Cafe Reviews

Chef Michael DeMaria’s Heirloom Is Tasty but Not Worth the Trek

You have to hand it to Heirloom's chef-owner, Michael DeMaria — the guy knows how to keep his momentum, even if he's not always in the spotlight.

In 2007, when he closed his award-winning restaurant Michael's at the Citadel, he and business partner Brandon Maxwell channeled their energies into Trattoria M and Aroma Market Caffe, which were slated for downtown Tempe's Centerpoint Condominiums. At the time, visitors to DeMaria's Web site could watch videos of the telegenic chef wearing a hardhat and talking excitedly about his plans.

Meanwhile, the entire condo development stalled out with the Mortgages Ltd. debacle, and DeMaria's restaurant openings — originally scheduled for a year ago — were postponed indefinitely. Supposedly the food ventures are still in the works, though.

Late last year, DeMaria and Maxwell pushed on again, this time to pounce on the vacancy left by Flo's Hong Kong Food Market at DC Ranch in north Scottsdale. They didn't waste any time in turning it around, either. After demolishing it over the holidays, DeMaria hung up his chef's apron to don a tool belt and work on renovations himself. By the end of January, Heirloom was open for business.

Heirloom's tagline is "An American Restaurant," although it's not the fine-dining destination that Michael's at the Citadel once was. Instead, it's a casual neighborhood setting for upscale American cooking, with smaller portions and somewhat more budget-conscious pricing; most items are under $20. The menu is designed for guests to choose two to four courses apiece.

Three months in, the place is already up to speed in so many ways, namely the relaxing atmosphere and professional service. The menu is a fun read, too, because it changes monthly and incorporates seasonal ingredients.

But I think Heirloom still hasn't reached its full potential, particularly in the execution of its dishes. Clearly, this food appeals to the locals (a north Scottsdale snowbird crowd, from the looks of the clientele), but is it destination-worthy for a diverse crowd of foodies making the trek from other parts of the Valley? This customer was a little disappointed that she didn't fall in love with it.

The comfortable dining room wasn't fussy; crisp white tablecloths and clean, blond wood furniture brightened the deep wine-colored space, where track lighting and glass-covered wine storage added sleek accents. On the sound system, there was laid-back rock by Sting and The Rolling Stones. And each table was set with a metal canister of light, crispy breadsticks, with scrumptious red pepper-white bean hummus dip on the side.

It was nice to have a nosh while contemplating the menu, which was divvied up into courses one through five, all served as small plates (though some were more generous than others). There were salads and soups; savory appetizers; seafood dishes; meat dishes; and desserts. As I mentioned earlier, two or three is a decent amount of food, while four courses make sense for folks with huge appetites.

One thing I can say about everything I tasted was that the sauces and broths were delicious. Really, these were the highlights of Heirloom's food. On the downside, none of the truffled dishes bore any actual trace of truffle. For me, it often takes only a single ingredient like to lure me into ordering a particular thing, so when it's absent, it seems all the more conspicuous.

Short rib cannelloni is one of DeMaria's signature dishes, and it's no wonder. Moist shreds of beef, rolled in thin, tender pasta, rested on caramelized onions in a pool of rich beef broth, with creamy blobs of bleu Taleggio fondue bobbing in it. They really should serve bread with it, to sop up that ambrosia.

I also enjoyed the sage-scented, mushroom-stuffed chicken thigh, with cipollini onions and creamy "truffle" sauce (nope, I couldn't taste truffle, but the dish was still flavorful). And thyme-roasted pheasant crépinette was my favorite thing here, wrapped in sausage and doused in a fragrant cipollini onion and morel mushroom broth that the waiter poured on top.

Tender braised pork with oven-roasted tomatoes was mouthwatering, but the side of mashed potatoes — described as "truffle-scented potato purée" — was neither silky nor aromatic, as I'd hoped it'd be. "Lumpy" was more like it. Mint-scented lamb chops were perfectly cooked and seasoned, teamed with a bland terrine of eggplant, roasted red pepper, and a hint of pecorino. Maybe more cheese could've given it some salty oomph.

Meanwhile, tortilla-crusted bass could have been a bit more browned; the crust was surprisingly light (a welcome surprise, indeed) though still moist and crumbly. And its side of grilled scallions was soft and bright green, the scallions neither looking nor tasting like they'd touched a grill.

Those are really minor quibbles for otherwise fine dishes. The bigger stumbles were a very salty slab of seared, fennel-dusted ahi (served with sautéed onions and peppers, with a truly outstanding crab bolognaise sauce that I could've eaten all by itself) and tough lime-butter poached lobster. Had the lobster meat actually been tender, it would've been a great dish, thanks to a tangy, smooth avocado purée and fresh white asparagus. Another dish — a plump, bacon-wrapped diver scallop and a tarragon pesto-topped huge prawn resting on "truffled" corn ragu — was marred by the chewy prawn.

I wish I'd saved more room for desserts at Heirloom, since these confections were such a satisfying way to finish. Three hot, golden cake doughnuts, sprinkled with powdered sugar and served on a creamy cloud of lemon curd, were ridiculously good, one of the better versions of this trendy dessert I've tried around town. And the awesome banana cream pie was capped with lightly browned marshmallow, which got nice and gooey inside. It was teamed with candy-like brûléed banana slices and sweet-tart passion fruit sauce.

I'm sure the restaurant's name is a nod to heirloom vegetables, in keeping with its seasonal theme. But the word also brings to mind something precious that's handed down from generation to generation.

Is Heirloom a keeper? For the neighborhood, sure. For the rest of us, only time will tell.