Cafe Reviews

Psycho Killer

Occasionally, I feel like the Ted Bundy of food critics, trawling sundry restaurant rows here in Phoenix, looking for my next victim. It has something to do with exorcising my inner Jack the Ripper, albeit with the written word as my butcher knife.

Unlike Bundy, et al., my "victims" are usually past due for a verbal blood bath, and I just happen to be the one to oblige. As with Tony Soprano, no one gets whacked unless he deserves it. Fortunately for me, the Valley is brimming with the deserving, and initially, I thought I'd found a new sacrificial lamb when I spotted the sign for Zest on 16th Street, just north of Indian School.

The name misled me. I mean, Zest is what I soap myself up with in the morning, and I wouldn't want to eat any of it, no matter how well-prepared. Then there was my first glance at the menu, where I saw several of the usual suspects: osso buco, ahi tuna, filet mignon and so on. A smile tweaked my lips in anticipation. This would be an easy kill, I thought.

But au contraire, Señor Smarty-pants! Zest no more merited my poison pen than Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn merited beheading back in the day. In fact, this smart, stylish eatery, which opened March 16, benefits from a powerhouse of culinary experience led by head chef/part-owner Rich Rathert, who has run restaurants in the Virgin Islands, Colorado, and here in the Valley. His wife/part-owner Tracy Rathert's day job is as the food-and-beverage director of the Hilton in Scottsdale, and then there's partner Scott Digford, who's a banquet captain at the Phoenician.

The newbie of this foursome is real estate agent Don Bigioni, who gets much of the credit for the interior design of the eatery, with its purple ceiling, terra cotta floor, warm lighting, and decorative paintings and mosaics. The effect is a relaxed, welcoming environment assisted by the outstanding service provided by Zest's waiters, as well as by Bigioni himself, who constantly circles the establishment, chatting with patrons, and making sure their every whim is satisfied.

But it's Zest's food that puts it over the top, constantly challenging one's expectations with otherwise familiar items such as pork chops or Atlantic salmon. How do you make a pork chop interesting, you might wonder? Rich Rathert does it by taking a one-and-a-half-inch center cut pork chop, flattening it with a mallet until it can almost cover a dinner plate by itself, and then battering it, seasoning it, and breading it with special Japanese-style panko breadcrumbs, which create an especially savory crust. Served atop smashed potatoes, with cranberry-orange chutney, and surrounded by perfectly prepared zucchini and squash, it reminds me of a haute cuisine chicken-fried steak that's both filling and fulfilling to devour.

The Atlantic salmon further proves my previously stated law of cookery that almost anything wrapped in bacon tastes like heaven. Here strips of swine surround some nice cuts of salmon, which, like the flattened porker already mentioned, sit atop a mound of smashed potatoes ringed by the same squash-zucchini combo. However, instead of the pork chop's cranberry-orange chutney, the salmon is accompanied by a roasted tomato sauce. This entree was the choice of my beautiful Japanese escort Madame X, who is so dainty an eater she did not finish the meal. Wisely, I had our server box it, and took it home. Thus, I can attest that Rathert's recipe was as delectable the day after.

I was less enthralled with the ahi tuna atop lime-scented couscous. The fish itself was not as palatable as I would have preferred. Ahi tuna seems a tough one to pull off in this town, with the resulting seared steak never quite as fresh or as tender as it should be. Still, Rathert's preparation was above average. The ahi's tomato-pineapple topping was superb, and I was in a prolonged state of rapture over that fat, Israeli-style couscous, which even rivaled the couscous I've had at ethnic eateries in town.

I'm so infatuated with those pearl dollops, I wish Rathert would add his couscous to another entree of his I admire, his Grand Marnier-bathed osso buco, which properly fell off the bone with minimum effort, and had me cleaning out every last morsel of veal marrow with my little fork. Like the panko pork chop, the shank lay on a serving of smashed potatoes, and though I did enjoy them, I think I would have enjoyed the couscous with the osso buco much better. Ingesting such a succulent cut of meat, and then attempting an equally rich mound of mashed tubers, was a tad daunting, to say the least. Couscous is less heavy, and perhaps Rathert will prepare it with the osso buco for me the next time I visit.

Rathert's entrees and starters are attractively arranged on the plate, and are garnished with lemon, orange, or lime peel in keeping with the restaurant's theme. Another almost retro touch is the tableside salad preparation, where the waiter rolls up a cart and you can have the mixed greens prepared to your liking. Zest offers a house vinaigrette, with a choice of pecans, cranberries, Gorgonzola and/or oranges. If you're like me, and are not fond of fruity salads, just ask for Gorgonzola, pecans and a minimum amount of the citrusy vinaigrette, and you can't go wrong.

Zest's appetizers are of equal quality, but the eggplant cheesecake is nonpareil. Thick yet surprisingly refreshing, made of roasted eggplant mixed in with cream cheese, eggs, fresh basil, etc., and topped with a garlic-tomato-balsamic vinegar sauce, Rathert's take on the savory cheesecake should be the yardstick by which all others are judged.

The dessert cheesecake, made with oranges and cranberries and topped with a mint-citrus sauce, is also magnificent, and blue-ribbon-worthy. The layered lemon pound cake with custard was good, if not perfect for following a heavy meal. More appropriate for the summer months is the mango-peach crisp, an invention of one of Rathert's sous chefs, which was only offered as a special. With fresh mangos, peaches and whipped cream sandwiched between cookie-like wafers, Zest should really consider making it a regular part of the menu.

So as you see, there is no fresh kill this week, no culinary victim upon which to practice my savage wit. Zest has vanquished this gourmand on the field of battle -- the dining table. Who would have thought defeat would taste so sweet?

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons

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