Cafe Reviews

Pat Christofolo's The House at Secret Garden Makes You Feel at Home

Pat Christofolo sure has a knack for creating hidden treasures.

As owner of The Farm Kitchen at The Farm at South Mountain (not to mention Santa Barbara Catering), she's already proved that she can wow the lunch crowd with fresh, appealingly simple fare in a rustic setting. Her restaurant has long been a New Times favorite for giving time-crunched urbanites an excuse to slow down, bask in the sun, and feel like we're out in the country, if only for the amount of time it takes us to eat a sandwich and a homemade cookie.

Now, she's teamed up with her chef son, Dustin, to open an even more intriguing restaurant. In business since late October, The House at Secret Garden has already become the kind of gem you'll want to keep in your back pocket for a cozy date night, dinner with out-of-town guests, or lunch with your mom. Trust me, you'll look savvy without trying too hard.

And gratefully, its contemporary American cuisine is accessible and casual enough to justify frequent visits. Entrées run the gamut from a bacon cheeseburger to braised short ribs, and local ingredients from such purveyors as Maya's Farm, The Meat Shop, and Black Mesa Ranch get top billing. Along with beer and wine, there are also interesting craft cocktails — among them, a cactus fig margarita, basil cucumbertini, and "Vincent Van Gone" (absinthe with cranberry and orange juice).

The Christofolos found a great location for their eatery: a stately 1929 Spanish-style mansion on Baseline Road that's surrounded by trees and lush vegetation and has a big old barn-turned-wine bar out back. As with The Farm Kitchen, it feels like an off-the-beaten-path destination but really isn't much of a hike from CenPho or Tempe.

Along the path to the restaurant from the rear parking lot, you'll pass an inviting bunch of outdoor seats next to the barn (I'd love to just relax here with a bottle of tempranillo, a cheese board, and some friends). Around the bend is a patio with an outdoor fireplace, pots of lipstick-red geraniums in bloom, and even a tiny koi pond.

If you make it only this far, I don't blame you (yes, Arizonans are suckers for good al fresco dining), although the inside of the restaurant is equally inviting, particularly on these chilly December nights.

Enter through the back door and you'll find yourself in the middle of an old home whose wood-floored rooms are now filled with tables and chairs. The largest one, which must've been the living room, features a handsome wooden bar as well. Candles on every table give the wheat-colored walls and coved ceiling a golden glow at night, and soft strains of jazz filter through the murmur of intimate conversation. I could curl up and purr just thinking about it.

Indeed, it's a lovely backdrop for food that's just as homey. One night's dinner started off with sweet potato planks, a classy take on loaded potato skins that made me seriously consider seconds. Atop each thick sweet potato slice was a dollop of crème fraîche with scallions, which tempered a crown of salty, crispy pancetta. The result was simply mouthwatering and disappeared in minutes.

Likewise, another nod to comforting pub grub — fries — was cleverly made with polenta, so that each crunchy, golden-fried bar of finger food gave way to a hot, creamy middle. They were good dunked into a side of mild aioli.

Vegetable bruschetta was presented "scampi style" — as a bowl of sautéed squash, zucchini, red and yellow pepper, soft chèvre, and fresh basil that I heaped onto slices of grilled focaccia. It was nothing exotic, but I appreciated the do-it-yourself aspect (which kept the bread from getting soggy) and the fact that it wasn't another predictable Caprese.

The potato-leek soup didn't win me over — it was too salty and too watery. I fished out a few bits of potato, watercress, and goat cheese, longing for something more substantial.

But on the salad front, I was more than satisfied. Both the grilled romaine (lightly smoky bunches of lettuce topped with feta and pickled red onions — enough to eat as an entrée) and the seasonal salad (mixed greens tossed with mint, Italian parsley, carrot, shaved fennel, paper-thin slices of watermelon radish, pistachios, and goat cheese) were slicked with delicately balanced vinaigrette that enhanced the stellar, just-picked tenderness of the greens. Consider me impressed.

I inhaled the housemade pasta one night, an excellent butternut squash ravioli with port demi-glace. The filling was like edible velvet. Almost as sensual was a heap of creamy Anson Mills grits topped with sautéed shrimp and sweet corn, with a hint of serrano chile kick.

When I tried the seasonal sandwich on my last visit, it was pretty hefty for a vegetarian item. Tucked into thick whole grain bread, it combined tomato, grilled eggplant, squash, red onion, greens, and tepary bean spread. I liked it a lot, but I flat-out loved the smoked brisket sandwich, which tugged at my carnivorous little heartstrings with moist, thinly sliced beef, tomato, red onion, cheddar, and more of those delicious greens on a fresh baguette. Brisket sandwiches are usually meat overload, but this one had just the right amount.

Celebrated local pastry chef Tracy Dempsey consulted on the desserts here, and they certainly were worthy of her reputation. Along with homemade ice cream, I succumbed to the "Puddin' and Pie" duo, smooth sweet potato pudding topped with brûléed, coconut-covered marshmallows, and a flaky-crusted mini-pecan pie, served warm. Fig-ricotta fritters rocked, too, thanks to three unusual dips: fleur de sel caramel, fig-balsamic, and crème fraîche.

Like the restaurant itself, they were perfect for sharing with a friend.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig