Cafe Reviews

Renegade by MOD in Scottsdale Takes Culinary Risks That Reap Big Rewards

What does the Valley's biggest risk-taker of a restaurant look like at the moment?

Its cuisine takes a familiar dish and plugs it into a culinary electric socket, invigorating it with inspirations from countries like Japan, Italy, and China, and presenting it in ways that make necks crane at nearby tables. You might see courses of top-shelf produce, seafood, and meats accented with things like wolfberry and lingonberry relish, Mexican crema butter, and marble-size balls of goat cheese infused with Green Goddess and balsamic vinegar. And given the multitude of flavors in each offering, you may not know what you'll get on every forkful, but it will light up your taste buds in ways you never thought possible all the same.

Check out our complete slideshow behind the scenes at Renegade by MOD in Scottsdale.

And so it is at Renegade by MOD, the daring restaurant from chef Michael O'Dowd, whose decade at Kai earned the restaurant AAA five-diamond and Forbes Travel Guide five-star acclaim. Breaking free of his corporate chains last fall, O'Dowd is now a first-time restaurateur as well as a celebrated chef. And at his North Scottsdale restaurant, which he runs with friend and partner Ed Leclere, O'Dowd's taking adventurous diners on an exotic, decidedly un-Kai-like ride, blending his playfully bold yet sophisticated dishes with an edgy atmosphere and ample amounts of rock 'n' roll.

By the time you've entered the humongous room decked out in graffiti art, mounted guitars, and scrap-metal sculptures, settled in to your table topped with a paint can full of utensils, and ordered up a very good cocktail — perhaps the Cracker Jacks, with house-infused buttered popcorn vodka, the rummy Renegade Punch in a Bag (literally served in a bag), or the MOD Peach Fizz, afloat with rosemary and rose ice cubes — you start to have a pretty good idea of what to expect. And a complimentary amuse-bouche served from a skateboard deck, as well as a light snack of thin, crisp chips alongside an ashtray full of an excellent Indian-flavored herbed cream cheese, makes the concept all the more clear.

You could start and stop with O'Dowd's near-perfect small plates. The multi-layered warm and chilled conceptions leave the conventional far behind and are served up in portion sizes ample enough for a light dinner or a shared meal with friends.

There's a quartet of venison "lollipops," juicy hunks of skewered meat dusted with smoky mole and topped with a bright vegetable chili, berry relish, and a few crisp potato strands. And if it's mushrooms you're after, you'll get two heady helpings of the wild-forged fungi flanking an addictive rutabaga whip along with asparagus spears, purslane, delicate shavings of mellow celery root, and an heirloom tomato chutney for an earthy and lively plate that's a kind of eclectic garden party gone gourmet.

You'll want O'Dowd's re-imagined (very re-imagined) version of panzanella, the Tuscan salad of bread and tomatoes. More or less fine-dining know-how by way of Alice in Wonderland, at least a dozen ingredients — like slices of perfectly prepared rare New York strip, sweet tomato jam, powdered spices, jumbo soft croutons topped with goat cheese marbles, and even a scratch-made oil and vinegar that might be the best you've ever tasted — are artfully arranged on a plate to mix and match as you please. And given that its countless flavor combinations are equally as stellar as its parts, this dish might be the Valley's most convincing reason to play with your food.

The best example of O'Dowd's cutting-edge cuisine, however, comes in the form of two discs of dense, black rye bread layered with full-flavored braunschweiger (liverwurst), kale, kimchi, and bits of crisp cured forcemeat topped with a perfectly poached egg. As original as it is intense, this appetizer is about as good as it gets.

As for the entrées, it's up to you to decide whether to take a more familiar path of offerings like aged New York strip, filet mignon, and a hamburger or to continue the more thrilling journey of O'Dowd's inventive creations.

For those in the latter camp, there awaits mouthwateringly moist duck breast lit up with pickled okra, mango, and chiles, and jerk-rubbed chicken you'll probably wish were bolder in flavor but whose fork-filled accompaniments of a zingy sweet potato casserole and a luscious smear of burnt marshmallow fluff help to bring its overall status back to very good.

If you're into culinary aromatherapy, you'll want Seafood in a Bag. A sealed pouch filled with a saffron fennel broth heavy with pristine shrimp, mussels, fish, snails, chorizo, chicken confit, peas, and rice that's opened for you at the table, this steaming, fragrant concoction acts as a kind of mood-altering bouillabaisse for just about anyone within smelling (or tasting) distance. And if your pleasure is seafood with an Asian edge, you could do worse than O'Dowd's ethereal bowl of ramen noodles in a slurp-worthy miso broth interspersed with lobster, foie gras, fish, quail egg, truffles, enoki, and Chinese sausage.

The most popular dessert on the menu is probably the moon pie stuck into a heavy-handed squirt of dense, rich chocolate and served with an RC Cola and crème anglaise shake. But the one you're most likely to think about on the way home is the superb white chocolate crème brûlée delicately kissed with fruit. In this instance, sophisticated simple trumps outrageously unusual.

Given the lack of risk-taking cuisine in the Valley, Renegade by MOD is the kind of place you hope will catch on, especially with its well-heeled North Scottsdale clientele, who, decked out in golf shirts and cardigan sweaters, seem out of place amid loud (sometimes too loud) '90s-era alt-rock, young, denim-clad servers (who are either amazingly adept or woefully apathetic), and industrial lights (which are rarely dimmed during dinner hours). Is it a case of too much too soon for suburban Scottsdale, or is this the point where risk meets reward?

I'm crossing my fingers as hard as I can.