What do the stars of this year's Valley dining scene look like so far? Like many across the country still adapting to the effects of the recession (so long, fine dining) and reacting to a culture more informed about food than ever (11 seasons of Top Chef and counting), they're cooking street snacks with culinary flair, re-imagining comfort food, and putting bold spins on dishes from around the globe -- and they're doing it with top-notch ingredients and lots of local love.
In no particular order, here are five of my favorite Valley restaurants so far. And with just four more months left in 2013, I'm glad I won't have to wait long to see what the rest of the year will put on my plate. Enjoy.
Carefree's Cafe Bink may be more French-inspired, and Binkley's Restaurant in Cave Creek may draw a more affluent clientele, but Bink's Midtown, the newest restaurant from James Beard Award finalist Kevin Binkley, is the hands-down headquarters of the three for reimagined local produce in Phoenix. And like any hub where vegetables and fruits meet the future, Binkley's food is a mix of science and seasons -- perhaps chunks of melons lit up with pepitas, chile piquin, ricotta salatta, and sangria granité; roasted cauliflower accompanied by almonds, dried currants, and curry foam; or zesty butternut squash bread, celery, and sliced strawberries interspersed with dollops of foie gras mousse. The innovate fruit-focused desserts, like layered push-up pops and a sorbet "soup" frozen with liquid nitrogen, are some of the best in town. And although there's never been a better time to eat our vegetables, it's still good to know that on Saturdays, the kitchen puts on an all-you-can-eat gourmet pig roast of epic proportions.
The latest iteration of the Welcome Diner, the tiny, iconic eatery at 10th and Roosevelt streets, is the kind of road-food-rich rest stop you might expect to find along a stretch of Southern highway, set down on a patch of grass and heavy with the perfumes of baking biscuits and frying meats. Its hosts, former Old Dixie food truck owners Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson, have created a small, ever-changing menu of superlative New Orleans-inspired eats -- hefty Gulf shrimp po-boys, Cajun-style red beans and rice topped with slices of smoky and peppery Andouille sausage, and fried catfish with braised collard greens. But the fried chicken buttermilk biscuit sandwich, bulked out with melted cheddar, bacon, and seriously thick and peppery sausage gravy, is the place to start. Pair it with a boozy, fruity housemade hurricane ladled from a giant glass jar on the counter.
In one respect, Mexico-born chef Doug Robson's Otro Cafe in north Central Phoenix is a complement to his first restaurant, Gallo Blanco, in the way of outstanding Mexican food made with first-rate local ingredients. In another, it's a more elevated companion that can stand on its own. Not that anything gets too lofty here -- you can still find excellent tacos filled with spicy achiote-marinated grilled shrimp, seasonal roasted vegetables, and citrus-kissed rib eye, as well as chefly interpretations of the torta like the open-faced Tocino con Rajas, Robson's spicy and peppery take on the BLT. And if you're in the mood for something a bit more unique, say, a delicately earthy and spicy Spanish-style appetizer, an intricate, multi-ingredient Inca salad, or a stunning pollo en mole negro, Otro's got those, too. For a mix of fancy and familiar, end the evening with the postre de coco, Robson's Mexican dessert equivalent of a Mounds bar gone gourmet.
When people lament the lack of risk-taking cuisine in the Valley, they almost certainly are not talking about Renegade by MOD, the first restaurant from celebrated chef Michael O'Dowd, whose decade at Kai earned it AAA five-diamond and Forbes Travel Guide five-star acclaim. At his huge North Scottsdale spot, done up in scrap metal sculptures, guitars, and graffiti art, O'Dowd's stuck his chef's knife in the culinary outlet, creating an electrifying menu of re-invented foods from around the globe that take a walk on the wild -- yet still sophisticated -- side, and often with a playful wink. By the time you've had your amuse bouche served from a skateboard deck and chips dipped in an ashtray filled with excellent, Indian-like herbed cream cheese, O'Dowd's pretty much set the scene for dishes like chunky venison "lollipops" dusted with mole, an amped-up bowl of ramen noodles in a lobster-miso broth, and an oversize moon pie with an "RC Cola anglaise" that most folks (excluding O'Dowd) would simply call a milkshake.
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The fact that this tiny, wonderful Scottsdale cafe is inside the Valley's only luxury bed and breakfast -- and moreover, that there's a lap pool perched on the balcony on top of it -- is the least surprising thing about Virtú. What's more extraordinary is the food. Chef-owner Gio Osso has created a menu that's a kind of white board of elegant, ever-changing, Mediterranean-inspired dishes revolving around farmers market vegetables, naturally raised meats, and pristine seafood. On one evening, there may be grilled octopus with lemony chickpeas and streaks of spicy chile butter; on another, woozy hazelnut-crusted scallops with a white chocolate butter luscious enough to stop your inner monologue. And there may be nothing better than the breakfast-for-dinner-starter of grilled asparagus topped with an egg and interspersed with foie gras Hollandaise, truffle oil, bright feta, and "bacon candy" that's every bit of both. Cross your fingers you'll find it at Virtú's soon-to-come weekend brunch and staff brunch on Mondays.