The hard truth of dinner at Talavera Restaurant is that the middle and end have to live up to the beginning: when you walk out to the patio and take in the view. The rocky bulk of Pinnacle Peak, mildly sloping up to its crowning boulder on the right. The Sonoran stucco and grayish green sweeping ahead. The scattered lights of Scottsdale, steadily tilting down to the distant twinkles and dusty mountains of Phoenix. A drink menu with sherry and Spanish sidra to see it all better. A fireplace behind.
Samantha Sanz is chef at Talavera, the “Spanish steakhouse” home to this patio within the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale. She is one of the few young talents in town who could, with food, give this view a run.
Sanz, who had never cooked in a Spanish eatery before Talavera, who has never cooked in Spain, was named a James Beard Award semifinalist in March for her Spanish restaurant. Earlier in her career, when she was at Elements, Sanz sponged up scattered Mediterranean influences. At Virtú Honest Craft, later, she steeped in a chiefly southern Italian milieu. Her most direct link to Spanish food comes from the time she spent, starting at age 10, helping in her grandparents’ restaurant in Nogales, Mexico.
For 60 years, their restaurant, Trocadero, has served the food of Sonora: steaks, chile colorado, farmer’s cheese, and so on. It serves dishes molded partly by the once-mighty Spanish presence in the region. In addition to operating within a cuisine with strong Spanish stresses, Sanz’s grandparents incorporate some outside dishes, like the paella her grandfather learned to make while in Spain.
His paella is now a beloved family recipe. Paella is one of Sanz’s signatures.
Meals at Talavera almost have to start with drinks, as the patio acts as a kind of salt to make you thirsty. Consider one of the many sherries on offer by the glass: A back-of-menu Fino is oaky and bright; a viscous Oloroso is loaded with vibes of syrupy pancakes. Or try a sidra, a Basque style of hard cider. They are tart, dry, and farmhouse-funky, meaning they can bridge to just about any food.
Some of the starters are made for drinking. Crisp chickpeas are soft as roasted potatoes in the middle, though wash out in a haze of salt as you go. Pan con tomate, slabs of toast paved with tomato sauce and boquerones, spotlight the simple beauty of the fruit and the sea. Pudgy olives pack salt and keep you sipping.
Starters beyond drink-sidekicks are where the chef’s style eases out, giving the meal finesse and levity.
Picture a Venn diagram with three circles: one each for beets, vanilla, and blue cheese. Do you think there is common ground where these three flavors could harmonize, like, say, bacon, egg, and cheese? At the pinpoint where they do — a slippery sliver, an overlap I never imagined until I tried Sanz’s beet salad — there is magic.
Another exciting starter is a crudo of kona kampachi, a fish raised in deep-ocean net pens off the coast of Hawaii (one of the less harmful forms of aquaculture when done right). Slips of raw fish the color of Himalayan salt curl across the plate. Splashes of marigold-orange salsa matcha deliver nuances of guajillo, chile de arbol, and cascabel cooked via olive oil confit, with yuzu and fresh habanero added at the end. Ultra-bright kumquat jives with the peppers to exalt the tropical origins of the fish, though the heat could come in more, as you crave more zap given the bonkers plating.
Starters are generally worth their high-flying price tags. But not always. Citrus salad is a dish that promises fruit as its protagonist. The take here casts citrus in a marginal role. It’s oiled leaves with a few orange pieces.
Sanz’s style at Talavera is Spanish accented with other influences, like her native northern Mexico. It has a fresh elegance that flows from unlikely flavor welding and use of whimsical components: vermouth in an oyster condiment, blue corn tempura for crunch in crudo.
Her style is partly visual and extends to dinnerware. One set of plates has been crafted by Christiane Barbato of Blue Door Ceramics. These feature a corona of inexact furrows circling wide rims. You’ll also see copper serving pans, shiny vessels for marquee entrees like steak.
New York strip came in such an oven-ready chromatic vessel. Skillfully grilled, the brown-barked cut of beef has been translated to the chef’s aesthetic through greens and wafery magenta rounds of starburst radish. Scallops, too, are nicely cooked. They are mahogany crusted, jam-jiggly in the middle, and seem to be as fat as bottles of sidra. Florid cauliflower chunks go unexpectedly well with the melting bivalves.
The steak and scallops are solid. But they are low-difficulty, and given what this chef cooks and where she seems to be going, you may crave something dredged up from deeper down the pathways of her imagination. Like the Ibérico pork shoulder, which is heavily peppered, tender, and fatty. Strips of pork lattice across a wood slab; interspersed in the meaty weave are citrus, herbs, celery leaves, pickled squash, and fig mostarda. It all foils and malleates the pork, the citrus in particular bringing charges of shifting intensity, none more brilliant than dehydrated oranges.
Paella, the famous rice dish of Spain, is also not a safe option. Like many great simple dishes, paella is complex. It is so complex, it is said, that most of Spain has no idea how to cook it.
Sanz’s seafood paella is a showstopper. Smiling waitstaff whisk copper pans piled high with shells and rice to tables, the lobster and prawn glistening with residual stock on their scarlet platemail. You may hear waitstaff telling of how the “new” chef (Sanz) blows the former Talavera chef out of the water when it comes to this standby of saffron, soffrito, and rice.
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Sanz uses all three, as well as bomba rice and seafood stock, as they do in Spain. She even spoons chimichurri on top, which they don’t. She says that this has drawn ire from purists
Her paella boasts a squadron of sea creatures perched atop a flat rice heap, grains swollen with stock. They are soft, arguably a little too soft, and on the bottom there could be a crisp veneer, called socarrat in Spain, where rice meets copper. Mussels and clams are plump and succulent. Mailed shellfish disclose moist, fragrant meat. English peas vary bites. So do slivered red peppers. All said, this is a solid paella given that we live in the Valley of the Sun, not Valencia.
Sanz can nail the old-fashioned dishes. She can slightly update them with a deftly placed radish chimichurri or yogurt smear. These updates fit the Four Seasons, where locals and travelers eat quietly, many of the men wearing formal jackets. Her elegant style does, however, clash with the rugged scene wrapping the patio. The setting, however, is the natural world. And though Sanz’s bomba rice might be a shade overdone, it is cooked well. To the core of each grain, there is the natural marine essence of the sea.
10600 East Crescent Moon Drive, Scottsdale
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; closed Monday
Pan con tomate $10
Coffee-roasted beets $15
Kona Kampachi Tiradito $24
Paella de mariscos $46
Secreto Ibérico deBellota $58