After Some Changes, Quiessence Continues to Live Up to Its Excellent Reputation

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The Farm at South Mountain is a rare kind of Phoenix destination. For years, the historic 10-acre farm and garden, which is tucked away on a quiet stretch of 32nd Street in South Phoenix, has offered a small taste of rural tranquility in a city spilling over with strip malls and subdivisions. The Farm often makes the short list of places to go in Phoenix for a special occasion; over the years, the property has become synonymous with fancy picnics, Sunday brunches, and outdoor weddings in its signature pecan grove.

Although The Farm is best known for its rustic beauty, its other major attraction is food. There are three well-regarded eateries on the grounds, including The Farm Kitchen, a casual counter-service spot for sandwiches and soups, and Morning Glory Café, the property's breakfast spot. But none captures The Farm's essence — refined yet utterly relaxed — better than its fine dining room, Quiessence at the Farm. The restaurant, surrounded by gardens at the end of a tree-lined road, is located inside a historic 1920s ranch house glowing with earthy stone floors and warm touches of wood. Everything about the setting, from the cheerful staff to the indie-chill songs emanating from speakers at low volumes, feels designed to slow time and set a tranquil mood.

Thankfully, Quiessence runs on more than just pure charm. The restaurant long has established itself as one of the city's best fine-dining destinations, and it is widely credited with helping popularize farm-to-table eating in the Valley in the 2000s. Current co-owner and executive chef Dustin Christofolo, who took over the kitchen in 2013, has successfully maintained the restaurant's reputation as a high-end destination for chef-driven, seasonal fare. The menu is entrenched in seasonal Arizona terroir (many ingredients are harvested on-site) and New American staples, but it still manages to be playful and surprising. Familiar ingredients and dishes are frequently given subtle but deliberate twists, showcasing the kitchen's talent for building flavor and texture.

Take the charcuterie, which seems never to be made exactly the same way twice. On a recent visit, my board featured pickled watermelon rind, sweet golden raisin mostarda, and head cheese dotted with crystallized cranberry, among other carefully assembled elements. Jammy and tangy, pickled and savory, it was full of bright, astringent flavor, softened in turn by the board's savory meats. You'll find the same kind of gorgeous balance in starters like the pakora-spiced fish and chips, a high-end take on the classic pub snack. The fish was halibut, and it was fried to a beautiful crisp on the outside, with the warm, buttery center left intact. Every bite was kissed with a smoky hint of Indian spices, an unexpected twist that heightened and enhanced the flavor of the fish.

The hamachi crudo, another small plate, was less successful. It arrived artfully arranged on a Himalayan salt block — the dish is a real head-turner in the dining room. Indeed, the dish was painstakingly constructed: Each raw yellowtail was draped over a melon ball, then topped with garlic chives, bacon, and a tomato vinaigrette. But each piece quickly came undone with one nudge from my fork. The fish uncurled, the chives and bits of bacon tumbling off its silk. A bigger problem was the oversalted melon; it ended up drowning out the fish's soft, buttery notes.

Entrées can vary depending on what time of year you visit. On a recent visit, I tried the Cornish hen with demi-glace, lobster mushrooms, and crispy gnocchi. The half of a bird, sourced from Two Wash Ranch in New River, was moist and tender, with an exceptionally crispy skin. The sweet-savory demi-glace, though, was the secret hero of the dish, lacing every bite with bold, saucy flavor. Another entrée, the aged New York strip, also was remarkably good. The meat, cooked to a perfect medium rare, was nearly tender enough to cut with a fork. It was served with a potato purée and a side of fiddlehead ferns, which were bright emerald green, crunchy, and briny. The ferns didn't quite compare to the plate's real standout element: a side of shishito peppers, beautifully charred and salted.

Handcrafted pasta dishes are a specialty at Quiessence, and the best one might be the pappardelle. The broad, flat noodles wrapped around my fork like silk, and were soaked through with an elegant sauce redolent with French onion, butter, and garlic. Even through the sauce, the eggy freshness of the pasta came through.

Dessert is worth the splurge at Quiessence. The hard part will come in trying to choose between the honey panna cotta and the homemade bread pudding. During a recent dinner, I topped off my meal with the panna cotta, which was smooth and firm, refreshing and cool. Think rice pudding, lurking beneath silky layers of milk and honey. The bread pudding is another excellent option. It was crispy on the outside, deliciously gooey on the inside, and was paired with a luscious, sticky homemade dulce de leche.

Although Quiessence manages to project an unpretentious, rustic charm, the restaurant remains firmly entrenched in the rarefied world of high-end fine dining. Its reputation as a special occasion destination remains secure (on one visit, I watched two tables celebrate birthdays). Portions are modest, and entrées are priced north of $40. Many diners will be priced out of eating here regularly. Others, though, especially those looking for a place to commemorate a special date, will gladly splurge.

Quiessence isn't just another pretty face. The food is pretty good, too.

Quiessence at the Farm
6106 South 32nd Street
Hours: 5 p.m. to close Tuesday through Saturday

Pakora-spiced fish and chips $15
Hamachi crudo $16
Pappardelle $28
Aged New York strip $45

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