Best Small Plates 2009 | Cork | Food & Drink | Phoenix

When restaurant industry veterans Robert and Danielle Morris teamed up with co-owner and executive chef Brian Peterson to open Cork, a stylish restaurant/wine bar in Chandler, they set out to serve food with the whimsy of a tasting menu but the ease of à la carte. And that's just what makes dining at Cork so fun — small portions make it simple for guests to pick and choose as eclectic a dinner as they want, whether they're in it for a few wine-friendly nibbles (like housemade crackers with wild venison salami and Humboldt Fog cheese) or an epicurean splurge that might include pork-belly-accented mac 'n' cheese, foie gras au torchon, and grilled elk chop. This is some of the most sophisticated dining in town, but the relaxed, friendly atmosphere makes it worthy of repeat visits. Who needs a special occasion when the food itself is worth celebrating?

Mom and Dad don't come to town often enough, so you've got to choose wisely when it's time for them to treat you dinner. Whether you're 18 and a college freshman or 42 and a shameless middle-aged freeloader, House of Tricks is a good choice. You don't want to waste a free meal on the likes of Chili's — not when Tricks is in the 'hood. This sweet little restaurant has charmed parental units for years, located blocks from Arizona State's Tempe campus, far enough off Mill Avenue to avoid any craziness on a Saturday night. Whether you sit on the patio, at the outdoor bar (complete with roaring fireplace), or in one of the tiny rooms inside, the atmosphere is lovely. Mom will be impressed with the mismatched teacups; Dad will go for the lengthy wine list. The menu is a delightfully mixed bag and changes all the time — you might try the herb-crusted lamb or the apricot glazed chicken. Or what the heck, go for the New York strip. You're not paying! Now, where's the dessert tray?

Timur Guseynov

Typically speaking, if you don't see a kids' menu, you don't want to bring your kids. It's like a restaurant with no highchairs. Big hint. Not so at Pita Jungle, where kids are more than welcome, and there's plenty for them on the grownups' menu. It's actually a relief to not have the choice of chicken fingers and mac 'n' cheese — it's the only way we can get the kids to eat vegetables, and there's a wide variety of all kinds of healthful food on Pita Jungle's Mediterranean menu.

The best part, though, is the service. Every time we've taken the kids to Pita Jungle, the staff has been so friendly that we've had to practically wrest the children away — and not in a creepy way. What started as a storefront in Tempe has expanded into a mini-empire, but what we love is that we can come in a month later and the woman cleaning the tables still remembers our daughter's name.

Now, who's in the mood for a macro combo platter tonight?

If you really want to appreciate chef Kevin Binkley's food, be sure to bring your sense of humor to dinner. Binkley, who worked for renowned chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, is undoubtedly serving some of the most creative, sophisticated cuisine that Arizona has to offer, incorporating classical French techniques into his seasonal American menu. But for all the precision and polish of the kitchen, the vibe in the dining room is surprisingly relaxed, brightened with moments of pure delight when guests get the next round of dishes. In between courses that look like artwork on a plate — potatoes adorned with fried sage and thick slices of black truffle, or maple-glazed pork tenderloin nestled with baby zucchini and butternut squash — the waitstaff delivers a flurry of playful amuses bouches that inevitably spark conversation. How about the fruity "lava lamp" shot, served on a color-changing LED coaster, or the tiniest baked potato you've ever seen? It's an experience you won't soon forget.

Robrt Pela

Seems like most hotel eateries fall into one of two categories — the generic, functional spot aimed at people staying there or the fancy fine-dining place geared toward big spenders of any stripe. Gallo Blanco Café, however, is remarkable in that it doesn't feel like it's in a hotel in the first place. In some other city, perhaps, you'd probably find a place like Gallo Blanco on a walkable street full of interesting shops and other indie restaurants, but because this is Phoenix, it sort of makes sense that it's located inside a quirky, locally owned boutique hotel. Chef-owner Doug Robson's menu is distinctive, too, full of the kinds of comforting dishes that recall his Mexico City upbringing, from irresistible street tacos to marinated pollo asado. Perhaps the only reminder that Gallo Blanco's in a hotel is the inclusion of a burger, the ultimate everyman food. And you know what? Even that's pretty darn tasty.

Local Breeze owner Sid Campbell pays homage to the now-defunct Pischke's (where he was a longtime cook) by bringing a laid-back touch of the tropics to the middle of this desert metropolis. Situated in the historic Cavness House, just beyond the heart of downtown, Local Breeze is the perfect antidote to a stressful day, especially if you sit on the sprawling patio. Here, you can while away a lunch hour or a balmy evening stretched out at a big table or lounging on a comfy couch, sipping an ice-cold "mojito" lemonade and feasting on casual American eats. Oversize salads, sandwiches, and burgers are just a few of the possibilities, along with weekend brunch. Sailing away to an island paradise may not be an option for most of us, but thankfully, we can always cruise over to Local Breeze.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

When did fried calamari become so ubiquitous? They're everywhere, practically threatening the dominance of the mighty French fry it seems, served at neighborhood grills and fancy restaurants alike. We're fans, of course, but only when they're done right — and that's the catch. Really fresh squid, gently fried in a delicate batter, is a sublime treat that few kitchens have perfected. Andreoli Italian Grocer is one of those rare finds, which comes as no surprise if you've ever tasted chef-owner Giovanni Scorzo's cooking. We're so squid-crazy, though, that we've moved on to his grilled calamari, lightly marinated, barely charred, and so tender. If you've ever been to the Mediterranean, one bite of this will transport you to a relaxing seaside tavern in a flash. Which is why we can eat the whole plate ourselves.

Classic throwback cocktails like the rum-drenched Mai Tai — invented by Trader Vic's founder Vic Bergeron in the 1940s — deserve to be teamed with retro snacks that are just as stylishly tasty. The Cosmo Tidbits appetizer platter for two is the way to go (unless you're flying solo), with wonton-wrapped crab Rangoon, barbecued pork spareribs, butterflied prawns in a panko coating, and cha siu pork. It's a lot of crispy fried goodness, with an extra helping of mouthwatering meat. A bonus: When you suddenly realize just how easily those fruity, potent tiki drinks go down, Trader Vic's snacks will help you hold your liquor a little longer.

Lauren Saria

When the night's just getting started, we like to fuel up at the new south Scottsdale outpost of Pure Sushi (the original location's up north, at Grayhawk), located in the Scottsdale Civic Plaza. From here, it's an easy walking distance to our favorite nightclubs and watering holes, and Pure's upbeat, ultra-sleek atmosphere gets us ready to get our groove on. (Well-crafted specialty cocktails don't hurt, either.) Creative makizushi like the creamy baked lobster roll and the shiromi lover's roll are fine ways to kick off a night of hedonism, but we're especially fond of the box sushi, with its appealing layers of tuna, salmon, crab mix, and rice speckled with smelt eggs. It's total eye candy, not unlike Pure's good-looking clientele — whom you might meet later on the dance floor.

Wait, we know what you're thinking: bar food? Who goes out for that? Um, we do — at least when that bar is The Roosevelt. Since they serve only stellar craft brews, imports, and interesting wines here, it makes sense that the eats would be equally top-notch. And considering the impeccable taste of the owners (Matt and Erenia Pool, of Matt's Big Breakfast fame), we wouldn't expect anything less.

For their menu of snacks and sandwiches, they've sourced the best of the best — artisanal cheeses, gourmet hot dogs, delicious soft pretzels from MJ Bread, organic local greens for the salad (yep, there's a salad on the menu). Even the humble-sounding grilled cheese and homemade tomato soup are perfection. The Roosevelt may not technically be a restaurant, but it's still one of our favorite places to eat downtown.

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