Cafe Reviews

The Jagger Edge

The burning question of the evening involves cocktails. One pal in my group of revelers has decided that the best drink is the Italian ice-lemon, a liquid candy concoction of lemon gelato, Ketel One Citroen, Triple Sec, sweet and sour, and lemon juice in a sugared-rim martini glass. The other insists it's the elegant Bellini, a tall pour of champagne, peach purée, vodka and peach schnapps. This could be a long night: The discussion is getting fairly heated, and we've only just begun to work our way through the dozen-plus drink choices, bound in a fancy laminated menu complete with four-color photos.

Me? I put my money on the mojito, a potent blend of Bacardi light rum, lime juice, sugar, mint leaves, bitters and soda (also Hemingway's favorite drink when he lived in Cuba; he was said to knock back up to 20 a day on a regular basis).

We're dining at Scottsdale's new Furio, where just opening the front door is an experience -- the huge glass plate swivels from its center, offering opportunity to enter from the right or the left, or to be knocked to the floor if we're not paying attention.

The calamari appetizer arrives. One bite of the stunning squid and I know: Furio is no ordinary club pretending to be a restaurant. Furio is first and foremost an excellent, big city star-quality Italian bistro, with an excellent, big city star-quality chef. That it also happens to be extraordinarily cool is just icing on the tiramisu.

In fact, Furio is the type of place that, had I discovered it in another city (L.A., San Francisco, New York), I'd be using it as an example to whine about how our Valley has so far to go in the ambient dining scene. For so long, we've had to choose: great food or great modern ambiance. Finally, both are here in one dynamic package.

Furio owner John Casale obviously has done his homework, seeming to be taking the food game as seriously as the glitz. As part owner in Scottsdale's luxe Martini Ranch, the Famous Door and the late Insomnia, he's seen the pitfalls of prioritizing style over substance, and if he wasn't trying really hard to smash the mold with Furio, he's just an incredibly lucky guy.

Critical to the success, he's hired a big-name executive chef, Jagger Griffin, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute and former top dog in the kitchens of Christopher's and Eddie Matney's. Griffin has put together an encompassing menu that, while contemporary, is entirely comfortable. Nothing bizarre, just beautiful, bold, bright combinations that showcase the coming together of many fine ingredients. In a surprising stretch, Griffin manages to marry casual food (the calamari, pizza, panini sandwiches) with high-class cuisine (Parmesan-crusted shrimp with snow peas and prosciutto risotto; mozzarella and vine-ripened tomatoes with field greens and white truffle oil).

This is the first time in almost forever that I can remember rejoicing over calamari, presented exactly as it was meant to be, the tender squid in a greaseless cloak of gentle crisp. I say to my companion, "No fish, no crunch, no sewer," and he knows exactly what I mean. There's none of the heavy fishy flavor that has turned calamari into a junk-bar snack, none of the terrible crunch of overcooked batter, none of the sewer fumes of bad squid saved only by dunking in acidic tomato sauce. This calamari comes instead with a terrific trio of creamy Parmesan, spunky arabiata and mellow marinara sauces that we lick from our spoons like lollipops when the fish is finished.

I'm not expecting to see such finger foods as dusted hearts of palm in a place that looks this good, lined in steel walls punched with giant holes, accented with a row of convex mirrors that looks like an oversize sheet of that dot candy we sucked off strips of paper when we were little. Yet the palm sticks are first-class, long wands of fresh, firm-tender vegetable fried to a feather-light golden brown and absolutely juicy, dipped into spicy hot, thin but assertive arabiata (marinara with chile pepper). It's a completely appropriate dish to eat as we bask in plush seats snug in fat saffron-and-black-striped fabric, wiping our mouths and fingers with linen napkins beneath pin lighting that shines like stars in an amber white-lighted background. The dining room is separated by drapes from a violet-lighted bar furnished with chunky ottomans and a couch stacked with leopard-skin pillows.

Things do start poorly. I'm cranky as soon as I hit the valet, the service a necessary evil given the incredible traffic that central Scottsdale's explosive nightlife scene has created. The valet sign says $4 is the going rate, but the valet himself says $5 is what's expected. Then he asks if I'd like to park my car myself in his lot and take my keys with me.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet