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Five Favorite First Tastes of 2011

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When a new spot opens in town, I can't wait to check it out and to let you know my initial impressions. As the name implies, First Taste is not a full-blown review, but a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, sharing a few photos, and satisfying a few curiosities (yours and mine). Here are five of my favorites for 2011.

5. Ethiopian Famous Restaurant & Coffee Thanks to a reader who e-mailed me about this tucked away bare-bones Ethiopian eatery at 16th and Roosevelt streets in the back of a convenience store and behind a curtain (whaaaat?). My journey finding the place was as exciting as the experience inside. Still reeling from an unexpected and unintentional run-in with the folks from another Ethiopian restaurant, owner Abebech Ejersa calmed my nerves and energized my taste buds with a seriously tasty wat plate. And the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a ritualized form of making and drinking coffee, was an unexpected and relaxing way to end the meal.

4. Cave & Ives Portico Grill 

Second-story patio dining? In Phoenix? Little did I know this relaxing restaurant of tasty and affordable Italian and Mediterranean fare in Central Phoenix had more surprises in store. Owned by the folks at Sacks Art of Sandwicherie (the location on the first floor shares its kitchen with Cave & Ives), the warm and stay-awhile scene allowed me to enjoy dishes like white braise de clams, the Tuscan Pie, and Pasta Ragu, a flavorful bowl of goodness featuring slow-roasted Italian beef. And after two giant, sweet crêpes of bananas foster, at least I could sit back and enjoy the view of Camelback before I rolled myself down the stairs. Read the full review here.

2. Fu-Fu Cuisine Maybe it was the graciousness of owner and chef Esther Mbaikambey, the delicious fried dumplings called pof-pofs, or the fact that I told my dining companion tripe was a vegetable before he ate it in his pepper soup (and then revealed its true meaning afterward), that this new west side eatery with a fun-to-say name was such a pleasure. Featuring West African and Caribbean cuisine, entrees like the deep-fried whole tilapia served with a refreshing salsa and exotic yassa chicken made me anxious to return for more -- and I plan to.

1. Timo Along with a stellar selection of wine and beer, the food at Timo (which means thyme in Italian), especially its bread, made me a believer on my first bite. The stylish but snug Sunnyslope restaurant was opened late this year by the owner and chef at Brick, the gourmet pizzeria that opened last year in the Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix. With a wood-fired oven the restaurant's only means of cooking, I was blown away by the simple taste of bread slices tore from a fresh-baked loaf and slathered in pesto or apple honey butter, or heftily housing a two-handed hoagie packed with prosciutto, copa, and triple cream brie. Want more? Watch for my upcoming review.

What say you, first taste fanatics? What was your favorite new bite of 2011?

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