Cafe Reviews

Mark Tarbell's The Tavern in Phoenix Offers a Taste of the Past, In a Good Way

Those of us of a certain age remember fondly Sportsman's Fine Wines, a longtime landmark on the southeast corner of Camelback Road and 32nd Street and one of very few decent wine shops in town. And some of us who love a good Caesar salad and a nice escargot have been whining ever since Barmouche, much-decorated restaurateur, chef, and wine expert Mark Tarbell's popular European bistro, closed more than a decade ago.

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But Sportsman's, purchased recently by Tarbell, lives on as the Wine Shop. And Barmouche fans -- and anyone who likes good eating -- have lived happier lives since March, when the shop was joined by the Tavern, Tarbell's newest dining venture showcasing the chef's favorite (mostly American) food. Based on memories of the French wine bars he frequented while apprenticing in Paris and located between the Wine Store and Tarbell's namesake restaurant, the Tavern offers a list of wine cocktails and an international smorgasbord of beers, including locally brewed selections from San Tan, Lumberyard, and Four Peaks. Wine is offered by the glass and on tap, and diners who want to uncork a bottle are invited to nip next door to the wine shop, where they can purchase a bottle at retail and have it added, without any mark-up, to their bill. (Sometime between my second and third visit, Tarbell installed a window between the restaurant and wine shop, I suppose so that one can watch other people shopping for vino. Why?)

Flanked by a curved bar, the knotty-pine-paneled dining room is hung with copper pots and framed prints and offers a menu more elaborate than the usual tapas and finger-food fare popular in many wine bars, one that improves on the best elements of Barmouche's casual gourmand fare.

I mentioned to our waiter that we planned to split the wedge salad, and he did the splitting for us before serving -- something I rarely see. Half of this delicious salad proved to be plenty. Lightly dressed with a rich, tangy blue cheese, it's piled with crispy slivers of bacon, diced tomato, and a whole hard-boiled egg that was heavy on the white and light on the yolk.

I didn't share my lamb burger, built around a dry but still flavorful lamb patty, lively with flavors of parsley and cumin that reminded me of a lamb gyro. It didn't come with the roasted tomatoes mentioned on the menu (neither, quel dommage, did the bottle of sparkling water we ordered), but fortunately the promised mint aioli, subtle and fresh, did show up. I would like to have dipped frites into it, but the burger came with housemade potato chips instead. They were excellent.

I'll be back for Tarbell's superb chili con carne, served to me from the specials menu but which my waiter promised was about to be added to the regular menu. Sweet tones of brown sugar, whole tomatoes, and a nicely syrupy stock bind firm kidney beans and chunks of sirloin, topped with grated English white cheddar.

Our waiter raved so about the coconut cream pie, I -- never a fan of coconut -- ordered it. It was rich but not too sweet; stacked high with whipped cream, nice but not memorable.

On a subsequent visit we, fans of a really well-made spinach dip, tucked in to an order of Chef Tarbell's. We were glad we did. Subtly herb-infused and served in a miniature roasting pan alongside fresh, crunchy baguette slices and corn-crispy tortilla chips, it was creamy and spiked with sharp, zesty Parmesan.

We paired this with a duo of truffle comte bikinis -- crustless, hot mini-sandwiches native to Spain, served on toasted challah bread. Understated flavors of rich comte cheese were elevated by a hint of truffle in this guilty-pleasure starter. Crispy prosciutto added a nice twist to an already superior spinach salad, tossed in a sweet, bacony dressing with a hint of citrus. Wilted just slightly by the dressing, the fresh spinach was offset nicely by the tang of pickled red onion.

After a lot of bready appetizers, I ordered the American classic burger without the bun. It came wrapped in lettuce and doused with Tarbell's "secret sauce," an enjoyable substitute for ketchup that tasted like tomato aioli. Cooked medium, the burger's thick, tightly packed patty was still moist, dressed with American cheese and traditional fixings of pickles and lettuce.

Among the few oddball items on the menu here is the octopus taco. Surprisingly tender bits of mollusk topped a bed of shredded cabbage in a cumin-rich chile sauce, wrapped in fresh corn tortillas, toasted and redolent of maize. One was plenty, but two of these rich babies would make a real meal.

One must, when dining at one of Tarbell's restaurants, order Scotch beef. This slow-cooked, melt-in-your-mouth standard has become the restaurateur's calling card. Wonderfully rich, it's served with velvety demi-glace, flavored with red wine and garlic. Fluffy, perfectly salted and lightly buttered mashed potatoes are a perfect accompaniment. The vegetables offered are seasonal; mine were neatly crisp green beans and tender carrots, both procured, our waiter explained, from a local farmers market.

Eating Mark Tarbell's Scotch beef at a bistro on East Camelback was a throwback -- the good kind, where one doesn't care that so many years have passed. I'll be back soon for a helping of Mark's Mom's Mac 'n' Cheese, grateful for once that some things never change.

The Tavern 3205 East Camelback Road 602-955-7730 Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday

Spinach salad $13 Truffle bikini $7 Spanish octopus taco $8 Scotch beef $26

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela