Cafe Reviews

Starch Reality

My Florist Cafe

Man does not live by bread alone. He also needs some sugar. At least that seems to be the thinking behind the folks at My Florist Cafe, the new adjunct to downtown Phoenix's wildly popular Willo Bread store. Yet we're not talking dessert here: This new restaurant caters to a clientele who seem to crave sweet, sweet and more sweet in their sandwich and salad sustenance. Dressings, sauces and some sides practically drip with the stuff.

For me, the sugary character of the food is distracting, interrupting the enjoyment of otherwise quality ingredients. It seems I'm alone in my quibble, though -- My Florist Cafe been a hit since opening almost two months ago, enticing standing-room only patrons willing to navigate one of the city's most tortured parking lots for a Mandarin shrimp salad or grilled turkey and brie on pumpernickel.

The draw's an easy one to figure. Celebrated for its fresh-baked, all-natural specialty breads, Willo supplies many of the Valley's finest restaurants, plus AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods and a rabid core of retail customers addicted to its marvelous crusty creations. So it only made sense for owner David Lacy to slap something between the slices, capitalizing with his own little gourmet cafe. The setting's a dream, too, in the epicenter of Phoenix, and surrounded by a core of eager eaters hungry for a cosmopolitan bistro experience. It's fast become a see-and-be-seen place for local artists, style-conscious residents of the historic Willo neighborhood that inspired the bakery's name, politicians from the nearby capital, and downtown business professionals. The menu reads like poetry -- the pear salad, for example, sounds like a swooner, uniting fresh spinach with sliced fruit, caramelized red onions, roasted peppers and pine nuts in roasted garlic balsamic vinaigrette with crumbled bleu cheese and cranberry-hazelnut bread.

Adding to the interest are almost-always-open hours (6 a.m. to midnight daily, with muffins and pastries for breakfast), a welcoming espresso/coffee bar and live piano music from ivory tickler John Summers. The service is warm and a creative wine list appeals, including sake and port, plus specialty drinks like an apple jack (apple juice, cream soda, vanilla ice cream and champagne). The place is pretty, too, feeling grown-up big city with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking McDowell, purple-and-teal walls, a glass-block room divider, and servers gliding about in calf-length white bistro aprons.

Pretty perfect, huh? Not quite. While Lacy admits he doesn't cook or bake, he has hired professional chef Robbie Metz to manage the menu. Yet there's still work to be done on this fledgling cafe. Besides the sugar thing, too many of My Florist's offerings flounder, capsized by adversarial ingredient pairings, a stingy hand with portions and some odd side dishes.

Who wants a fat dill pickle alongside their peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich? Particularly when there's not nearly enough of the tasty roasted nut spread on the massive slabs of wondrous sesame bread, which means that pretty much all we taste is candy-like grape preserves exacerbated by equally ambrosial sides of fresh fruit (a changing mix of cantaloupe, orange, watermelon, honeydew, strawberries). Try sucking on a lollipop then chomping on a pickle and see what contortions your mouth is capable of achieving. My kingdom for some potato chips.

Better to bring on the brine with a gorgeous tuna sandwich, but the kitchen doesn't pack a pickle with this plate, just more fruit. And it's a terrific sandwich, consisting of earthy rye cut with chunks of real red onion, stuffed with albacore, mayonnaise, crushed almonds, water chestnuts, leaf lettuce and ripe tomato.

Sides sideline an otherwise delectable cafe clubhouse sandwich, too, dumping a timber pile of house bread chips that follow the fashion of bagel chips. The problem is the bread used -- an aggressive Kalamata olive loaf that when toasted turns bitter. Too bad, because the star of the plate is marvelous, layering salty, shaved Parma prosciutto, turkey breast, provolone, nutty-toned Jarlsberg and fresh spinach leaves on a grilled Willo loaf (think French baguette).

Nothing's amiss with a portabello sandwich, however, a glorious marriage of meaty mushroom roasted with eggplant, red pepper, caramelized onions and provolone on rosemary focaccia burnished with garlic butter. This is a huge meal, complemented by mixed greens in a sprightly lemon-thyme vinaigrette. And cafe panini, while meager on meat for its $8.50 tab, satisfies with sliced salami, provolone, caramelized red onions and whole-grain mustard in a grilled Willo loaf, plus a side of greens in a subtle balsamic vinaigrette. Yet the bread has a dusting of what tastes like powdered donut.

And why gunk up a lovely Di Parma sandwich with buckets of oddly sweet basil pesto -- there's no sugar in the traditional recipe, but something tastes of it here. Plus, in this quantity it drowns out the fine Parma prosciutto, mozzarella and Roma tomato on its round ciabatta roll. Half as much of the spread would do the trick.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet