Grazing Arizona

By Todd Lawrence

Arizona, land of cactus and cattle, is no Garden of Eden. It's dry, dusty and for much of the year, scorching hot. There are rattlesnakes, thorn trees and gulches that become a wall of water when it rains. Most things that live here make their home a hole in the ground.
   But there are ways to tame the desert and plenty of people who think that Arizona's weather is just fine. The city of Scottsdale, for example, has 250 golf courses, or roughly one for every thousand of its inhabitants. It rivals Sante Fe as a showcase for Southwestern art. And it has a thriving restaurant scene, with a large number of independently owned establishments and an impressive roster of talented chefs. I'd been expecting steakhouses and Tex-Mex in Scottsdale, a city that's been described as 'Miami of the desert.' It does have its share of shopping malls and six-lane highways but the downtown core is a compact and pedestrian-friendly area filled with boutiques, art galleries and eclectic eateries.
   Distrito is a vibrant Mexican restaurant opened by Iron Chef Jose Garces in the Dayglo coloured Saguaro Hotel. A Jefe margarita made with Don Julio reposado tequila set the tone for a shared meal of skirt steak nachos, shrimp ceviche, a 'Chilango Chop' salad, an authentic version of the Yucatecan pit-cooked pork dish Cochinita Pibil and the clincher, Huarache de Hongos, a 'sandal' of masa topped with wild mushrooms, corn shoots, black truffle and a huitlacoche (corn fungus) sauce. Close your eyes and you could be in Mexico City.
   At The Mission Restaurant and Lounge, ten margaritas are on offer, including one made with avocado and another with grapefruit and St Germain. I'm a margarita purist (three ingredients, on the rocks) but I broke my rule about fancied up versions and discovered a knockout made with the tangy crimson juice of a prickly pear fruit. I left The Mission with a spring in my step and a growing enthusiasm for the Grand Canyon State.
   The chopped salad is a Scottsdale phenomenon created by chef Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House, an upscale American tavern offering kicked up comfort food. The original, presented as rows of ingredients (Israeli couscous, chopped tomatoes, dried corn, arugula, smoked salmon, asiago cheese, pepitas and dried blackcurrants) on a plate, doesn't look particularly exciting but when it's tossed tableside with a buttermilk pesto dressing something magic happens. The combination of flavours and textures is perfect, and the salad has spawned many imitations, some more successful than others.
   Another local chef making headlines is Charleen Badman, who opened FnB restaurant in 2009 with business partner Pavle Milic. Badman's inspired approach to seasonal and sustainable local ingredients has made FnB one of the hottest tables in town. Milic works the small space like a showman, delighting diners with his repartee while Badman beguiles them with her food. Food & Wine named her braised leeks with mozzarella, breadcrumbs and a fried egg one of the top 10 best restaurant dishes of 2010. I was more impressed by lamb riblets with fennel seed, sherry vinegar, local honey and Aleppo pepper, and by the genius pairing of Brussels sprouts with grapes, walnuts and balsamic vinegar.
   FnB's all-Arizona wine list is a testament to Milic's faith in the wines now being produced in the state's three main wine regions. These are depicted on a chalkboard at AZ Wine Merchants, which Milic also part owns. Next door are two other businesses that make up Milic's local food triumvirate; Baratin, a casual wine bar-café with a short seasonal menu by Badman, and Bodega, a local food emporium Milic describes as "the antithesis of the supermarket." Shelves are lined with homemade pickles, Arizona honey, jams, condiments and dressings; Queen Creek Olive Oil is on tap; refrigerators are stuffed with fresh produce, heritage pork and jidori chicken, free range eggs, local cheeses and dairy products. I'm surprised at the quality and range of products coming out of the desert. It's not the food that's attracting the chefs, Milic explains, but chefs who are inspiring growers and producers to return to artisanal methods. This corner of Arizona has never been a land of milk and honey. The Hohokam who originally settled the Valley of the Sun dug canals to bring water from the Salt River to their fields and scratched out an existence in the burning desert heat. Their civilization eventually collapsed and the area was not settled again until after the American Civil War when the canals were redug and another attempt at growing irrigated crops was begun. "Everything turns to dust," a frustrated settler complained at the end of a grueling summer. In the 20s and 30s bohemians and artists found inspiration in the parched landscape of the Sonoran desert and were content to live in tents and eat whatever was at hand. The Cattle Track compound, a ramshackle collection of adobe buildings and recycled architecture that houses, among other things, a collection of Balanchine ballerina costumes and Mario Andretti's Indy 500 car, is a holdover from this period that still hosts visiting artists and craftspeople. Better known Scottsdale cultural attractions include Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West student campus and Cosanti, the home and windbell foundry of visionary architect Paolo Soleri, a Taliesin West alumnus now in his 90s. Hollywood discovered Scottsdale in the 1950s when stars such as Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh holed up in places like the Valley Ho hotel (now impeccably restored) to escape the paparazzi. Eventually the Salt River irrigation project tamed enough land for the planting of large citrus and pecan orchards, which, along with the invention of air conditioning, fuelled a settlement boom in the 70s. More recently, wealthy Americans (and quite a few Canadians) have been buying second homes around Phoenix and Scottsdale, creating a demand for quality restaurants. Even golf has a gourmet spin in Scottsdale. At The Boulders resort, where I went to check out two championship-level, Jay Morrishdesigned courses, I also found an organic kitchen garden and a menu offering deviled farm eggs and an heirloom tomato salad with house pulled smoked mozzarella, watercress, crispy tobacco onions and basil balsamic vinaigrette. Olive & Ivy, a bustling marketplace restaurant with a California- Mediterranean vibe, is located on Scottsdale's 'waterfront' (a popular canalside development). I was just kicking back at an outdoor table with a pint of locally brewed Oak Creek Amber Ale, my notebook and some chewy bread with pesto when a violent gust of wind set the patio umbrellas flapping and an ominous swirl of sand careened across the road. The skies continued to darken and a phalanx of servers raced outside to take down and secure the parasols. "Dust storm!" shouted one of them, grinning. "Haven't had one of those for a while!"



Todd Lawrence goes to Arizona to check out the Farm to Table scene.

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