Best Tasting Menu 2008 | Sea Saw | Food & Drink | Phoenix

Order off the à la carte menu if you like, but if you really want to understand why chef Nobuo Fukuda earned his James Beard Award, give in to Sea Saw's seasonal omakase. That's the premium tasting menu at this jewel box of a restaurant, a series of exquisite creations that Fukuda and his team of chefs assemble right before your eyes (that is, if you reserve one of the counter seats that encircle Sea Saw's open kitchen). Although the cuisine here is decidedly Japanese, it's imaginative and cutting-edge, with some unique European flourishes. Every bite is an exhilarating flavor combination, from tuna tataki drizzled with pinot noir reduction and roasted beet purée to seared, miso-marinated foie gras so sweet and rich that it's almost more decadent than dessert itself. Expert sake and wine pairings are yet another reason to look forward to each course. If there's one place in town where it's worth letting go of your Type A tendencies, it's Sea Saw. You'll be in good hands.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Want to know why we just stifled a yawn? Well, the menus hardly change at some of the Valley's top fine-dining spots, while other places might tweak their offerings every few months. If it weren't for that, we might visit some of them more often. But there's no getting bored at delightful Quiessence, where chef Gregory LaPrad and sous chef Anthony Andiario are Phoenix's most dynamic kitchen duo. Every day brings something different, based on whatever's fresh, in season, and available from local purveyors, including Maya's at the Farm, the organic farm located right next door. But no matter what time of year it is, you can count on exquisite homemade pastas, succulent meats and ripe vegetables roasted in the brick oven, homey desserts, and the city's most intriguing selection of artisan cheeses. If there's any restaurant worthy of repeat visits, it's Quiessence.

Although the juicy, perfectly grilled lamb chops come in a close second, our first pick for favorite dish at Bombay Spice is the unforgettable chickpea ceviche, a dish that turns a humble ingredient into a dazzling one. This heap of tender chickpeas is tossed with diced tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, with a tangy-sweet sauce of yogurt, tamarind, and mint. Served chilled, it's summery and refreshing, a satisfying way to fill up without feeling bogged down (you could say the same about a lot of the healthful dishes at Bombay Spice, where Indian food gets a lighter spin). You can share a plate of chickpea ceviche with friends, or scarf it down as an entree, but no matter what you do, you'll find yourself craving it long after you've left the restaurant, and you'll never think of chickpeas the same way again.

You know, we're not sure we've ever seen Grape-Nuts on a menu anywhere, and we're definitely certain we've never eaten them past breakfast time. Who'd have guessed they'd make such a splendid dessert? At The Breadfruit, a bright, cheery Jamaican restaurant that opened downtown earlier this year, a dessert called "Gret's Grapenut Ice Cream and Jell-O" sparked our curiosity, if only for its unusual ingredients. It's quite an ice cream novelty, with Grape-Nuts and raisins stirred into soft Häagen-Dazs vanilla, then scooped into a parfait glass with blobs of cherry Jell-O. Simultaneously creamy, crunchy, and chewy all at once, this sweet and refreshing treat also happens to be the perfect way to cool your taste buds after eating spicy jerk chicken or fiery escovitch fish.

El Chorro Lodge is a bastion of old-school cool, the kind of place where you can rely on stiff cocktails, a leisurely Arizona-glam atmosphere, and classic dishes like shrimp Louie, sautéed chicken livers with bacon, tableside chateaubriand, or a glorious mesquite-broiled prime steak. But there's something else worth going for, and it's not on the menu. It's El Chorro's homemade sticky buns, so decadently memorable that they have a cult following. Once you taste these babies — they give you a basket of them at the beginning of each meal, no matter if it's brunch or dinner — you'll understand. They're hot out of the oven, each soft swirl of dough soaked in a sweet, sticky glaze of butter and melted brown sugar. Every bite is ethereal, and it's really hard to not to spoil our appetite when they land on our table. Ultimately, when forced to choose between finishing our steak or polishing off another sticky bun, we inevitably give in to gooey bliss.

We love everything about Au Petit Four, from the strong coffee and the case full of colorful pastries to the outstanding omelets. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to come to this tiny cafe, but even if there were just one — that is, their amazing croissants — we'd still make a special trip across town just to eat here. Au Petit Four's croissants are so rich and buttery, you'd think they put a whole stick of butter in each one. They're delicately crisp, baked to a perfect, deep shade of golden brown, but inside, they're still flaky and light. And, honestly, we find it incredibly difficult to eat only one, lest we look like total gluttons. How do the French themselves make self-restraint seem so easy? Well, we think we've figured them out: They get extra croissants to go.

Courtesy of Scratch

Ooh-la-la, we can't tell you how delighted we were when we discovered this honest-to-goodness French patisserie. Open since January, Scratch Pastries is a labor of love run by two Parisian transplants, Duc and Noelle Liao, who left behind glamorous careers (fashion photographer and model, respectively) in the City of Light to raise their family here. And we're so glad they did. Now we can hang out in their stylish, low-key cafe, sip Mariages Frères tea, and nibble on buttery, freshly made croissants, chewy macarons, and exquisite creations like the cream-filled strawberry-rose gateau or the matcha­-flecked green tea fleur. They're all almost too pretty to eat. That's right, we said almost.

Leave it to Oprah Winfrey's pal Gayle to spill the beans on what we thought was a well-kept secret: the dreamy cupcakes at Wicked Bakery. The delicate crumb is moist but not too heavy, and the frosting is ultra-creamy, so fluffy we could eat it with a spoon. Wicked's flavors are wickedly delicious, too. The offerings vary from day to day (unless, of course, you place an order ahead of time), so it's always exciting to see what's in store. Will they be sold out of the "hot" chocolate, habanero-infused chocolate cupcakes topped with vanilla buttercream and a dash of spice? Will we get there in time to grab a few of the vanilla crème brûlée cupcakes, or some of those heavenly red velvet numbers, capped with a cloud of silky cream cheese frosting? It's kind of like playing the lottery — except that we come out a winner every time.

Diana Martinez

It would be easy enough to celebrate about Barb's Bakery just for the beautiful wedding cakes, done up in the same kind of elegant designs that Martha Stewart would approve of, in flavors from devil's food to pink champagne. After all, hearing your guests rave about how good the thing looks and tastes is a definite victory for even the most raging Bridezilla. But Barb's does more than just the Big Day. Barb's does holidays, with cute themed cupcakes for Christmas, Easter, and more. Birthdays, naturally, are a breeze for Barb's Bakery, whether your birthday boy or girl craves carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, or classic yellow cake slathered with chocolate buttercream. And thanks to signature frosted cookies in whimsical shapes and colors, even ordinary days become a special occasion.

These days, you can find bagels and challah and maybe even a decent rye bread at plenty of neighborhood grocery stores, but Karsh's Bakery still makes the best, using all kosher ingredients, the way they've been doing since the '60s. This bakery's almost like a time capsule, an old school, no-bells-and-whistles storefront where the display cases are packed with mouthwatering breads, rolls, and pastries, including rugalach and black-and-white cookies that bring customers from miles around. Looking for a special occasion cake? Karsh's does those too, from traditional wedding and birthday cakes to specialty designs shaped like animals, toys, and even Louis Vuitton handbags.

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