Cafe Reviews

Embarrassment of Riches

Some bastards have all the bloody luck. Say, a year ago today, you signed a lease or bought a residence near 70th Street and Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale. Then you wake up one morning to discover that not only does the cul-de-sac there boast Sushi on Shea, but the Great and Mighty Yahweh has blessed that complex with two more kick-ass destination dining spots in the form of Radda Caffe-Bar and Tapino Kitchen and Wine Bar, which sit almost next to each other. Talk about a windfall.

Those of you who read my review of Radda a couple of months ago ("Grazie, Radda," November 25) know I adore this little gem of an establishment, which offers Tuscan bistro-style dining at pocket-friendly prices. I often wondered if the bigger, fancier Tapino nearby would so dominate the scene that Radda would be forced to capitulate. How foolish I was! Instead, the two restaurants have developed a symbiotic relationship. Tapino is only open for dinner, so when lunch-seekers tap on chef James Porter's door, he sends them over to Radda for a noon nosh. Similarly, when Radda's supper crowd overwhelms the intimate eatery, the staff suggests folks give Tapino a whirl.

The arrangement works so well that if you're in Radda late, you may just see some of Tapino's black-clad employees bellying up to the bar, or maybe even Porter himself exchanging pleasantries with Radda co-owner Lori Hassler. This cordiality benefits both parties, as well as their patrons. Tapino and Radda complement each other, rather than compete.

Including patio seating, Tapino can service about 200 souls at capacity. Inside is a medley of beige, terra cotta and pale brick. To the right upon entering is the wine bar, and just ahead, a glassed-in, climate-controlled wine wall that holds 1,000 bottles in its serpentine structure. Beyond this is a large dining area filled with linen-clad tables overlaid with butcher paper. From here, you can see into an open kitchen of burnished steel and brick that's surely the envy of many a Valley chef.

Since tapas plus vino equals Tapino, there's no shortage of wines to sample or small plates to shove into your pie-hole while slurping that zesty Zin or that unpredictable Pinot Noir. These days, I tend to be all about immediate gratification when it comes to fermented grape juice, so I was all over the section of Tapino's list given to Bordeaux and Meritage. On one occasion, I easily barreled through two bottles of Ferrari-Carano Tresor Reserve with a few pals, hogging the better part of this blend of reds to myself. One of the pricier wines in Tapino's value-laden stable, but worth it.

As for the amuse-bouche on the menu, chef Porter's laundry list of small plates is so eclectic that even Saveur mag-readin' know-it-alls will be tempted to sneak in their copies of Barron's Food Lover's Companion for ready reference. I did my gastronomic best to put a dent in that culinary catalogue Porter calls a bill of fare, but there's still much left for me to ingest during future repasts. I can testify for those I did try, though. These included first-rate bruschetta, on thin toasts, with such toppings as lump crab with Piquillo peppers and truffle oil, and an exquisite compote of raisins and fig with toasted cumin. Give me a lifetime supply of the last of these and lock me in a closet, and I may not emerge until I resemble Howard Hughes, the later years.

Ditto the Kobe beef tips in a light chimichurri sauce with strands of jicama and daikon. The melt-in-your-mouth carpaccio was infuriating only because after this meat morsel, I was ready for a wheelbarrow full of the stuff. And just three of the pancetta-wrapped dates stuffed with Gorgonzola! My dear Mr. Porter, what a tease you are. Similarly, the raw ahi tuna in vinaigrette and the paper-thin-sliced octopus with dots of red Sriracha afforded only a transitory moment of happiness for my tongue. The most enduring memory of all was from a half-dollar-size sliver of foie gras, perched on a triangle of rosemary waffle and surrounded by pickled grapes. I tell you, place one of those fatty medallions of decadence on my tongue after a night of lovemaking with Mila Kunis, and I'd trot happily to the guillotine, boyo.

The à la carte entrees are a match for their precursors. You know I had to have at the rack of Aussie lamb, crusted in herbs and sitting in a pool of lamb reduction and smoked paprika. Pure bliss. The kitchen gives you an exquisite piece of the "bamboo-steamed wild Scottish salmon," lightly accented with blood orange and ginger. And as for the Maine diver scallops, plump and pan-roasted in a sauce of cream, shallots, parsnips, steeped fenugreek and reduced vermouth, the dish was a work of art for the gullet if ever there was one.

Feasting on the sides was hardly excruciating, either. These are enough to split with din-din compañeros, though mine had a rough time getting the bowl of couscous with herbs and tomatoes out of my reach. I didn't mind sharing the Chinese yard-long beans, though, which are more like a foot long, served al dente with garlic, and are so much fun to eat with your fingers. The purée of golden Yukon potatoes with white truffle oil was a big hit with all, but I broke ranks and focused my alimentary attentions on the braised rosemary salsify (pronounced salsifee) and the braised fennel with tarragon.

Salsify is a root said to taste like oysters. And though I didn't quite get the taste of mollusks from the creamy white veggies, I did find them unusually palatable. And, oh, those braised bulbs of fennel, slightly sweet, with a touch of tarragon, were silky soft and toothsome, reminding me of that James Beard quote: "If ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around."

Yes, I sampled the desserts: house-made ice creams, beignets, a lava-chocolate cake and so on. The beignets were the best, but after all that grub, really all I needed was a glass of port and a roaring fire to stare into. But since no fireplace was handy, the port had to suffice.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons

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