Best Of :: Food & Drink
Sometimes we don't mind skipping the sweet stuff at the end of the meal, because plenty of restaurants treat dessert like a sugary afterthought. But not Avalon. After a lavish feast of executive chef Travis Watson's "contemporary coastal cuisine" — California-meets-Mediterranean fare with an emphasis on seafood — we'll always make room for a little extra somethin' somethin'. That's because Watson used to be the corporate pastry chef for Fox Restaurant Concepts, and his desserts are as playfully creative as they are yummy. From a modern twist on strawberry shortcake and a festive brownie sundae with toffee popcorn, to Avalon's hauntingly decadent roasted banana bread pudding, these confections are pure pleasure from the first bite to the final plate licking.
To the uninitiated, chef Joshua Hebert's contemporary American restaurant concept may take some getting used to. He calls it "improvisational cuisine," and in the same way that a jazz musician gets in a groove and spins off an impromptu melody, Hebert plays around with ingredients in unexpected, unpredictable ways. And while some of the Valley's top chefs are constantly tweaking their menus based on what's in season, Hebert eschews a menu altogether. Instead, guests guide their dining experience with a checklist indicating how many courses they'd like, which featured meat and seafood appeals (or doesn't appeal) to them, whether they'll eat raw foods, and any other preferences. (If it's reminiscent of omakase dining at a sushi bar, where you trust the chef to feed you well, that's because Hebert did a stint at Tokyo's Miyako Hotel several years back.) Beyond that, dinner is a series of tasty surprises — scallop carpaccio with radish, pickled grapes, and squash blossom pesto; foie gras with citrus coulis and spun sugar; mushroom-braised veal with morels, peas and fresh mint. Seafood is Hebert's forte, but he's also fond of the exotic, like roasted kangaroo. To be sure, the Posh kitchen can handle the most finicky diners, but the customers who'll have the most fun will simply leave their meal in Hebert's capable hands.
Now this is what we call progress. After years of light-rail construction — when the streets were torn up, local businesses took a hit, and most of us avoided the area altogether — the Central Corridor has bounced back in a big way. Our favorite sign is the emergence of new restaurants along the rail path, exemplified by a charming neighborhood spot called Maizie's Café & Bistro.
Just steps from the station at Camelback and Central, it's hip, affordable, and friendly, thanks to the hospitality of the Miller family, who opened this place last year. And the menu at Maizie's has personality, from the "not your average quesadilla" (Brie, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and pine nuts in a spinach tortilla), to the bacon- and blue cheese-stuffed "inside out" burger, to the breakfast pizza (served on weekends). If Maizie's is a sign of good things to come along the light rail, it's a bright future, indeed.
In the midst of a gloomy summer that saw the demise of too many favorite Valley restaurants, the debut of The Parlor was undoubtedly a bright spot. To stop by on a weeknight in July (when many places in town were scraping by) you would've been fooled into thinking you were here on a weekend during tourist season, in a much better economy. What is everyone lining up for? A recession-proof menu of pizzas from the wood-fired oven (we love the one with Schreiner's sausage), handmade pastas, sandwiches, and killer craft cocktails like the basil gimlet, made with fresh herbs from the restaurant's own garden.
The atmosphere's great, too, thanks to an eco-friendly renovation of the 53-year-old building, which used to house Salon de Venus. That's right, father-and-son owners Dan and Aric Mei (who own Nello's in Ahwatukee) have tranformed a beauty parlor into a pizza parlor — and it's every bit the hit we'd hoped for.
The historic Coronado District's restaurant row, stretching along Seventh Street between McDowell and Thomas, is full of great restaurants, but to get to one of our favorite spots in the area, you'll have to take a small detour. Nestled in the residential heart of the neighborhood, Tuck Shop does have an unlikely location (before its opening, some locals pitched a fit, and the city had to limit its business hours to dinner). Still, it's worth seeking out for its cozy mid-century atmosphere and its Southern-influenced comfort food.
Fried chicken, red beans and rice with sausage and Creole shrimp, and juicy skirt steak with mashed Yukon potatoes are just a few highlights. Tuck Shop also has a reasonably priced wine list and excellent cocktails. As you can probably tell, Tuck Shop is quite a find.
To walk into Joe's Real BBQ, right in the middle of downtown Gilbert, you'd think you'd stepped right back in time to the 1940s. The building itself, all gorgeous red brick, was constructed in 1929 as a Safeway Pay'n'Takit (ah, they just don't make 'em like they used to), while the restored John Deere tractor in the middle of the dining room is an authentic '40s relic. And just like an old-fashioned cafeteria, you grab a tray and get in line to order up plates of slow-cooked meats smoked over pecan wood — beef brisket, luscious pulled pork, and pork ribs so tender you'll gnaw them down to the bones. Homemade root beer and retro sodas in glass bottles only add to the vintage vibe. Amazingly, Joe's Real BBQ has been in business since only the late '90s, but it's still a total blast from the past.
If you like creative, contemporary American cuisine in a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere, you gotta get yourself to Atlas, stat. It's a wine lover's dream come true, a cozy nook that's actually connected to AZ Wine Co. That's right, you have to walk past aisles of wine to get there. Of course, you can feel free to bring your best bottles from home, too — some of the restaurant's most loyal customers do just that. And because chef Josh Riesner changes up the menu so frequently, there's even more reason for repeat visits.
Kurobuta pork belly with polenta and caramelized apple and onion compote? Pheasant breast roulade with rye gnocchi, bacon cabbage, and pheasant gravy? You never quite know what you're gonna get here, except that it all tastes incredible with wine.
From sushi to ceviche, we'll devour most any seafood dish that lands in front of us. And it doesn't always have to be exotic. There's a certain old-school charm to a traditional seafood restaurant like Mastro's Ocean Club, where fish is simply prepared — perhaps pan-fried, perhaps mesquite-grilled — to emphasize its freshness. Give it just a squeeze of lemon juice, and we're good. Between Ocean Club's regular menu and the daily specials, there are easily 20 different kinds of seafood to choose from, including succulent sautéed sea scallops and moist red snapper. And be sure to check out the iced seafood tower, heaped with crab claws, oysters, caviar, or whatever else floats your boat. It all may sound totally decadent, but Ocean Club's ritzy atmosphere, live music, happening lounge scene, and well-crafted martinis will put you in the mood to go overboard. Ahoy!
A whole lot of upscale, contemporary steakhouses have opened up in town over the past couple of years — especially from celebrity chefs looking to make an imprint on the Valley's dining scene — and we're not entirely sure that the trend has subsided. People love their meat, and they're always looking for new ways to enjoy it. But even though we're happy to get our steak fix at the newest trendy steakhouses, we're still loyal to Durant's after all these years. There are good reasons this place is such a time-honored Valley destination, after all. With flocked red wallpaper and those big, dark booths, the atmosphere is pure Rat Pack glam, perfect for knocking back a martini or two, chowing down on a classic Caesar salad done right, and reveling in the glory of red meat. Whether it's a perfectly medium-rare New York strip, a thick rib eye, or a Porterhouse that weighs in at a whopping 48 ounces, it always satisfied our most primal, carnivorous urges. For us, that's something that'll never go out of style.
Honestly, we figured we'd get tired of the upscale steakhouse trend, but then J&G Steakhouse came along and completely seduced us with outrageously good prime steaks and a sexy, inviting atmosphere. No wonder Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the celebrity chef behind the J&G concept, helms a lineup of Michelin-starred eateries around the world. When The Phoenician resort teamed up with Vongerichten to replace the aging Mary Elaine's with this new spot, they transformed the dining room into a sleek, sophisticated space that shows off a truly incredible view of the Valley through a wall of windows. It's just the right setting to dig into spectacular steaks, like perfectly cooked prime rib, or a remarkably juicy New York strip with a six-peppercorn crust. When we need to satisfy our lust for red meat, J&G sweeps us away every time.
Some restaurants take years to refine their food and service, but NOCA came sprinting out of the gates and hasn't looked back. In February, it was named one of the best new restaurants in the country by the James Beard Foundation. Now barely over a year old, it's still got strong buzz, thanks to the efforts of restaurateur Eliot Wexler and executive chef Chris Curtiss. While Wexler dotes on first-timers and regular customers alike, Curtiss dreams up dishes with the freshest ingredients he can get his hands on, whether it's seafood from the same purveyor that the French Laundry uses, or organic produce straight from local farms. The menu changes frequently, but it always balances classic (duck confit, handmade pasta) and cutting-edge (sea urchin panna cotta). It's a melting pot of influences, to be sure, but upscale takes on American favorites like the pastrami sandwich (here, made with wagyu) keep NOCA firmly planted on U.S. soil. Once you dine here, don't be surprised if you pledge allegiance.
When we imagine the ideal neighborhood Italian joint, we picture a casual, convivial spot on a charming street, a place where locals gobble up great pizza, knock back a few glasses of wine over steaming bowls of pasta, and are generally treated like family by doting owners. And guess what? It's not just a figment of our imagination. We just described La Piazza al Forno, a gem of a place planted right in the midst of quaint downtown Glendale. Thanks to an open kitchen, customers can chat with owner Justin Piazza while he hand-tosses pizzas and works the roaring pecan- and oak-fired brick oven, which exudes such a heavenly aroma that you can smell it from outside. We're keen on the garlic-heavy La Piazza Blanco pie, but balsamic-kissed Mediterranean ravioli and velvety chicken pesto lasagna are equally enticing. And be sure to save room for the excellent New York cheesecake, further proof that La Piazza al Forno is a dream come true.