Cafe Reviews

FnB Makes You Feel at Home with Chef Charleen Badman's Take on Contemporary American Cuisine

Home cooking gets all the credit for being comforting and soul-satisfying, but every so often, a restaurant comes along that's as cozy as a warm blanket. Such a place transforms deceptively simple ingredients into something that lifts your spirit and makes you feel cared for — like you're meant to be right there, reveling in that delicious moment.

I haven't felt that way about a place in quite some time, but right now, for me, that restaurant is three-month-old FnB, in Old Town Scottsdale.

The brief moniker stands for "food and beverage," a modest way to refer to the cuisine here — contemporary American with a decidedly seasonal, rustic spin. It's as if these folks want you to make up your own mind about the food rather than teasing you with a splashy name.

Indeed, when I first spoke at length with owner Pavle Milic about the restaurant's impending debut, he hesitated to give too many descriptors for chef-owner Charleen Badman's cooking style, calling it "genuine" and "clean." He was much more eager to share the specifics of particular dishes — something he still does, to a mouthwatering extent, every night at the restaurant.

Milic, his wife Emily Pullen, and Badman (formerly of Rancho Pinot, and former chef-owner of Inside in New York City) partnered with restaurateur Peter Kasperski (of neighboring Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz, as well as now-defunct Digestif, where Milic was the charismatic GM) to open the eatery in the small Stetson Drive space that was the longtime home to Sea Saw.

Badman and sous chef Sacha Levine slice, grill, and fry their way through the frenzy of dinner service with quiet determination, occasionally pausing to pass plates to guests across the counter. Smells of garlic and mesquite and freshly cut citrus mingle, and whenever someone orders a crème brûlée, there's a burst of sweet, caramel-scented smoke as Badman sizzles the custard surface with an old-fashioned crème brûlée iron.

If you recall Sea Saw's legendary open kitchen, this is it. Although now, the counter's edged in dark maple, and the whole room has a warm glow from vanilla-tinted walls and vintage globe lamps. Open kitchens may be in vogue all over the Valley, but few places give you such an intimate close-up of what the chef is actually doing. It's fascinating to watch Badman from a kitchen-side perch.

Her affinity for seasonal cuisine is evident on the menu, which has already undergone a few revisions since FnB opened. Romanesco and early asparagus are just a couple welcome reminders that winter has passed. As for Badman's use of local ingredients, that's not spelled out at all (in print, anyway), although Milic often name-drops local organic farmer Bob McClendon.

Turns out, local sources play a big role at FnB, not only with the food, but with the distinctive beverage program. Milic's decision to feature an almost-all-Arizona wine list (there's one sparkling wine from New Mexico) was an unusual gesture, one that even caught the attention of the New York Times. He has to hustle to win over people who have preconceived notions about the state's wine industry, but his expert recommendations usually do the trick.

One night, his suggestion of Dos Cabezas' Toscano, a red blend with a hint of cherry and spice, was a welcome pairing with juicy mesquite-grilled lamb marinated in pomegranate, garlic, and mint — a memorable way to usher in spring.

Cocktails don't claim any regional provenance (aged Chartreuse served as an after-dinner drink is made by French monks), but there are also local beers from Four Peaks, Prescott Brewing Company, and Sleepy Dog Brewing, a newcomer in Tempe.

The majority of FnB's dishes could be considered starters or sides (they're not labeled as either), but you could have a wonderful meal just from those. Humble braised leeks became something luxurious under a melted layer of buttery, handmade mozzarella, mustard breadcrumbs, and velvety yolk oozing from a fried egg. Thick slices of duck and pork pâté, brightened with green peppercorns, were tasty with coarse mustard, caramelized cippolini onions, pickled Romanesco and Thumbelina carrots, and grilled bread. And lightly fried rock shrimp, dunked in a side of jalapeño tartar sauce, were hard to stop eating.

Other veggie dishes were simply prepared with interesting twists, like grilled asparagus sweetened with beet chips and cauliflower purée, fluffy baked rutabaga topped with tangy ginger crème fraîche, and garlicky, chile-tinged spigarello (heirloom broccoli rabe). An inconspicuous salad of mache and shaved fennel was dazzling with citrus, radishes, green olives, and delicately acidic dressing.

At the moment, there are just four entrees. I loved that grilled lamb but was just as excited about roast jidori chicken. Say what you want about resorting to chicken at a nice restaurant, but this was frankly better than Mom ever used to make, a succulent hunk of crispy-skinned bird on a nest of tender spaetzle, exotic mushrooms, and green garlic.

Meyer lemon and crispy prosciutto created a craveable flavor dynamic with Romanesco, onions, and Parmesan in a plate of garganelli pasta (similar to penne). Meanwhile, fresh dill and a pinch of micro-greens boosted a lovely piece of trout, folded around tender sunchokes and caramelized onions.

Badman's killer crème brûlée is not to be missed; mine was kissed with thyme and Meyer lemon, with a crunchy, amber sugar coating. Other sweets varied by the night — tender pecans and flaky pastry drizzled with bourbon caramel sauce, and fallen chocolate soufflé, layered with chocolate mousse, were memorable.

Throughout the evening, you can observe Milic as multi-tasker extraordinaire — answering calls, greeting guests and taking orders, bussing tables, keeping the wine flowing — and it's a delight to see someone so clearly in his element. I wish more restaurateurs would show this kind of genuine enthusiasm (mixed with charm and self-deprecating humor) for food and beverage.

Come to think of it, perhaps the name FnB is simply a codeword for culinary obsession.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig