Cafe Reviews

Small Time Cooks

The best place to eat in all of Arizona is a tiny spot hidden away in Paradise Valley. It's got limited seating: just one formal table, with eight chairs. If need be, overflow can fit more casually at a three-chair glass-topped nook table, or, in a real pinch, four diners can eat – standing up – at the bar.

The finest place to feast in this entire state is at my mother's home on those rare weekends when my brother Carter visits from Berkeley and cooks for us. When he's in the house, the oven, range and chopping block become a world-class bistro, with Carter crafting one stunning recipe after another.

Watching the chef up-close at work is a delight, as he deftly chops, whisks, seasons and sautés. I love the aromas tempting my rumbling belly, and the peaceful rhythm of a talented cook turning out fresh fare, all from scratch and done to order. But most of all, it's the cozy, comfortable intimacy of the private setting that appeals. Somehow, in this loving atmosphere, a simple grilled cheese sandwich is elevated to culinary art.

Small, intimate spaces appeal to me in real restaurants, too. Perhaps too much; I'm quick to overlook faults in places that comfort me with their coziness while I eat. Let's admit it: It's an unwritten truth that the smaller the cafe, the more we seem to find the food charming. What might not impress us so much in a large, fancy room is cute in cramped, kick-back confines. Salmon teriyaki that is no more than just good fish, for example, becomes truly tasty when it's trotted out at the teeny Toyama Japanese cafe in north Scottsdale. And a BLT that is just above average somehow seems more sumptuous when it arrives at the tiny Table bistro in downtown Phoenix. Toyama seats 12 in its dining room, 30 on its patio, and 11 at its bar. The Table seats two dozen total in its converted old house property, though management is planning a "massive" expansion that, by sacrificing the bistro's office, will add another five chairs.

Brunch with Carter on a recent Saturday catered to seven. We fed on one of the most perfect meals I've ever had – grilled cheese (on gluttonously buttered rustic bread with shallots and a tomato spread spiked with molasses and ancho chiles); fluffy quiche (two kinds, with fresh-picked spinach and mushrooms, or with crispy bacon and sweet onion); field greens with roma tomatoes in homemade balsamic vinaigrette; walnuts roasted with cayenne and garlic; and homemade scones capped with real whipped cream and beautiful sliced strawberries. The repast lolled long into the afternoon, so much were we savoring the slow cooking, the blissful communal feasting, the close conversation.

Lunch at Toyama finds me with three friends on a crisp, sunny day not long after my family feast. Even in a group this small, we feel we own the place, drawing the server's and chef's attention away from the couples at the other tables or singletons nestled happily in solitude at the bar with trays of sushi and cold Kirins. And it's one of the best lunches I've ever had, starting with kaisen seafood salad, a petite tumble of two midsize bright orange shrimp and two small but silky pieces of albacore over crisp romaine and a sparkling sharp ginger dressing. I don't even mind that the strings of crab tossed in the salad are kanikama, the imitation shellfish meat usually made from pollock.

Chef Mamoru Kugaguchi keeps it lively behind his sushi bar, slicing through generous slabs of ruby-fleshed tuna, coral-hued salmon and creamy yellowtail sashimi with his glinting silver knife. Superior fish this is, in any size place, and so is the special of the day, cuts of prized toro, the luscious fatty underbelly of the blue fin tuna, stuffed as I request in a hand roll. It feels like he's catering to my group alone, and I don't mind that the hand roll is a bit smaller than in other sushi shops – the fish melts in my mouth and is well worth the substantial price tag (a six-piece order of regular tuna tataki is $12; substitute toro and it's $20).

My group works its way slowly and peacefully through almost the entire lengthy chalkboard listing of daily fresh offerings, like tai (red snapper), aoyagi (orange clam), and aji (Spanish mackerel). We wait patiently for the cooked delights, prepared in a tiny kitchen behind a tiny curtain, like hamachi kama (grilled yellowtail jaw), karei karage (deep fried sole), and ka tetsupou-yaki (grilled whole squid with onion stuffing and miso seasoning).

At night, the slinky cafe sparsely decorated with dried framed roses and glittery pin lights is more tightly packed. With the darkness cloaking the windows outside, guests gather together in animated conversation over the softly playing Phantom of the Opera soundtrack in the background, not shy to ask neighboring tables what that pretty dish is that they're enjoying. Like any home kitchen, there's not a lot to choose from. Tonight, chef Kugaguchi lets us select entrees from an abbreviated menu – two chicken dishes, two salmon dishes, and vegetable or shrimp tempura.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet