The year's most outstanding dishes in the Valley run the culinary gamut -- from the exquisitely unique to artfully crafted re-inventions of elemental flavors. Put them on your plate and prepare to be wowed.
Scallops at Virtú Honest Craft
At chef-owner Gio Osso's tiny, wonderful Mediterranean-inspired café in Scottsdale, the menu may be different today from it was yesterday and similar tomorrow, perhaps, but it's always in flux. If Osso has prepared his pan-seared scallops for you on the evening you visit Virtú, the culinary stars have aligned in your favor. Delicately light and sweet, they are impossibly pristine, served atop a tidy arrangement of butternut squash, caramelized onion, and bits of bacon with a white chocolate beurre blanc that is even more decadent than you imagined it could be.
El Español at Otro Café
Further playing upon the success of his first restaurant, Gallo Blanco, chef Doug Robson creates Mexican and Spanish-influenced dishes at his newest project in north Central Phoenix that run from traditionally impeccable to memorably sublime. Among the latter is the El Español, a shareable plate of thin-sliced ham, serrano peppers, avocados, olives, and red onion in a savory citrus dressing ready to be scooped up with crunchy pieces of bolillo bread. Lightly earthy, a little spicy, and entirely refreshing, you can picture it coming out of a tapas-style café in Spain.
Guthi Vengaya Curry at Karaikudi Palace
If Karaikudi Palace in North Scottsdale has a specialty, it is the South Indian dishes, which, given the menu's 130-plus selections, are not always the easiest to find. One in particular, the guthi vengaya curry (pro tip: It's number 60) is especially worth pursuing. Consisting of whole baby eggplants stuffed with onions and spices then cooked with ingredients like peanuts and tamarind, the smoky and spicy creation is both a thoughtful nod to its home state of Andhra Pradesh, on India's southeastern coast, as well as a magnificent dish in and of itself.
The Ivan Burger at The Attic
Like many people, I had my first Ivan Burger at The Attic even though it was on the menu for two years at Cave & Ives, a Mediterranean restaurant in the same space and from the same owners as the Attic's. Like any good hamburger, it's a well-balanced mix of flavors and textures, but its house-ground well-seasoned patty and locally made pretzel bun put it over the top. At the moment, it's the best burger in town. The only secrets, George Bernard Shaw said, are the secrets that keep themselves.
Kale & Chard Kim Chee on Braunschwieger Pate at Renegade by MOD (R.I.P.)
Cutting-edge cuisine was never so brilliant (or so brief) as it was at Renegade by MOD, the risk-taking restaurant in North Scottsdale from ex-Kai chef Michael O'Dowd and partner Ed Leclere. In November, after just six months, the two called it quits, the restaurant's name changing to Renegade and O'Dowd's menu of re-invented foods from around the globe left intact (for now) but sans its creator. To the dearly departed, I offer a fond memory of my most favorite dish: dense, black rye bread layered with supremely flavored braunschweiger along with kale, kimchi, and bits of crisp cured forcemeat topped with a perfectly poached egg.
Shrimp and Corn Tamale at The Blind Pig
By the time you've taken in the mammoth butcher's case and perused the restaurant's meat-centric menu, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect at The Blind Pig, the Scottsdale hangout from restaurateurs Bob and Sally Ann Molinari and Hobe Meats owner Bret Pont. Still, the Shrimp and Corn Tamale, with its plump grilled prawns, lightly sweet masa cake, and luscious cream sauce of corn and cilantro, is surprising. Despite its elegant appearance, the dish's flavor is bolder than you might expect and the plate is brought to you by way of a server who calls you "Hon." You wouldn't have it any other way.
Big Jim at the Welcome Diner
When people talk about the Welcome Diner, the tiny, iconic eatery at 10th and Roosevelt streets, they inevitably bring up the Big Jim - and they should. Because that sandwich, a teetering tower of well-herbed chunks of fried chicken, bacon, melted cheddar, and thick, peppery sausage gravy between scratch-made buttermilk biscuits, pretty much sets the tone for Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson's (Old Dixie's food truck) tight menu of New Orleans- and Southern-inspired eats. And with just nine seats and a few tables outside, Southern comfort never felt so cozy.
Bastila at Alzouhour
Moroccan bastila is nothing short of an exotic delight -- a rich and sumptuous sweet and savory pie that tastes like Christmas and looks like a supersize cookie. You'll find a very good bastila at Alzouhour, the tiny Middle Eastern eatery, bakery, and market where owner Zhor Saad makes hers with spice-cooked chicken and crunchy sweetened almonds stuffed into a paper-thin shell of phyllo crust sweetened with cinnamon and sugar. Typically prepared for special occasions, it's only fitting that this hearty meat pie comes big enough to enjoy with friends.
Push Pop at Bink's Midtown
James Beard Award finalist Kevin Binkley's reimagined plates of produce at his charming bungalow turned restaurant are reason enough for us to eat our vegetables. But his equally innovative desserts make doing so all the more rewarding. Consider the push pop, Binkley's gourmet version of the popular kiddy treat filled with layers of ever-changing ingredients like butternut squash ice cream, pineapple chutney, and tamarind chocolate syrup. It may be the most perfect (and playful) way to eat dessert in the Valley. And thanks to his newest location, Scottsdalians are pushing Binkley's pops, too.
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Mole at La 15 y Salsas
The mole at Elizabeth Hernandez's cheery Oaxacan restaurant and market in Sunnyslope is pretty much everything you'd want. Dark, intricate sauce? Check. Dozens of ingredients? Check. Spices ground on a metate? Well, sure, why not. She makes two kinds: black mole, which is smoky, spicy, and a bit sweet, and mole rojo, which is spicier and simpler than the black and made without chocolate. They can be had spooned over chicken or chicken enchiladas (enmoladas), but the black mole is best over the tamal oaxaqueño, where it meets with a moist and delicate masa cake wrapped in a banana leaf.
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