Best Of :: Food & Drink
When we hit up the Big Apple, our friends like to dazzle us with a whirlwind of bright lights/big city excitement. But when they visit us, we don't even attempt to reciprocate. Why bother, when there's nowhere in the Valley that could compare with Manhattan's intensely urban vibe?
Instead, we show them our yin to their yang at elements, the jewel in the crown of the exclusive Sanctuary resort. Nestled into the side of Camelback Mountain, it's all about desert tranquility, with a dramatic view of the surrounding mountains and the dim twinkle of Paradise Valley in the distance. Hey, just because we don't do much in the way of skyscrapers doesn't mean we can't boast a mesmerizing view. (There's also plenty of eye candy at Jade Bar, the sleek, sexy watering hole adjacent to the restaurant.) As for the Asian-influenced American cuisine at elements, it's up there with New York's finest culinary hot spots. For proof, look no further than to executive chef Beau MacMillan, whose melt-in-your-mouth short ribs helped him beat New York celebrity chef Bobby Flay on The Food Network's Iron Chef America last year.
After a visit to elements, don't be surprised if your NY friends start sporting "I ♥ AZ" T-shirts.
Don't get us wrong we adore the savory dinner options at Sweet O Wine & Chocolate Lounge. From cheeses and dips, served with excellent grilled bread from Simply Bread, to fresh salads and creative panini, there's plenty on the menu that we're happy to fill up on. But why try to save room for dessert when that's the star attraction of this sleek little eatery? Better to start off with exactly what you came for exotic chocolate pastries, chocolate fondue, chocolate hazelnut panini with crme fraîche and crispy hazelnuts, and petits fours galore. Once you get a glimpse of the chocolate treats in the display case, you won't be able to wait 'til after dinner to indulge. From macadamia toffee and milk chocolate caramel to fleur de sel truffles and butter ganache pralines, Sweet O can deliver your chocolate fix in just about any form you like. Even the eclectic wine selection is geared toward cacao consumption, with a generous selection of dessert wines and fortified wines. And if you'd rather let the experts guide your palate, pick one of the chocolate flights, where three different bonbons are paired with an appropriately decadent drink. Sweet O's proprietors say the "O" stands for "origine" (French for "origin," sort of the terroir of chocolate). But after flooding our brains with blissful endorphins and alcohol, all we feel is sweet oblivion.
We sure love hot chocolate, although in the warmer months (when we'll only drink iced lattes) we can hardly stand the thought of it unless it's Cowboy Ciao's unforgettable take on the classic cold weather treat, the Cuppa Red Hot Chocolate. Here, pastry chef Tracey Dempsey interprets it as a cool, utterly decadent dessert: a rich chocolate-cinnamon pot de crme that's almost as thick as fudge, served in an oversized cup fit for cocoa. The only thing "hot" about it is a froth of oozy chipotle cream on top perfect to scoop up with the spicy ginger cookie that comes with it. We'd happily splurge on a cuppa that any day, no matter the season.
We usually order dessert when we're out somewhere fancy, when the conclusion of a multicourse meal calls for something sweet to go with our after-dinner cup o' joe. But after lunch at a sandwich shop? Hardly ever unless we're at Bertha's Café, where it's a given. At this friendly, inconspicuous little eatery, desserts are impossible to resist, appealingly displayed in a big case right next to the front counter. From cookies and muffins to malted brownies, it's all good, but we're particularly fond of their rich, creamy, homemade cheesecakes. Sometimes it's actually hard to choose from the daily assortment of just-made mini-cakes, with creative concoctions like s'mores, baklava, and banana cream. Bertha's flavors are anything but plain Jane.
Check your guilt at the door. From buttery grits and mac 'n' cheese to the famous fried chicken served with a hot stack of waffles, everything at Lo-Lo's is stick-to-your-ribs delicious. So it only makes sense that dessert here would be a luscious affair, worth every calorie-laden bite. And, boy, does the red velvet cake deliver. One slice of this sweet, red-tinted chocolate cake slathered in buttery cream-cheese icing that we could just eat with a spoon is thick enough to feed two people. Still, we'd rather get one all for ourselves. We figure, if we're gonna blow our diet, we might as well do it with gusto.
We love olive oil drizzled on salads or soaked up with a soft piece of bread, but in dessert? Admittedly, the sound of olive oil cake turned us off at first. But we were very pleasantly surprised when curiosity got the better of us at radioMILANO, and now it's our favorite choice for sweet satisfaction at the end of the meal. Here, the thick slice of cake is so moist and velvety that it's hard to eat just a bite or two. It's served with a huge, smooth dollop of thickened cream (you'll never be able to eat Cool Whip again after tasting it) and a nice blob of blackberry jam, although we'd gladly eat it plain. And here's a word to the wise: Get your own piece. The rest of the menu might be full of shareable small plates, but when it comes to olive oil cake, we gotta look after ourselves.
Gelato, yogurt, custard we can't keep track of the latest frozen treat trend, and frankly, why bother when you've got Mary Coyle in town? For more than 50 years, this wonderful business has padded hips in the Valley with its homemade ice cream featuring old standards like rocky road and chocolate mint chip in a throwback of an ice cream parlor. Our advice: Go for the whipped cream, hot fudge, and nuts. You only live once, and it's not easy to find a place that's proud to make its product with 16 percent butterfat.
We used to think of milkshakes as a summertime treat, until we moved to Phoenix. Now they're as essential to us year-round as sunscreen, flip-flops, and car window shades. Whenever we're in the mood to cool down with a creamy, dreamy chocolate malted, or a picture-perfect strawberry shake with whipped cream and a cherry on top, we head to MacAlpine's Soda Fountain, where hand-scooped Thrifty ice cream, mixed to a froth with an old-fashioned milkshake blender, is one of the house specialties. Other sweet, slurpable options include phosphates in a variety of fruit flavors, egg creams, ice cream sodas, and floats. (We think sundaes might count, too, if you let them melt a little.) Part of the fun of going to MacAlpine's is sitting at the counter for an authentic soda fountain experience, or shimmying into a big wooden booth with a good view of all the vintage Pepsi and Coca-Cola signs on the walls. It makes us think about what the Valley might've been like back in the good ol' days, before it was a sweltering metropolis and that alone makes us feel just a little bit cooler.
After getting rubbed, scrubbed, and generally pampered to the point of exhaustion, a spa-goer is bound to get hungry. After all, you can only get so full on apples and cucumber-lemon water. At most spas in the Valley which qualify as some of the best in the country the dining options run the gamut of light fare, from smoothies to sandwiches and salads. Nothing wrong with that, but the healthful cuisine at the Spa at Camelback Inn is truly of another caliber. Early birds can chow down on a veggie-packed frittata with smoked basil mozzarella or a Belgian waffle with caramelized bananas and raspberries, while midday diners can indulge in guilt-free entrees like miso-glazed salmon with fennel orange sauce, shrimp fettuccine with pesto, and blue crab cakes with watercress and spicy chile remoulade. It's all so flavorful and artfully presented that you'd never think it's low-cal except that the menu lists calories, fat, protein, and carbs for every dish. Good thing they make it easy to keep track of nutritional details, because after an hour-long hot stone massage, we're way too relaxed to worry about it.
Some people need to be dared to try foie gras or escargots, but not us. The only thing we don't like about them is that they aren't more popular. Luckily, Méthode Bistro satisfies our jones for exotic ingredients, and then some. Yes, they have foie gras paired with chocolate croquembouche and lavender gastrique while their snails are basil-fed (yes, they really taste like fresh basil), topped with almond foam and meuniere sauce. And for slightly more timid souls, chef-owner Matt McLinn's delightful, Mediterranean-inspired menu includes plenty of classic entrees, such as roasted paella with seasonal shellfish and chorizo, or ricotta gnocchi with Guinea hen and crispy artichokes. But for adventurous foodies on the prowl for exotic ingredients and novel preparations, his "Outside the Box" appetizer menu really delivers. Other options include veal sweetbreads with polenta, lamb tongue cooked sous vide with rosemary and summer truffles, and squab confit with foie gras-stuffed mallard hearts. (Either that just made you say eww, or it made you really hungry. High five if it's the latter.)
Phoenix would be a much more neighborly city if only there were more restaurants like Lola Tapas. Spending so much time in our cars, in a land where pedestrians are few and far between, we won't just stumble on a sense of community unless we frequent the same places over and over or unless we stop by Lola for an intimate meal with our best friends and a whole bunch of sociable strangers. Aside from a small wine bar in the back of this adorable, saffron-colored eatery owned and operated by Daniel and Felicia Ruiz Wayne, the former owners of Lux Coffeebar it's all table seating, thanks to a couple of dark, sleek communal tables that run the length of the room. Don't worry, your neighbors won't butt in on your conversation, although they just might inquire about that yummy-looking thing you're eating. From delectable jamon serrano with mahon and manchego cheeses, to garlicky garbanzo beans with sautéed spinach, to skewers of grilled marinated pork, the tapas here are certainly as appealing to the eye as to the taste buds. After a glass or two of thirst-quenching homemade sangria, filled with soft chunks of fresh fruit, you'll be schmoozing like an old pro.
You can watch chefs cooking on television, or perhaps at a culinary festival, but most of the time, in the real, day-to-day world of the restaurant biz, they work their magic behind the scenes. At Sea Saw, though, chef-owner Nobuo Fukuda and his team of kitchen protégés are as much an attraction as the food. With just a handful of tables around the room, and an open kitchen surrounded by counter seating, anybody who walks through the door is bound to get a glimpse of the James Beard Award-winning Fukuda preparing his inventive, tapas-style Japanese fusion cuisine. The place to be, of course, is right along the counter, where you can really get up-close and personal with the master at work. You won't necessarily get to chat him up too much which is obvious as soon as you see the intense focus and urgent pace of all the kitchen staff but watching the ebb and flow of dinner service, with the gratification of eating the end results, is truly memorable. Sea Saw really is something to see.