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Bourbon, Scotch, Rye and Duck Fat at Old Town Whiskey

Last month, Team Distrito, led by Jose Garces chef de cuisine Dave Conn, earned the title of grand champions at the 2nd annual Arizona Taco Festival -- whetting our appetite for their mahi-mahi, carnitas and chicken rapa vieja tacos and setting us up to eagerly await the Scottsdale opening of Distrito and Chef Garces' interpretation of modern Mexican cuisine.

Chef Garces' stellar reputation began with the opening of Amada, featuring Spanish tapas, in Philadelphia in 2005. He is a James Beard award winner (Best chef mid-Atlantic 2009) and a Food Network Iron Chef, besting Jehangir Mehta in their final battle for the title. With eight restaurant locations, Chef Garces east coast based restaurant empire expands to the west, with Distrito, Old Town Whiskey (re-dubbed from Village Whiskey), and Garces Trading Company, three of his hot Philadelphia concepts, under one roof at the recently opened Joie de Vivre's Saguaro hotel in Scottsdale.

Distrito, which features Garces take on Mexican street food (think barbacoa) is scheduled to open in mid-December with a full on patio smoke pit to roast all manner of beast. Old Town Whiskey and Garces Trading Company opened recently and Chef Garces was on the scene last week at the preview of his "upscale saloon," his ode to Bourbon and burgers.

menu tasting highlights after the jump

Why a whiskey bar with American inspired fare from a chef known for his interest in Nuevo Latino cooking and a way with empanadas? Chef Garces explained that the idea came while he was working in Chicago down the block from an old school saloon style bar and from a learned appreciation for American comfort food, growing up as he did in an ethnically diverse Chicago neighborhood.

The private (as in Jose Garces) stock Four Roses single barrel Kentucky bourbon, smooth and lightly fruity with a hint of spice, adds another clue. As do the beer, liquor and liqueur that spike the dessert worthy shakes finishing out a dining menu designed to complement a comprehensive bar list of bourbon, whiskey, scotch and rye. At the top of the menu is a raw bar selection of Blue Point oysters from the east and Fanny Bay's from the west, flown in daily along with Top Neck clams. House made cheese puffs, fried shrimp, herb- roasted oysters, deviled eggs and tater tots fill in for snack time foods, and represent the lighter fare on the menu.

A selection of pickled vegetables -- we tasted herb cherry tomatoes and truffled cauliflower -- are a visual delight served in canning jars on a wooden board, along with olive tapenade, whipped ricotta and house made sourdough crostini. The pickled vegetables overflow their jar, ample enough to feed a crowd, but lacking in briny bite. The snacks are good, but this is a bar serving main dishes that shout come hungry and eat well.

The lauded burgers are a mighty 8 oz. of three cuts of Angus beef sourced from Painted Hills Farm in Wheeler, Oregon. The beef is triple ground in house, with a fat cap of Wagu added to the grind. The burgers are seasoned simply with salt and pepper then seared on a hot griddle. The Old Town is served on a sesame roll with tomato, Bibb lettuce and (gush) house made thousand island. There are toppings to add; Grafton Cheddar, Rogue Smokey Bleu, truffled mushrooms, the requisite smoked bacon and even horseradish crab salad, but the luxurious patty has top quality flavor and juice, tasty and filling without the extras.

The Whiskey King is a burger of sheer indulgence with maple bourbon glazed cipollini, Rogue Bleu cheese, applewood smoked bacon topped with (gasp) perfectly seared foie gras. The over the top Whisky King is actually two meals rolled into one.

The BBQ Pork Sammy hints at the tastes that will come from the outdoor smoke pit when Distrito opens, with tender strips of smoked pork shoulder, whisky BBQ sauce, creamy slaw, and fried pickles.

The Lobster Roll is another giant on the menu, sensational sweet and succulent butter poached lobster, fried green tomato, bacon marmalade, avocado, and lemon aioli served on a house made roll.

Duck Fat French Fries can be ordered straight up, topped with San Tan cheddar sauce or with short ribs and cheddar. House cut and thick, they are standard fare on their own, better when you make a meal of them and order them with braised short ribs and cheddar, which melt into the fries as they melt in your mouth.

The preview tasting finished with a sample of shakes: seasonal pumpkin with Heaven Hill Bourbon and crumbled gingersnaps, an Irish Car Bomb with floating beer cake, and a chocolate shake spiked with Left Hand Milk Stout.


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Carol Blonder