Nah. I think most people would agree that the Sonoran summer is starting to feel kind of inhospitable right about now, as if months of balmy spring weather have evaporated into hot, glaring payback.
Funny, though — if you head to the coast, that same relentless sun mellows into a happy thing that shimmers on the ocean waves, tempered by gusts of soft, salty air. No wonder the beaches are like a magnet, whether they're at Santa Monica, La Jolla, or Puerto Peñasco.
So I admit there was a little bit of escapism involved in my decision to hit up Avalon in south Scottsdale, where executive chef Travis Watson — an alumnus of Fox Restaurant Concepts (as executive pastry chef), Tucson's Tack Room, and Citrus in Los Angeles — calls his food "contemporary coastal cuisine." Looking at his current menu, I interpreted that as California-meets-Mediterranean, with a good amount of seafood and some obligatory steaks. And although it didn't completely transport me to another place, it made me content to be right here, right now.
It's been a dry spell for new upscale restaurants in the past several months, but that doesn't seem to have detracted from Avalon's sheer ambition. After several months of delays, it opened six months ago in a freestanding building on McDowell Road, right in front of the 3 Palms Oasis Resort (because of the adjacent hotel, Avalon serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner).
If that location doesn't readily pop up on your mental map, don't feel bad — this is an extremely unexpected place for a stylish restaurant, surrounded by strip malls and situated just beyond a sad stretch of mostly vacant car dealerships. It's too far south of Old Town and too disconnected from downtown Tempe to be associated with either and, unfortunately, doesn't benefit from any kind of neighborhood synergy.
Without a doubt, Avalon feels like it should be in one of the trendier areas to the north. The front driveway swoops past palm trees and an infinity-edge fountain. Just past the entrance, you can perch at the bar or sip a specialty cocktail on a curvy banquette. An elegant lighting fixture assembled from tiny pieces of glass hangs above a communal table in the middle of the dining room, surrounded by booth seating. Beaded drapes partition the space, and strategic lighting makes mosaic tile and dark wood accents gleam. It's sexy, cool, and low-key.
Accordingly, the kitchen went for subtlety rather than flash. I could see how the menu catered to the hotel crowd with predictable dishes like Caesar salad, shrimp bruschetta, and prime NY steak. But just for kicks, I ordered the basic baby field greens salad to see if the strawberries really were "ripe" as described. Indeed, they were ruby-colored and sweet, the greens fresh and tender, the champagne tangerine vinaigrette a vibrant complement to creamy goat cheese and candied walnuts. Simple but effective.
Thankfully, there were also some twists. Take the calamari, for example — instead of serving a plateful of fried squid rings, Watson transformed them into "frites" (alas, misspelled as "frittes" on the menu). The squid was cut into thick strips, batter-fried, and dressed up with spicy cantaloupe butter, sesame, and Japanese mizuna greens.
Jumbo prawns tasted like a fancy spin on shrimp with cheese grits. Stuffed with cheddar-tinged polenta and crowned with a pinch of microgreens, they swam in a pool of spicy, tomato-y fra diavolo sauce, which enhanced the sweetness of the shrimp. Meanwhile, plump steamed Prince Edward Island mussels were steeped in aromatic lobster bouillabaisse loaded with chunks of smoked white fish. Good thing it came with garlic bread, because the broth was too flavorful to pass up.
Aged prime rib eye steak, cooked to order with a charred, pleasantly salty crust, paired well with fingerling potato and pancetta hash, plus a jumble of lightly caramelized cipollini onions. A generous drizzle of Bordelaise brought it all together. Equally straightforward was a fresh salmon fillet, with braised Brussels sprouts, toasted orzo, and preserved lemon. Crispy skin was the highlight.
Fettuccine carbonara wasn't prepared in the traditional fashion — preserved lemon crema was tossed in — but the dish was mouthwatering, in any case, with shrimp, crispy pancetta, and sweet English peas tangled in the al dente pasta strands. Carbonara can often be heavy, but the peas and a whiff of lemon lightened it up considerably, making it that much easier to devour. On the other hand, grilled vegetable and roasted tomato lasagna veered the wrong direction from tradition — I somehow expected mouthwatering tomato sauce to ooze out, but the dish was bland and a little dry, layered with Japanese eggplant, squash, and buffalo mozzarella.
Meanwhile, three enormous seared Maine diver scallops were made all the more luscious by three accompaniments: saffron-flavored "pearls" (Israeli couscous), white bean-pancetta ragout, and rich creamed corn with mascarpone. It was fun to nibble on all of them, comparing and contrasting them with bites of tender scallop.
Watson's pastry background was evident at the end of the meal, with simple, comforting confections that looked and tasted seductive. Strawberry "shortcake" was a misnomer, given the moist, nearly custard-like texture of the cake, but it still had that summery appeal, with strawberry sauce and pile of ripe berries.
Roasted banana bread pudding could've used more banana, although walnut toffee and salted caramel added interest. And the "Avalon brownie sundae" tasted like a birthday surprise — it was a slice of chocolate brownie covered with smooth chocolate icing and sprinkles, and served with strawberry ice cream, caramel sauce, and popcorn.
That's right, sprinkles and popcorn. After that, it was impossible to leave Avalon without a smile on my face.