Cafe Reviews

Digestif in Scottsdale serves up absinthe and "Cal-ital food for the soul"

The most intriguing new restaurant in Scottsdale is a refreshing alternative to the city's clichés.

Of course, you'll have to dress up a little, and spend a few bucks while you're there, but at least you won't feel like you've stumbled onto the set of Real Housewives of Maricopa County or landed on the planet of the $30,000 millionaires. And the sophisticated food isn't served with a side of attitude.

As my sweetie put it, "It's upscale but not uptight."

Well said, babe. I think I'll use that line.

I'm talking about Digestif, whose rustic, Italian-inspired menu — "Cal-Ital food for the soul," they call it — is the brainchild of chef Payton Curry. He's a Culinary Institute of America grad who most recently worked at Quince, in San Francisco. Digestif also happens to be the latest enterprise from restaurateur Peter Kasperski's Spaghetti Western Productions (which includes Sea Saw, Cowboy Ciao, and Kazimierz World Wine Bar), the first of four scheduled to open at SouthBridge in Old Town Scottsdale, in the next several months.

The restaurant is sort of dining-room-meets-living room, a dim, brick-walled space with a chocolate and pumpkin palette and a variety of seating. There's a stone hearth oven blazing along one side, and a handsome bar at the back, surrounded by vintage-y lamps. Doorways to a large patio allow a breeze to flow through sometimes. And the soundtrack is upbeat, 21st-century rock, from Phoenix to Kings of Leon.

Clad in jeans and indie band T-shirts, the army of young servers is friendly and, for the most part, attentive. Sure, they might resemble the nonchalant kids who work at Pita Jungle, but they look like pros when they swoop in with the next course, delivering each dish to the right person with none of the usual fumbling. Adding polish to the whole operation is sharp-dressed manager Pavle Milic, who is exceedingly polite. He addresses female customers as "my dear lady."

Since the restaurant is named after liqueur, the drink menu is worth a close look. As expected, the wine list has Italian and West Coast labels, although you can also order from Cowboy Ciao's hefty vino bible. There are beers from around the world, and elaborate craft cocktails that are as tasty as their quirky names suggest. The Fellini is a sweet spin on prosecco, while the Pretti Ugli, made with Green Chartreuse VEP, uglifruit liqueur, lemon, seltzer, and muddled fresh basil, is more in-your-face than a mojito.

For the end of the meal, Digestif does serve all kinds of imported digestifs, some produced since the 18th and 19th century. I liked Borsci, which sounded intimidating but tasted like butterscotch. There's Lucid Absinthe, too — the Green Fairy was recently legalized, so this is the real deal. (But it didn't make me hallucinate. According to Lucid's Web site, the hallucinogenic qualities attributed to absinthe are "generally regarded as a myth.") Served with water from an antique-looking fountain slowly dripped over a sugar cube, its anise flavor was remarkably smooth.

I'd be happy to make repeat visits just to try some more esoteric booze, but not without nibbling on some of the "all day and all night" snacks, like crisp housemade Kurobuta pancetta, rabbit rillettes (a heap of chilled, seasoned meat, served with bread), frites with gremolata, and cheese. (A heads-up, though: Cheese comes in Lilliputian portions.)

Other items work well either as shareable appetizers or as small plates that could comprise a meal. The most outstanding among them was the Farm to Table. To call it a vegetable plate would be an insult, frankly — it was too nicely presented, with tender roasted oyster mushrooms and fava beans resting on a swirl of sunchoke purée, some pecorino, and a drizzle of saba, a sweet, plummy-tasting grape reduction. Truffled mushroom tea was served on the side.

The Digestif salad called my name, too, even though I keep Roaring 40's blue cheese in my fridge at all times. Here, Roaring 40's was tossed with radicchio, candied hazelnuts, marinated figs, and balsamic dressing. Pretty decadent, for a salad. A hot crostata, topped with housemade chorizo, fennel, roasted peppers, and pecorino, resembled a small pizza, with a crust that was flaky, not chewy. And the bruschettone — oversized bruschetta heaped with too many toppings to be finger food — was comforting. I loved the spicy mix of calamari, chorizo, and borlotti beans, as well as the meatballs with sweet stewed onions.

Among the daily fresh pastas, garganelli won me over after one bite. This particular shape resembled penne, a good vehicle for Bolognese sauce studded with chunks of lamb and smoked bacon. Blobs of garlic ricotta made a tasty garnish. Chef Curry has a thing for ricotta, and he puts it to good use in the enormous spinach raviolo (one big square filled with roasted butternut squash, served in brown butter with grated Parmigiano) and the porcini pappardelle. In that dish, the soft, mellow cheese was a cool contrast to rich, tangy sauce, made with beets, lentils, and shreds of duck confit.

Some menu items came and went over the course of my visits, which I saw as positive. For example, the Niman Ranch pork chop, though perfectly cooked, was blanketed in a cloying mustard-pork jus when I ordered it. Later, it got a lighter touch, with apple cider reduction.

Meanwhile, rich nebbiolo reduction made an undistinguished strip steak into something craveable — I was grateful for a piece of bread to soak it up. Crispy-skin duck breast lived up to its name, and was served with a savory potato gratin, layered with olives and leeks. And three plump sea scallops, seared just so, were served atop cauliflower purée, with three kinds of roasted McClendon Farms cauliflower.

Pastry chef Tracy Dempsey's dessert menu was full of temptations. The olive oil cake wasn't as moist as I'd hoped (probably because it was a single-serving cake), but since it was accompanied by peppered strawberries, blackberries, and brûléed sabayon, I liked it — eaten in one bite, the dense cake, juicy berries, and creamy sauce tasted like strawberry shortcake with a twist. I expected something beyond the classic lemon tart that was the lemon-polenta crostata, but its side of smooth lemon/thyme/blackberry gelato held my attention. However, the Torta Gianduia, flourless chocolate-hazelnut cake, was rockin' on its own, with hazelnut ice cream and brandy-soaked cherries as an extra bonus.

And about those digestifs: Try them. You probably haven't heard of most of these concoctions (I hadn't), and the notion of drinking Jägermeister might conjure some rowdy memories (or maybe that's just me). But they're a fun way to end the meal, truly a pleasant surprise.

You could say the same about Digestif itself.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig