When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Merkin Vineyards Old Town Scottsdale
Location: 7133 East Stetson Drive, #4, Scottsdale
Open: About four months
Eats: Small plates with vegetables, proteins, and charcuterie
Price: $25 to $60 per person
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday
We’ve told you about Jim Cunningham, the experienced general manager, and the wine program over at the Merkin Vineyards Old Town Scottsdale, which opened in April. So it was high time we dined at Maynard James Keenan’s wine bar and eatery. Arriving on a hot Tuesday night, we were primed to try anything off the tight menu.
After we chose our own table, a server approached with a question and a spiel at the ready. Have you been here before? No? Well, we grow all our own vegetables and grapes. Close to everything comes from Arizona soil. The website also states this, reading, “Merkin Vineyards is on a mission to come as close as we can to delivering a 100 percent Arizona experience to our extended family and community.”
We perused the one-page food menu after ordering some wine first, duh.
A vegetables section included cauliflower, Beet "Tartare," and Sun Valley Harvest Mushrooms. Wanting to whet appetites with these Arizona-grown veggies, we ordered the Cucumber & Hot Chilies. Only, we didn’t get it. Because we’d expressed an initial interest in the plate of pickles before deciding on the cucumbers, we got the pickles anyway. We kept waiting for cucumbers that never came.
After a lull, our server asked if we'd like another glass of wine. And if we’d like to order anything else to eat. This is where it became obvious Merkin Vineyards’ new Scottsdale location doesn’t often entertain dinner guests. It’s an after-work wine room, maybe a stop along Stetson Drive during a night of barhopping, or a quick before-dinner place for wine. Which is fine, as surrounding restaurants include Citizen Public House and FnB.
We ordered the two items on the menu listed under “proteins”: the confit duck leg and crisp Berkshire pork belly. Another lull (and I kind of want to point out here we were one of three tables), but seemingly worth it, as the plates brought out were steaming hot and beautifully arranged.
Eating the food, however, was a different story.
The duck leg was done well, but on the bland side. A warm salad, or maybe it was considered garnish, was stuffed beneath it. The pork belly was better, but hard to eat. The provided butter knife didn’t quite cut it, literally. Let’s just say a dinner guest happened to have a pocketknife, and let’s just say it had to make an appearance.
Remembering the price of these “proteins” and now seeing the size, you may feel a pang of depression. You’re eating the duck, the pork belly, with no sides, though paying entree prices, or $15 a plate.
The dessert options include a seasonal treat, or house gelati. To get a recounting of the seasonal dessert, however, you’ll have to flag down your server. But it didn’t matter, because we were in the mood for the $11 Lavender Malaysia gelato.
Even that was a drag. The gelato flavors sound amazing, but the treat actually is just the pint of ice cream in the fridge by the front door. Might as well hit the grocery store on your way home. We gave it a skip.
The waitstaff, despite an almost empty room, is less than attentive. The alternative-looking servers are obviously plenty friendly once your table becomes the point of focus, but that is a challenge in itself. Starter orders were mixed up, wine glasses sat empty, and the blocky menus stay on the table ... or so we still assume.
Something guests will no doubt notice are the multitudes of items for sale at the entrance. There’s apparently a big market for Merkin Vineyards T-shirts, hats, and other grab-bag-style gifts (though there is wine and some preservatives). But it seems like if the Scottsdale tasting room staff paid as much attention to butts already in seats as the expansive merch section, we may actually have something here.
We and other locals do appreciate Merkin’s menu using mostly Arizona-based ingredients. And of course, oenophiles will enjoy a quicker trip to central Scottsdale instead of Keenan's other sites in Cottonwood and Jerome, but we recommend you still make the drive. It’s clear these are the dominant locations of this business, as they should be.
On Stetson Drive alone, we’ve lost Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz Wine Bar, so there’s no doubt it’s a highly competitive world in the 5th Avenue Shops section of central Scottsdale. Fortunately for Merkin Vineyards Old Town Scottsdale, the name of a still-relevant rock star backs the establishment. Because if it didn’t, we couldn’t be sure this place would be long for this world.
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