley's finest restaurants, plus AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods and a rabid core of retail customers addicted to its marvelous crusty creations. So it only made sense for owner David Lacy to slap something between the slices, capitalizing with his own little gourmet cafe. The setting's a dream, too, in the epicenter of Phoenix, and surrounded by a core of eager eaters hungry for a cosmopolitan bistro experience. It's fast become a see-and-be-seen place for local artists, style-conscious residents of the historic Willo neighborhood that inspired the bakery's name, politicians from the nearby capital, and downtown business professionals. The menu reads like poetry -- the pear salad, for example, sounds like a swooner, uniting fresh spinach with sliced fruit, caramelized red onions, roasted peppers and pine nuts in roasted garlic balsamic vinaigrette with crumbled bleu cheese and cranberry-hazelnut bread.

Adding to the interest are almost-always-open hours (6 a.m. to midnight daily, with muffins and pastries for breakfast), a welcoming espresso/coffee bar and live piano music from ivory tickler John Summers. The service is warm and a creative wine list appeals, including sake and port, plus specialty drinks like an apple jack (apple juice, cream soda, vanilla ice cream and champagne). The place is pretty, too, feeling grown-up big city with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking McDowell, purple-and-teal walls, a glass-block room divider, and servers gliding about in calf-length white bistro aprons.

Pretty perfect, huh? Not quite. While Lacy admits he doesn't cook or bake, he has hired professional chef Robbie Metz to manage the menu. Yet there's still work to be done on this fledgling cafe. Besides the sugar thing, too many of My Florist's offerings flounder, capsized by adversarial ingredient pairings, a stingy hand with portions and some odd side dishes.

Who wants a fat dill pickle alongside their peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich? Particularly when there's not nearly enough of the tasty roasted nut spread on the massive slabs of wondrous sesame bread, which means that pretty much all we taste is candy-like grape preserves exacerbated by equally ambrosial sides of fresh fruit (a changing mix of cantaloupe, orange, watermelon, honeydew, strawberries). Try sucking on a lollipop then chomping on a pickle and see what contortions your mouth is capable of achieving. My kingdom for some potato chips.

Better to bring on the brine with a gorgeous tuna sandwich, but the kitchen doesn't pack a pickle with this plate, just more fruit. And it's a terrific sandwich, consisting of earthy rye cut with chunks of real red onion, stuffed with albacore, mayonnaise, crushed almonds, water chestnuts, leaf lettuce and ripe tomato.

Sides sideline an otherwise delectable cafe clubhouse sandwich, too, dumping a timber pile of house bread chips that follow the fashion of bagel chips. The problem is the bread used -- an aggressive Kalamata olive loaf that when toasted turns bitter. Too bad, because the star of the plate is marvelous, layering salty, shaved Parma prosciutto, turkey breast, provolone, nutty-toned Jarlsberg and fresh spinach leaves on a grilled Willo loaf (think French baguette).

Nothing's amiss with a portabello sandwich, however, a glorious marriage of meaty mushroom roasted with eggplant, red pepper, caramelized onions and provolone on rosemary focaccia burnished with garlic butter. This is a huge meal, complemented by mixed greens in a sprightly lemon-thyme vinaigrette. And cafe panini, while meager on meat for its $8.50 tab, satisfies with sliced salami, provolone, caramelized red onions and whole-grain mustard in a grilled Willo loaf, plus a side of greens in a subtle balsamic vinaigrette. Yet the bread has a dusting of what tastes like powdered donut.

And why gunk up a lovely Di Parma sandwich with buckets of oddly sweet basil pesto -- there's no sugar in the traditional recipe, but something tastes of it here. Plus, in this quantity it drowns out the fine Parma prosciutto, mozzarella and Roma tomato on its round ciabatta roll. Half as much of the spread would do the trick.

 

Salads are equally hit and miss, suffering primarily from an overload of dressing. A caprese concoction literally swims in a cloying pool of extra-virgin olive oil, barely cut by a drizzle of balsamic and seeping even more oil from a ladleful of pesto. It drowns an otherwise pleasant mix of mozzarella rounds, cubed and sliced Roma tomatoes and fresh basil atop mixed greens. And we're getting our money's worth if we like roasted garlic -- the heady cloves outnumber any other element on the plate. Unadvertised mounds of Kalamata olives become too much, too tart, alongside strips of excellent sliced olive focaccia.

The Baja dressing belongs more on deep-fried pork and pineapple than on its namesake salad, and indeed, the thick, syrupy blend is a sweet-and-sour vinaigrette, strong emphasis on sweet. It puts all other components in a headlock, coating roasted red pepper, an overload of sugary caramelized red onion, greens, Roma tomato and stingy sprinkles of julienne chicken breast and feta alongside sliced sunflower-seed bread.

Thick-bodied, super-sugary lemon-thyme dressing would better serve as an ice cream topping than as anointment to an asparagus salad. And a truckload of caramelized onions suffocates petite piles of skinny roasted asparagus, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, Roma tomato and field greens with a thimbleful of feta. This is almost a dessert, when we dunk an accompanying three slices of wonderful bread studded with chunks of apricot and almonds in the dressing.

The most successful of the lot is the cardini, which is romaine tossed in a thankfully mellow, milky caesar dressing with Roma tomatoes, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, pignolias (pine nuts) and rosemary-focaccia croutons. Push the too many Kalamata olives to the side, and concentrate instead on that remarkable olive bread served with the dish.

The Willo bakery is already a bread winner, and My Florist Cafe likely will be, too. Topnotch ingredients and a fashionable setting can't go wrong. For now, though, dressings need to be kept on the side, and some sides not kept at all.

Paisley Violin

Who else remembers how the media cheered when downtown welcomed its first McDonald's in 1995? How embarrassing -- news outlets gushed that with the arrival of the Golden Arches, Phoenix finally could be considered to have a real downtown. Big Macs do not make an urban mecca great.

Believe this, though, with the première of Paisley Violin, Phoenix truly is on its way to having an honest-to-goodness downtown we can be proud of. This adorable place, opened in early July, is a gem of culture's best: European cafe, art gallery, exotic coffee bar, and center for poetry slams, live music, ambient art, after-hours grooving, DJ spinning and even chess tournaments. "Peace and happiness all in one," it promises, and the Violin delivers.

Wrapped in its clunky, green-stucco package, Paisley Violin doesn't look like much from the outside. A neon espresso sign and psychedelic painted violin, rabbits, swirls and clouds on its exterior wall hint of an art gallery to passers-by. Yet, inside, there's a full menu offered with refreshingly well-executed appetizers, salads and sandwiches. Just as pleasing, the beer and wine policy is BYOB.

The creation of owners Gina Sciscioli and Derrick Suarez, Paisley Violin is an eclectic setting of retro tables atop concrete floors, a cozy coffee and tea bar, a salon with secondhand sofas and chairs, a stage roped off with chains, a gleaming metal DJ tower and a small gallery featuring whimsical artwork for sale.

The brief menu is served all day (bagels, croissants and muffins are available for breakfast), and in keeping with the cafe's bistro personality, the servings lean toward smaller portions. This is not high cuisine, but it's fresh, friendly and gilded with the charm of being homemade. And this is bargain culture: cravings for art and appetite can be satisfied for $7.50 or less.

Nibbles are nice enough, chosen from a bowl of imported olives or an inelegant-looking but good enough plate of assorted cubed cheeses, fruit and baguette.

A hummus plate displays more personality, generously mounded, fresh, aromatic and sweetly sour. It's not the creamy blend we see elsewhere, but comforting like Mediterranean oatmeal. Studded with green and Kalamata olives and sided with sliced tomato, warm pita and a vibrant cucumber-dill sauce, it appears alongside two stuffed vine leaves. The leaves are simple and sublime, tangy grape leaves bundled around rice, onion and sunflower oil.

There's elegance in an Italian panini as well, served on a crusty baguette and stuffed with quality prosciutto, Roma tomato, buttons of buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Seasoned potato chips and a colorful riot of miniature, marinated and furiously fiery chile peppers add spunk. A "P Squared" sandwich rises above the ordinary, too, bringing a warm sourdough baguette richly lined with pastrami, provolone, red onion, sliced peppercini, romaine, tomato and stone-ground mustard. And there's lots to appreciate about a peppered paprika turkey package, paired with baby Swiss, sun-dried tomato and romaine on a croissant.

 

A few dishes do their job with little fanfare -- lox and capers with jalapeño cream cheese and greens on a sourdough baguette is just satisfying, while a tuna slam is an everyday fish salad boosted by capers and topped with melted Swiss on a croissant.

Sometimes desserts are homemade; sometimes they arrive from a bakery in Scottsdale. Either way, it's worth a stop in for a cup of Milan coffee or Mexican tea and a bite of white chocolate cheesecake, zebra-striped and creamy fresh.

Paisley Violin is no urban myth. With class and culture like this, it's sure to become urban legend.

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My Florist Café & Bar - Closed

534 W. McDowell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85003

602-254-0333

www.myfloristcafe.com


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