Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: A Vegetable Wizard Casts New Spells at Singh Meadows

Jackie Mercandetti Photo
This simplified Napoleon is better.
The market, with its fennel fronds and giant pretzels, has magnetism. The seating outside its eatery is shady and sunny, mismatched. In the gardens, you may see artichoke plants or farm employees toting just-pulled carrots. Planes loft overhead, birds arrow, families lie on blankets spread through the grass, and chalk-blue dragonflies skim the pond. Behind it all is the older man in the cowboy hat, shuffling from table to table.

Ken Singh may greet you. He may speak to you with disarming sincerity.

“It’s sort of embarrassing, all the time I’ve wasted gathering stuff,” he says to one table.

“If one of my sons is farming when I go,” he says, “that’s good enough for me.”

“Enjoy the richness,” he ends, making for another table.

click to enlarge Singh Meadows is perfect for diners with kids or anyone who likes the outdoors. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Singh Meadows is perfect for diners with kids or anyone who likes the outdoors.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
On my first visit, I was wheeling two kids in a stroller and scoring green garlic and strawberries from the market when Singh walked in. He started talking about his 70-acre meadow in Tempe. He talked about the crops from this meadow and his external farmland, about other fields he sources from in the Valley and beyond. After praising his wife and co-owner of the market, farm, and meadows, Lee Singh, Ken kinked the thread to his new chef — Sacha Levine.

Levine has cooked at places like FnB, Rancho Pinot, and Ocotillo. After Ocotillo, in the long lead-up to her planned fall 2018 restaurant, she hosted pop-up dinners across town. But her grand restaurant plans vaporized, and she eventually landed with Singh Meadows. There, she has been cooking inventive, plant-driven food out of a tiny kitchen, food that hops borders and “ebbs and flows with the market,” she says.

Levine first worked on Singh’s farm about nine years ago. There, she grew, harvested, and “did a lot of preserving.” In the best dishes she plates at the Meadows today, her love and knowledge of local vegetables shines to your tonsils. That mastery is rooted in seasonality. Though the dishes rapidly cycle as each plant does its fast-and-glorious dance in the present before receding, a review can speak to skills and style, though a few dishes will be history by the time you read this.

Levine can tease outsize goodness from a simple carrot.

click to enlarge The falafel sandwich, which Sacha Levine refers to as an old-school Jerusalem recipe that she adapted. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The falafel sandwich, which Sacha Levine refers to as an old-school Jerusalem recipe that she adapted.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
On a pita, whole baby carrots spear between sweet potato wedges. Hummus made with avocado and jalapeño keeps the vegetables anchored on an intensely yeasty, bready Baiz Market pita, all topped with sheep’s milk feta and paper-thin radish. If you are the kind of eater who craves meat in every meal, this charred root vegetable filling will probably satisfy you anyway. It’s heavy, fresh, unlikely. It speaks to the possible heights of food that grows in the ground.

At the seats outside, marked and unmarked and some on the grass, people eat morning and lunchtime meals like this one. It is a little surreal. The setting is perfect for diners with kids or anyone who likes the outdoors. Plates fly from the kitchen. Order, kick a soccer ball for a minute or two, and feel your remote vibrate. Your food is ready.

Some of Levine’s plates lean toward starters, including Taste of the Meadows. This hodgepodge of whatever’s fresh takes you on a gustatory tour of the vibrating, pulsing, insect-bleated green world around you. Strawberries. Citrus segments. Ricotta and honey. Nothing too stunning, just a clear glimpse of the Meadows (and maybe a few other places, as dates one morning came from Yuma).

From simple smaller plates, the menu quickly passes into more nuances.

click to enlarge "You see the future menu growing all around you." - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
"You see the future menu growing all around you."
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
A strawberry Napoleon channels the beauty and ephemerality of the land. Layered phyllo sheets boosted by whipped goat cheese crackle and shatter, releasing bursts of peak-season berry incandescence deepened by basil. Levine plans to swap in fruits like dates, peaches, and cherries as the seasons shift. This isn’t the fancy Napoleon of the glass pastry case. This simplified version is better.

Another wonder: the greens beside this Napoleon. They are huge, frilly swaths of plant matter, naked but for white wine vinegar and lemon juice. A few primal leafy bites, and all the seven-ingredient salad dressings you’ve ever had feel strange and confused.

Levine’s food is generally bright, but it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. A frittata with the height of layer cake got glommed down in its own mass of congealed egg — even if its creamy sauce, long-cooked heirloom tomatoes emulsified with olive oil, was an 11 out of 10. Red chile pork with polenta was fire in theory (meant to be a tamale remix), but fell short in practice. Polenta seized up early. Crimson sauce lacked the usual red-chile zap.

More often than not, you find yourself eating something great, like falafel that changes with the market offerings, Levine referring to it as “an old-school Jerusalem recipe that I kind of adapted.” Recently, a soft ciabatta roll swaddled fried chickpea balls cut with jalapeño, leeks, and green garlic: hot and crisp outside, soft and green within. No greasy weight. Just clean and vegetal, lifted by carrot raita and slabs of feta.

click to enlarge Dishes change rapidly with the produce seasons. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Dishes change rapidly with the produce seasons.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
But a simple bowl of ham and beans was my favorite.

Long slices of ham, toasty and brown, meandered atop a pile of heirloom beans. Levine braises the beans — Anasazi and cranberry and runners — before folding them into spring onions, pickled fennel, lemon juice, and sherry vinegar, forming escabeche. You can get a fried egg on top to bridge this one to breakfast. Either way, powered by fermented tang, parsley leaves, and Calabrian chiles, the bowl is pork and beans from a can transported to avant-garde vegetable cookery of 2019.

The level of food and its allegiance to plants completes the Singh family vision. At Singh Meadows, partly due to this food, you feel utterly removed from the soulless branded restaurants, from the vapid Instagram-conscious eateries of our strange present moment in eating. At Singh Meadows, you feel the sun and grass and wind. You see the future menu growing all around you. You feel a connection to plants, to our planet.

Singh Meadows (the restaurant)

1490 East Weber Drive, Tempe
Hours: Friday to Sunday 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Note: Dishes change rapidly with the produce seasons.

Taste of the Meadows $9
Golden milk $8
Heirloom bean and ham bowl $10
Moroccan carrot and sweet potato pita $11
Tuscan kale and leek falafel sandwich $12