It’s an exceptionally good roasted chicken — burnished with a chile-honey glaze and slightly crisp in all the right places, brightened with just enough fresh citrus to round out its deep caramelization. The meat falls off the bone in silky tendrils, so moist and smoky and flavor-rich that you may pause and wonder why, in all of your years of eating chicken, it has never tasted quite this good. And then you notice that your chicken is sitting on a soupy, drippy serving of potato salad, which may seem like a strange way to serve potato salad, until you realize the salad — which is punched up with dates and pecans and is excellent in its own right — has only been enhanced by virtue of soaking in the chicken’s sweet, amber jus.
On a recent visit, a server described the Ocotillo Chicken as a kind of ode to Arizona — most of the dish’s ingredients are sourced locally – and that might also be a good way to describe the house philosophy at Ocotillo. From its name, which evokes the Sonoran desert shrub that comes to life in the spring with shocks of orange blooms, to the restaurant’s modern desert design, and the glaze of local honey on your chicken, Ocotillo feels like an evocation of the best of modern Arizona culture. But it’s not bound only to local terroir and dryland aesthetics – the menu also contains odes to Japanese technique, and to the pleasures of rustic, handmade Italian pastas, and the fiery appeal of a thick Thai curry.
Ocotillo’s ambitious New American menu ultimately reflects the distinct talents, obsessions, and collected expertise of Sacha Levine and Walter Sterling. The two chefs, along with general manager and respected sommelier Dave Johnson, previously worked together at Sol y Sombra, the Scottsdale tapas restaurant that closed in 2009. Altogether the trio has an extensive résumé that includes stints at FnB and Quiessence (Levine), MercBar and the old Mary Elaine’s at the Phoenician Resort (Sterling), Atlas Bistro and the short-lived Davanti Enoteca outpost in Scottsdale (Johnson), to name but only a few.
It would not be unwarranted to expect the very best from Ocotillo, then, and for the most part, the restaurant measures up to its promise. Empowered with full creative license, the team has designed an impressively sprawling food and drink menu — there are something like 40 distinct dishes across the lunch, dinner, and brunch offerings — and the menu seems crafted to please diners of all stripes: vegetarians, barbecue aficionados, devotees of gourmet salads, wine-lovers, and fans of the classic, hearty pasta plate.
The ambitious scope of the menu is reflected in the Ocotillo space itself, a modern complex of clean, angular lines, gleaming glass, and corrugated steel occupying a nearly one-acre corner lot. Long sidewalks connect various indoor and outdoor spaces, which surround a well-groomed desert courtyard. There is a standalone gourmet coffee bar (“O To-Go”), and a shaded outdoor beer garden surrounded by wooden communal tables, the space spilling into a small, neat sunken lawn where, at night, a movie or sports game might be playing on a projection screen.
In the restaurant’s main building, a spacious, airy lobby is filled with the light, upbeat energy of downtown professionals meeting for lunch or dinner. The lobby stretches toward the restaurant’s marble-topped, horseshoe-shaped bar, which always seems to be busy, along with a handful of booths and a communal table overlooking the open kitchen. On the opposite end of the room, past a threshold marked by sheer curtains, there’s the main dining room, a refined yet casual space outfitted with cream-colored banquettes, white tabletops and, for local color, dramatic photo canvas triptychs of the blustery, stormy Arizona skies, as captured by photographer Mike Olbinski. The atmosphere is low-key and unpretentious — your server is likely to be wearing blue jeans — and service, for the most part, is casually friendly and amenable. On any given lunch service, as the room starts to fill to capacity, you might notice its unflattering acoustics can make the space feel noisy and cramped. A spacious outdoor patio offers more intimacy, although its appeal will no doubt dwindle as summer rolls along.
In any case, you can start your meal by poring over Johnson’s progressive wine list, which has become the stuff of legend, its whimsical symbol matrix designed to illustrate the flavors and aromas of different bottles. The “wine key” bears symbols with more familiar descriptions (“plum,” “citrus,” “caramel”) and some less than ordinary (“rock,” “vinegar,” “catbox”), and there’s more than enough bottles on the list to keep you occupied for many visits to come.
Or you can lose yourself in the menu, which is divided between salads, sandwiches, small plates of veggies, meats and cheeses, and entrees.
Vegetables are a strong point here, which makes sense when you consider that Levine cooked alongside Charlene Badman at FnB and Chrysa Robertson at Rancho Pinot, and her work clearly belongs to that upper echelon of creative and modern Arizona farm-to-table gastronomy. Levine is particularly adept in the art of pickling, coaxing refined flavors out of humble, earthy veggies like the beetroot, which you’ll see pop up across the menu at Ocotillo. There’s a simple, pleasurable dish of pecan wood-blasted beets, the jewel-red wedges served on whipped ricotta and garnished with transparently thin slices of raw yellow beetroot, which you can use as a kind of spoon to scoop the cheese and pistachios off your plate. And there is a crispy falafel burger, where a gently pickled beet cleverly adds a layer of subtle sweetness and depth to every bite. A roasted cauliflower small plate is also wonderful, dressed in a tart kale pesto and served in large, meaty hunks, nearly as satisfying as a slab of medium-rare beef.
Meat small plates include grilled whole chicken wings, well smoked and served with an exquisite, slightly sweet Asian-inspired slaw. Even better are the Japanese fish and chips; the lovely, panko-fried white fish is moist and crunchy at once, and served on a small mountain of crispy, seaweed-infused French fries. Gently pickled cucumbers and a tangy-creamy yuzu sauce on the side keep the dish in delicious balance.
If you come to Ocotillo for dinner, you’ll find an entire section of the menu devoted to house-made pastas, where staples like lasagna and ravioli have been replaced in favor of the slightly more esoteric world of chunky, frilly extruded pastas like creste di gallo and reginette.
Depending on the season, there may be casarecce pasta, a short scroll-like pasta designed to hold sauce, served with a spicy, slightly over-salted Calabrian chili — the saltiness only compounded by chewy, smoky nubs of pork belly. A more balanced dish is the reginnete, a long, frilly pasta served with braised lamb; the meat is irresistibly tender and infused with the woodsy, floral notes of wild nettles and mint.
Entrees include crowd-pleasers like wood-fired beef ribs. The massive ribs come stacked upright, resembling something like a small teepee of meat, on a cast iron pan bubbling with dark drips of barbecue sauce. And the barbecue sauce, a mole espresso concoction, is irresistibly deep and rich, with a smokiness hinting at sweetness.
Lighter, but no less satisfying, is a vegetarian cassoulet. The humble beans-and-weenies peasant dish from the south of France has been reinvented here as a spring awakening of heirloom beans and seasonal veggies, baked into a cast iron pan and judiciously lubricated with garlic cream and goat cheese.
Dessert is not a specialty at Ocotillo, although there is a small, rotating selection of sweets available on any given night, which may include a very good lavender and blood orange panna cotta served in a martini glass, or perhaps a slightly underwhelming chocolate mousse. But you might not need dessert, anyway. Servings at Ocotillo are generously portioned, as if doled out by an Italian grandmother who complains that you are too thin and insists that you need to eat more. If you detest throwing out perfectly good food, a doggie bag is almost a certainty, which may well be one more reason to fall in love with Ocotillo.
Call it an ode to making Phoenix a livelier, happier place to eat.
Ocotillo Restaurant & Bar
3243 North Third Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 pm. Sunday
Roasted cauliflower $9
Japanese fish and chips $13
Wood-fired beef ribs $29
Ocotillo chicken $17