First Taste

First Taste: The Craftsman Cocktails + Kitchen Deserves a Second Look

The Craftsman's modern-yet-elegant dining room.
The Craftsman's modern-yet-elegant dining room. Lauren Cusimano
When a new spot opens in town, we're eager to check it out, let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead, a peek inside restaurants that have just opened — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).

Restaurant: The Craftsman Cocktails + Kitchen
Location: 20469 North Hayden Road, Scottsdale
Eats: Upscale American fare and craft cocktails
Open: About six weeks
Price: $$$
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

The Craftsman Cocktails + Kitchen looks like a boring place, if I'm being honest. From the street, it’s a brownish-tannish building in the Hayden Peak Crossing, a retail plaza way up north in Scottsdale near Hayden Road and Thompson Peak Parkway. Not in a million years would I have hooked in on this place if I didn't know what was on the menu.

The kitchen here is led by Christopher Nicosia, former executive chef of the well-loved but now-closed Italian restaurant Sassi. He’s an inductee to the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame, owing to his lively spins on downhome, surf-and-turf menu items.

click to enlarge The scallop toast with bacon corn dipping sauce. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The scallop toast with bacon corn dipping sauce.
Lauren Cusimano
The name and the restaurant itself are said to be inspired by the owner's farmer grandfather, whose tombstone reads: "A Craftsman." (Pretty cool.) This history shines through in some of the dish names — Blacksmith BBQ Chicken, Journeyman Flatbread — but, narrative aside, this is an elegant restaurant with a stylish interior and some food worth returning for.

For starters, there are the starters. Scallop toast is one. You may be picturing browned sliced bread with plops of fresh scallops on top. But no — this small plate is far more complex than that.

It's crunchy focaccia toast, for one, and it's topped with a diver scallop spread, meaning you get a little scallop in every bite, and it comes with a bacon corn dipping sauce. The dish benefitted from the travel time (we got our meal to-go), as the toast had some time to soak up all the elements, resulting in a squishy, delicious mess.

The Craftsman Meatballs weren’t so lucky. Visually, they were pale, surrounded by unusable juice. Made of pork and veal, and topped with Lemon Leaf (a wine sauce) and hard pecorino cheese, they were still pretty good. They're probably better when consumed in-house. 

click to enlarge Pre-sauced Lollipop Wings with blue cheese slaw. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Pre-sauced Lollipop Wings with blue cheese slaw.
Lauren Cusimano
The Lollipop Wings were our favorite small plate. The sizeable Red Bird drumsticks were extra crispy and well flavored. Lots of crags and valleys on the skin. They were carefully placed on a generous bed of tasty blue cheese slaw, which was cut to mid-length, shredded (not chopped), and not too vinegary. "Sometimes slaw can taste like a damn Easter egg," Mom said, "but not this."

The wing sauce deserves its own paragraph. Our to-go order came with a cup of barrel-aged hot sauce. If I could go back, I would have asked for two, nay three, extra cups. It was good on the birds, spicy and thick, and everything else in our order (the toast, the meatballs, the entrée). I’m still thinking about that sauce.

There are several sandwiches and burgers on the menu. We went with the Distiller’s Burger, though we were curious about the enticing-sounding heavy-handed grilled cheese.

The burger was a patty of brisket and short rib with a wet porcini rub, topped with caramelized onions, arugula, garlic aioli, and fontina cheese. The brioche bun was underwhelming, but the other ingredients were solid. You get your pick of salad, chips, or fries, and we went with the latter, though we'd have been better off crossing the parking lot and ordering some fries from Jack in the Box. Fries from restaurants don't travel well generally, but these you could tell wouldn't have been great dining in, either.

click to enlarge The Carpenter’s Chicken with local mushrooms and oregano potatoes. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The Carpenter’s Chicken with local mushrooms and oregano potatoes.
Lauren Cusimano
For an entrée, we tried the Carpenter’s Chicken, a half chicken, wood oven-roasted, with a good-looking garlic parmesan crust. It came with fat-finger-sized oregano potatoes and a couple of “local” mushrooms.

The chicken was pull-apart tender and well-seasoned, still good even after you destroyed the skin with that garlic parmesan coating. The potatoes were fine the way they were prepared, as potatoes go, but the mushrooms were a hit. They possessed ideal density; you could tell they were crispy before the drive (and still a little crispy by the time it got to the home table). We'll be back for other mains like the Volcano Pork and Desert Branzino.

One last bit: I do want to commend this restaurant for its attention to people’s food allergies and dietary restrictions. The staff is friendly, the menu is well labeled, (gluten-free, vegan), and the online order form grants customers the option to select up to 10 allergies (out of 14) in addition to an open field for special instruction. There are also options to make your meal vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian. You're asked so many questions you almost feel like you’re taking one of those bogus personality tests — but in a good way.

For a restaurant steeped in history, we appreciate that kind of forward-thinking approach.

Editor’s note: This article was updated from its original version.
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano