Lola Tapas

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.


Sea Saw

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.
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.

Despite the name, sushi isn't the only reason to visit Yasu Sushi Bistro. This stylish, pocket-sized restaurant also happens to feature ultra-buttery wagyu, Japan's most sought-after, exquisite beef. Here, you get to grill it yourself at your table. Other top-notch dishes from the sumibiyaki menu — items cooked over fragrant binchotan charcoal — include sea scallops wrapped in bacon, and tsukune, homemade chicken meatballs coated in a smoky-sweet sauce. As for the sushi bar here, it's a lot more intimate (that is, a lot smaller) than the standard kind — and downright minuscule compared with the sleek expanses at Valley hot spots where the décor threatens to outdazzle the eats — but that only makes the seats that much more desirable, as far as we're concerned. All the better to get face time with talented chef Yasu Hashino, who co-owns the restaurant with Yoshi Natori, the founder of Yoshi's. Hashino has a rep for being ultra-picky about his seafood, and it shows in the freshness and quality of his creations.

Even old favorites, like salmon or yellowtail, are somehow more sublime here. But for a truly thrilling meal, check out the list of specials, where you'll find more unusual offerings like sanma (mackerel pike), aji (Spanish mackerel), and ankimo (monkfish liver pate). Hashino won't buy fish that's more than a few gasps out of the ocean, so go ahead and be adventurous. There's no telling whether it'll be on the menu tomorrow.

Forget about time machines. If you want a blast from the past, just ride the Pink Pony into the sunset of Scottsdale history, back to the good old days when baseball greats like Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, and Willie Mays hung out at this Old Town landmark. Around for more than half a century, the old gal's held up pretty well — curvy, black vinyl booths and tiny cowboy boot lamps give it a true 1950s charm, while framed jerseys and autographed memorabilia make it feel like a cozy sports fan's hideout.

During spring training, Pink Pony's an obvious destination for pilgrims paying tribute to America's pastime, but even in the off-season, it's a reliable stop for hungry patrons in search of a stiff cocktail, a juicy slab of prime rib, and a healthy dose of old-school cool.

In just a few short years, the reputation of chef-owner Kevin Binkley's eponymous fine dining establishment has risen to nearly legendary status, thanks to a combination of attentive, professional service, charming atmosphere, and above all, outstanding French-influenced contemporary cuisine that's both inspired and inspiring. Despite its far-flung location in Cave Creek — better known for biker bars and desert scenery — it's become a must-visit for foodies across the Valley, not to mention pleasure-seeking visitors from the area's high-end resorts. Chef Binkley's culinary brilliance reveals itself in obsessively sourced premium ingredients (with an emphasis on local and organic) and inventive flavor combinations, making every dish a mini-masterpiece. That's no surprise, given his resumé, which includes stints working under chef Patrick O'Connell at Virginia's The Inn at Little Washington, as well as chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in Napa Valley. Meanwhile, his accomplished wife, Amy, the maitre d', runs the front of the house with grace.

Based on what's seasonally available, the menu here evolves daily. And while you certainly won't be disappointed ordering à la carte, the four-, five-, and six-course tasting menus are the best way to get the full Binkley's experience. (Expect a whirlwind of amuses-bouches between courses, each one more clever than the last.) If we had to put our money on the next big regional contender for a James Beard award, this is it.

Go now, before the spotlight on Binkley's shines even brighter.

Royal Palms Resort and Spa
Just stepping foot on the grounds of the Royal Palms Resort & Spa is enough to make you swoon. With its stately Spanish colonial architecture and lush, manicured grounds, it's no wonder this elegant property is a popular wedding site. But even if you're barely past your first date, dinner at T. Cook's is sure to spark some romance. From its high ceilings to its luxurious appointments, the dining room is the best spot in Phoenix for an amorous tte-à-tte with someone special. Chef Lee Hillson's lust-inducing menu takes its cues from Mediterranean cuisine, with contemporary flourishes. A sumptuous combination of pan-roasted duck breast and foie gras is served with a confit dumpling, preserved apricots, and spiced yogurt, while tagliatelle is dressed up with chanterelles, squash blossoms, and puréed arugula. For dessert, pastry chef Pierino Jermonti's dreamy creations are sure to conjure naughty thoughts; go for "Double the Sin," a baked double chocolate torte draped in brie and white chocolate cream. And in case that's not enough to seal the deal, be sure to consult the resort's Director of Romance. That's right — at the Royal Palms, they'll do whatever it takes to ensure love is in the air.
It seems like Tom and Chrysa Kaufman opened their charming eatery just yesterday, but believe it or not, it's been almost 14 years since this New Times favorite was the buzziest new restaurant in town. Plenty of accolades have followed (including many "Best ofs"), lots of competitors have come and gone, and the Kaufmans are now divorced (chef Chrysa has returned to using her maiden name, Robertson), but their restaurant is just as good as ever, a low-key modern classic where we can still count on the finest ingredients from local farms and a fat wine list filled with primo vintages and a few funny cartoons, too. The menu changes with the seasons, although there are plenty of reliable old favorites that bring us back again and again: crispy stuffed squash blossoms with cherry tomato vinaigrette, succulent grilled lamb chops with flageolet beans, roasted garlic, and preserved lemon, and their famous Nonni's Sunday Chicken, braised with wine and mushrooms. Sometimes change is inevitable, but we're glad that Rancho Pinot is still the same place we've always known and loved.
Inspired by the pioneer ranches of the Old West — and named after southeastern Arizona's Sierra Bonita Ranch, founded by Henry Hooker in 1872 — charming, comfortable Sierra Bonita Grill puts a delicious gourmet spin on our state's culinary traditions. The menu is mostly creative comfort food, with Mexican accents and native Southwestern ingredients. The red chile pork tamale, a heap of melt-in-your-mouth smoked pork and salsa on top of sweet, moist masa, is an edible work of art, while the goat cheese gratin with piquillo-chipotle purée is an addicting contrast between soothing and spicy.

Entrees are just as exciting; try the succulent beef tenderloin with red wine-prickly pear reduction, pecan-crusted trout with tangy orange-maple vinaigrette, or the outstanding buttermilk chicken, spooned with creamy black pepper gravy and served with the best mashed sweet potatoes this side of the Mississippi. For dessert, the bread pudding, drizzled with a punchy sauce of lime and Jack Daniel's whiskey, is so warm and soothing, it'll make you doze off better than a campfire.

It might sound like heresy to pick Wildfish over Eddie V's, but don't worry — they're related. Wildfish has all the ultra-fresh seafood you'd expect at its big brother restaurant, only it's housed in a sleek, sexy spot at the Scottsdale Waterfront. Reserve a table in the dining room when you're up for a full meal with all the bells and whistles, or grab a seat at the happening bar for a casual feast. (Nothing wrong with calling martinis and raw oysters dinner!)

This isn't run-of-the-mill seafood with lemon and butter, but an exciting menu with Asian touches that enhance the freshness of the day's catch without overwhelming it. Reel in some crisp calamari with cashews and red chile, or a killer crab cake served with spicy remoulade. Entree highlights include steamed Hong Kong-style Chilean sea bass; sea scallops sautéed with macadamia nuts, fresh citrus, and brown butter; and salmon with black bean vinaigrette. If you think there's no such thing as great seafood in the middle of the desert, you clearly haven't been here yet.

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