Cafe Reviews

Jose Garces' Culinary Star Power Shines at Old Town Whiskey and Distrito

Jose Garces is an Iron Chef, but then, if you're a fan of Food Network's Iron Chef America, the popular culinary game show based upon the Japanese cult sensation, you already knew that.

And now the Iron Chef has come to the Valley.

At just 39 years old, the Ecuadorian-American Garces, in addition to debuting on Iron Chef America in 2010, has opened eight restaurants in Philadelphia (his home base) and Chicago, authored the cookbook Latin Evolution, and received the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Mid-Atlantic award in 2009.

Late last year, the Iron Chef pointed his star power to the west, specifically Scottsdale, which means that here in the Valley, we can do more than simply witness Garces' culinary style — we can taste it, too. He's secured himself a prime location in the newly rehabbed Saguaro hotel on Scottsdale Mall. It's here that Garces has brought in two of his Philadelphia concepts: Distrito, a modern Mexican restaurant, and Village Whiskey (altered for Scottsdale to Old Town Whiskey), an upscale tavern. He offers custom-roasted coffees and homemade baked goods as well, at Garces Trading Company (GTC) Coffee To-Go.

When it comes to hotels in Scottsdale, the property on 4000 North Drinkwater hasn't exactly been the most successful. Since 2003, the onetime Holiday Inn has been The James and the pink-feathered Mondrian, which brought along the flamboyant East Coast-based restaurant Asia de Cuba. The new Saguaro certainly isn't as flashy, sporting nothing much more than a fresh coat of paint, but by contrast, Garce's concepts inside, designed by Jun Aizaki of Brooklyn's Crème Design Collective, are cool and imaginative, bringing a big-city feel to an otherwise basic spot.

And Garces' foray into Scottsdale hasn't gone unnoticed. In its January issue, Food & Wine called The Saguaro a hotel for foodies.

Of course, being a star chef with several restaurants means trusting the day-to-day details to a capable number two. In this case, the job has gone to Dave Conn, a "kitchen-taught chef" who's been with Garces since he opened his first restaurant, Amada, in 2005.

Garces' celebrity chef status means a higher cost of entry for the privilege of tasting his fare, but it also amounts to high expectations from diners. The tavern-style fare at the smooth Old Town Whiskey is most definitely worth a visit, but the modern Mexican cuisine at Distrito, Garces' dazzling dining experience of small plate offerings, offers more of a bumpy ride — with dishes ranging from spectacular to so-so.

Let's make one thing clear: Old Town Whiskey is all about whiskey.

Garces' small, stylish saloon not only stocks more than 100 varieties of whiskey, bourbon, rye, and scotch, but the spirit also can be found in exceptional cocktails, served in one-ounce tasting flights, and, for the whiskey-timid, mixed with homemade ice cream in a frozen version of the Irish Car Bomb. A small but tight menu of upscale bar snacks and burgers ensures the whiskey complements the cuisine. And the cozy interior, wood-covered and tucked away from The Saguaro's bright swaths of paint, feels like an upscale version of a speakeasy — with dim glass-jar lights, caramel-colored leather couches, and chairs whose legs look as if they've been dipped in burnt orange wax. There's even a patio where, in the evenings, the whiskey's palette of browns dances to the flames of a roaring fire.

All of which make Old Town Whiskey a perfect pairing of strong pours and satisfying tavern fare.

If it's bar snacks you're after, it's a good idea to start with the housemade cheese puffs. But you may find that the light, pillow-like balls of choux pastry made with Gruyère and then topped with even more Gruyère go faster than expected. In which case there are tater tots with a dreamy onion aioli dipping sauce or several selections of housemade pickled seasonal vegetables, like herb cherry tomatoes and truffled cauliflower, served in tiny mason jars with black olive tapenade, whipped ricotta, and crunchy pieces of toasted sourdough.

The duck fat French fries — hand-cut Idaho potatoes, confited in rendered duck fat with rosemary and garlic — are as swoon-worthy as they sound. On the lighter side, they can be enjoyed with a fresh Cobb salad with pieces of blackened chicken or, perhaps more appropriately, a burger.

If, like a crocodile, you have the ability to unhinge your jaw when confronted with large chunks of meat, the Old Town Burger should be a cinch to consume. The flavor is there, but its block of premium, eight-ounce beef is more flashy than functional — even more so with its beefy brother of splurge, the Whiskey King, in which, for nearly double the price ($26) the oversize patty is topped with maple bourbon-glazed cipollini, Rogue Bleu cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and seared foie gras.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld