Cafe Reviews

Everything's in Its Right Place at Scottsdale's Grassroots Kitchen & Tap

At first glance, you might think you could run Grassroots Kitchen & Tap yourself. You'd be wrong — and therein lies the genius of this North Scottsdale restaurant.

When you walk in, you're not surprised to see that it's a pleasant place, an open, welcoming room of muted tones, oversize booths, and a breezy patio that catches just enough rays of sunlight. The menu, a listing of American dishes put together with market vegetables, fresh meat and seafood, and ingredients like spicy tomato jam, sweet hickory sauce, and crunchy breads, is entirely accessible. And when you are served something like the broiled rainbow trout with sautéed Swiss chard, you can hardly be blamed for thinking you could make it equally well if only you had the time.

But what seems obvious about Grassroots is really deceptive simplicity. Look closer and you'll find its approachability is the product of precision, harmony, and a commitment to clarity.

The restaurant is spotless, tidily arranged so that everything has its place — from the game pieces on the communal table to the artfully arranged stacks of napkins. Friendly servers seem to appear exactly when needed, refilling tea from glass jars, arriving with extra plates for sharing without being asked, and inviting you to linger as long as you'd like before leaving the check in a wooden dish.

And that dish of rainbow trout and sautéed Swiss chard is nothing short of perfect. The fish is supremely fresh, broiled in a bit of oil and gently seasoned with salt and pepper so that its flavor is coaxed from it in a manner that seems effortless. And the chard, sautéed until it's rich and mellow then topped with a tuft of grated Italian Pecorino, tastes as though it had been plucked from the nearest garden that day.

Grassroots Kitchen & Tap is the nearly two-year-old restaurant of Christopher Collins, whose father is restaurateur Wally Collins of Wally's American Pub N' Grille. One of six children, Collins says it was pretty much required that he and his siblings spend time working in his father's restaurants.

"He's always been Wally to us, never Dad," says Collins. "You never would say, 'Hey, Dad, I have a question' when you're working in a restaurant."

Collins started taking the restaurant business more seriously as a senior in high school, when he started to take on management shifts at the restaurant.

"Wally told me, 'You can't teach the eye, and Christopher has it.'"

Initially, during his years at the Boston University School of Hospitality, Collins had his sights set on the hotel route, but an internship interview with Houston's changed all that. "I was blown away by their passion, the cleanliness of their restaurants, and their attention to detail."

When Collins opened Grassroots in January 2012 (an idea, he says, that was eight years in the making), he combined the best of the two restaurant worlds he knew, making it a kind of Houston's-meets-neighborhood hangout with a menu of dishes inspired by his travels across the country. Valley foodies might argue that there are more intriguing restaurant destinations in the Valley, and there are. But when it comes to plainly delicious eats served up in a comfortable spot, it's tough to beat Grassroots.

You should start with the 85259 Creamy Burrata, named after the ZIP code of its creator, Gina Buskirk of Gina's Homemade in North Scottsdale. Served atop a nest of dressed arugula and alongside lip-puckeringly sweet spicy tomato jam and crunchy slices of ciabatta, the luscious lump of fresh sea salt-sprinkled cheese is just about as good as it gets.

If that's not your thing, there's the Hawaiian-inspired tuna poke. With light notes of sweet, citrus, and spice, its fresh assemblage of ahi tuna sashimi, shrimp, avocado, jalapeño, cilantro, and agave ponzu, surrounded by a pinwheel of crisp wonton chips, comes by way of a chilled plate.

The ahi tuna sashimi also makes its way into a very good salad, in which the sushi-grade fish is perfectly seared rare and sliced into thick, pink-centered chunks encircling an artfully arranged pile of field greens interspersed with avocado, cherry tomatoes, edamame, and crunchy wasabi peas dressed in a pleasing miso vinaigrette. Overall, it fares better than the Farmer's Vegetable Chop, an acceptable but forgettable creation (made up of things like cabbage, beets, grapes, butternut squash, and a little too much feta cheese tossed in a champagne-vinaigrette dressing) that borders on being too sweet.

The juicy, well-seasoned patty of choice ground chuck is the best thing about the grilled Angus burger, but its basic toppings don't make it one of the more interesting sandwiches on the menu. That award goes to the shrimp po' boy. A tidier take on the classic New Orleans sandwich, it's layered with lightly breaded crunchy shrimp and "dressed all they way" with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo inside a French baguette. And its side of lively New Orleans-style remoulade, besides elevating the flavor of the sandwich, also can be used to kick up the flavor of an optional side of tasty shoestring fries.

Collins' fondness for New Orleans cuisine also can be found in his version of another favorite dish of the city: blackened red fish. Coated in a mixture of seasonings and then grilled, the fillet is exceptionally moist, its flavor a kind of fish version of charcoal grilled steak and especially delicious between mildly spicy and peppery bites of New Orleans-style dirty orzo studded with red pepper, celery, and andouille sausage.

If, as on my visit, your barbecue brisket borders on dry with a sauce that's too sweet, there are Topher's Braised Short Ribs. Collins' signature dish consists of two succulent hunks of marinated, fall-apart meat coated in a clingy hoisin glaze and placed atop jumbo stalks of grilled asparagus and alongside grits that combine sweet corn with cheddar and jalapeño for what amounts to thick and creamy forkfuls of Southern-style heaven.

"I've changed the neighborhood's perception of grits," says Collins. "At first, no one wanted them, but now I sell more of them than any other side on the menu."

And if it's a hunk of half-chicken you're after, the roasted free-range fowl here is sublime, spectacularly juicy, seasoned with Cajun spices and carefully balanced atop a thick slice of bread soaked in pan drippings — an idea Collins says he got from a visit to ZuZu, the Spanish restaurant in Napa, California.

For dessert, there's the chocolate toffee brownie. Unlike Grassroots' more manageable portion sizes, this dish — a cakey creation of Ghirardelli chocolate sprinkled with toffee crumbles and sea salt, drizzled with handmade caramel, and topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream — is sized to share.

Given the success of his North Scottsdale restaurant, Collins plans to open a second Grassroots Kitchen & Tap in January. The new location, in the Town & Country Shopping Center in Phoenix, will join restaurants such as Pizzeria Bianco/Trattoria Bianco, Cyprus Grill, and Colorado-based Snooze, an A.M. Eatery, as well as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's.

"The menu will stay the same at first," Collins says. "But after a while, I'll let the neighborhood dictate what dishes I'll serve. One of the greatest things Wally told me was to take pride in your building, your product, and your people."

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld