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May 03, 2010


Quiessence Dominic Armato

Quiescence : The quality or state of being marked by tranquility at rest.

Essence : One that possesses or exhibits a quality in abundance as if in concentrated form

One would presume, of course, that the name is a play on words rather than a misspelling, but since that pretty much sums up the courtyard where we spent four hours, I'd say we have confirmation. Quiessence is an uncommonly charming restaurant. And given this blog's usual laser focus on the grub, I feel a little silly making such a big deal out of it, but when simply approaching the front door is as notable as it was here, I see little reason not to make kind of a big deal about it.

Charmingly OvergrownDominic Armato

Quiessence is one of three restaurants located at The Farm at South Mountain, which has somehow created a little self-contained alternate universe down there in South Phoenix. You're driving through a dusty residential neighborhood where the yards are all gated, you see the sign and hang a hard right, and suddenly you're surrounded by lush vegetation, meandering down a gravel road that's flanked by stately pecan trees. The walk from the parking lot to the restaurant takes you past fences, trellises and thickets clogged with fragrant flowers and vines, until you arrive at a tranquil little courtyard at the back of which is situated a low, unassuming building that houses Quiessence. Or, if you book a little bit in advance, you can instead spend your evening in the courtyard itself, under a green canopy lit with twinkle lights (as my ladylove affectionately refers to them), warmed by the flames of the outdoor wood burning oven that's used to bake the restaurant's breads. Named, appropriately, The Brick Oven Table, it carries with it a special menu and the presumption that you're happy to let the chefs send out whatever the heck they feel like preparing for you. That accurately captures our attitude towards most restaurants we visit, and so we decided that the brick oven table was the one for us.

Chef SpreadDominic Armato

Though I believe the "Chef Spread" is available to all of the restaurant's patrons, it's a fine way to welcome somebody to a special table, nonetheless. I'd heard good things about the charcuterie at Quiessence, and they certainly lay out an impressive spread. Downright succulent mortadella with an almost spongy texture, a very restrained and mild cacciatora, sweet felino and a luscious Mangalitsa coppa confirm that the Chef de Cuisine has been spending some time in Italy. But the spread isn't limited to salumi. A couple of the best bites included a complex and... um... heady head cheese, served atop a large cracker with thin slices of pickled onion, and smooth and salty pork rillettes on thick crostini with a lone celery leaf garnish. The meats match the mood, very mellow and delicately flavored. My initial response was to wish a couple of them were seasoned and/or cured a little more aggressively, but a couple more bites and I thought better of that, recognizing the skill involved and happy to enjoy the plate's character for what it was. Accompaniments were limited to some parmesan grissini and, far more notably, a small plate of fresh vegetable pickles. And when I say fresh, I mean fresh. Even if we hadn't been informed that they were prepared daily, I would have suspected as much. They were done with an incredibly light touch, coming across more like fresh, crisp vegetables that had been blanched and kissed with a touch of vinegar and pickling spices than what you'd typically think of as pickles. They really suited the plate well, and I thought they were particularly well-suited to the head cheese and rillettes. I could've eaten a plate of them as a standalone course and enjoyed them more than either of the salads we had later, and that isn't a shot at our salads.

Seafood Salad and Shellfish SoupDominic Armato

After a leisurely break between courses (what would quickly become a theme for the evening), we were treated to a duo of seafood appetizers, hot and cold. On the left, a cold seafood salad, with oyster, clam, tilefish, scallop and perhaps something else I'm forgetting, diced and seasoned and presented in an oyster shell. On the right, a demitasse cup filled with a cream of shellfish soup with a touch of fennel oil. The seafood salad was on the same page as the charcuterie, seasoned with a great deal of restraint, tasting mostly of the seafood itself, and quite refreshing. The cream of shellfish soup is to be commended for not being very creamy, another light treatment that nonetheless focused on capturing the briny, dusky elements of the shells as much as the sweetness of the meat therein. I might've preferred just a touch more intensity from a vessel so small, but this is the pickiest of preferences. It was a delicious soup.

Citrus SaladDominic Armato

With the salad course, for which we each received a separate dish (eat half and switch!), I was still enjoying the food, but a disturbing trend that had reared its head with the presentation of the charcuterie launched into overdrive. Namely, the descriptions of our dishes were starting to get rather... unwieldy. To be clear, I appreciate that Quiessence is making every effort to source their ingredients as locally as possible, and there's a certain folksy charm inherent in such a practice that suits the restaurant's vibe. But really, I do not need to know which local farm supplied the carrots, in whose backyard the lettuce was grown, and which branch of the tree on the other end of the courtyard dropped the grapefruit (only the last is an exaggeration... barely). Especially when working without a menu, I like to be told what I'm eating. But it should not take longer to introduce the dish than it does to eat it.

Salad with Fresh RicottaDominic Armato

In any case, our salads were perfectly enjoyable, as fresh and vibrant as their (lengthy) pedigree would suggest. The citrus salad was, I thought, the lesser of the two. Though lovingly crafted from a mix of citrus, fresh greens, onions, fennel and a creamy pecan dressing, it struck me as awfully wet, and not because it had been overdressed. The flavors were very nice, but the amount of moisture killed any crispness and had it approaching soggy. The other fared much better. Slivered radishes, carrots and fennel were tossed with greens and a lemon vinaigrette, and paired with salty grilled croutons and a healthy scoop of a delightfully fresh and creamy housemade ricotta. The only thing that can make a great ricotta better is a touch of salt, oil and acid, which is exactly what the croutons and lemon vinaigrette provided. That a humble garden plot in curly, shaved form shared the plate was merely a bonus.

Gnocchi with Fava BeansPaccheri with Braised BeefDominic Armato

Pasta's always a tough sell for me. It really has to be sharp. And to their credit, I thought both of the offerings we received were really quite good. But despite respecting the care that went into them, I couldn't quite muster much in the way of enthusiasm. Slightly cheesy gnocchi had a great spongy texture, and the accompanying fava beans were as fresh and light and green as the rest of the menu would lead you to expect. A pair of paccheri -- stuffed with an abundance of shredded, braised beef, seated in a pool of tomato sauce and smothered with provolone cheese -- played more like unusually refined Italian-American than Italian-Italian, but were perfectly enjoyable as such. As much as I advocate simplicity when it comes to pasta, perhaps both dishes needed just a little something to put them over the top. While warm and satisfying, brightness was a little tough to come by. Still, two very solid pasta dishes.

Smoked Marlin with LettuceDominic Armato

An intermezzo of smoked marlin provided some subtle and unexpected pleasures. A thinly-sliced marlin wrapper and fresh lettuce filling made for a small cigar-shaped taste, topped with fennel and lemon zest and dressed with a touch of fennel oil. At first I wanted a little more smoke in the fish, until I realized that the fish's delicate nature had turned a leaf of lettuce, of all things, into a focal point of the dish. Tightly bound inside the wrap, the lettuce's leafy crispness took on a certain density, and given that it was no doubt lovingly raised by some salt of the earth local farmer, it had great flavor. Though the dish was officially about the marlin, which was very nice, its design had the effect of forcing me to really appreciate a great leaf of lettuce... and how often does that happen?

Seafood PlateDominic Armato

And then we went from seafood the small and subtle to seafood the big and brash. An enormous platter was set before us -- with no size reference, the photo belies its scale -- that contained an assortment of fresh seafood. On the outskirts, seared tilefish and grilled scallops were plated with fried basil and a Sicilian tomato sauce, meaning in this case that the addition of copious chiles and raisins made it both spicy and sweet, and the centerpiece was a battered and fried softshell crab atop a cauliflower puree. The fish and scallop were nicely cooked (the scallop a touch over for my tastes, but well within the realm of acceptability), and between its spicy-sweet nature, the tomato's intensity and thick slabs of garlic, I enjoyed the sauce's unashamed brashness. The softshell crab, however, left me completely unsatisfied.

Grapefruit SorbetDominic Armato

It was aggressively salted -- appropriate, thank you -- but its preparation just came off flat. The batter was unusual, not at all crisp but rather puffy and almost a little doughy, and the cauliflower puree was barely seasoned, so that the pair came off as completely one-note and desperately in need of some kind of acid or other bright element. I could absolutely get behind treating the crab minimally and letting it shine. Salt it and fry it and call it a day. But dispense with the batter then, which only got in the way. It was a hit and miss course, to be sure. Next, we were treated to the limited bounty of the courtyard, a spoonful of grapefruit sorbet with a sprig of mint to act as a palate cleanser. And then it was off to more meaty fare.

Milk-Braised Ham with GreensRibeye with Ramps and MushroomsDominic Armato

The ham was the more interesting of the two, its aggressive, salty nature and oftentimes tough texture muted by a lengthy bath in warm milk. Crisp beans, a hearty sauce and some rather intense and delicious braised greens completed a very enjoyable and gut-warming main course. The other meaty offering was a little more conventional, slices of ribeye atop a bit of potato hash, served with grilled mushrooms and ramps and sauced with demi and what I believe was a ramp puree. It's impossible not to get excited about the beautifully crisp, almost chive-like nature of fresh ramps, and the dish was executed perfectly well, but I found myself wishing for just a little something to break it out of such a conventional mold.

Cheese BoardDominic Armato

Is it my failing that I've become bored to tears by conventional cheese courses? Not that I intend to hold every restaurant to The French Laundry standard, but I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Thomas Keller, for having introduced me to the composed cheese course. Allow me to understand -- I can have a variety of cheeses and a variety of accompaniments that may or may not suit some of my cheeses, and I can sort of nibble and nosh on these various elements, or I can have a dish that selects a central cheese and designs a dish around it, seeking to carefully complement and enhance the cheese's unique and delectable attributes. Why would I choose the former, exactly? As it was, I didn't have a choice. We received a traditional cheese board, with a cow's milk reserve from Wisconsin, some manner of Camembert, a very pungent and spicy bleu and an angry little ripened goat from Cypress Grove. There were crostini, there were pine nuts and pecans, there were slices of apple and a fig and rosemary jam, andzzzzzzzzzzzzz... I'm sorry, it's not you, Quiessence, it's me. At the risk of incurring the wrath of dairy zealots, I've always had a hard time mustering great excitement over the traditional cheese course, and now I'm really just done with it. Most likely, this is MY problem, but it is what it is.

Dulce de Leche Bread PuddingGoat CheesecakeDominic Armato

Generally speaking, my capacity is almost limitless, so I was surprised by just how stuffed I was at this point. Mercifully, though plentiful, the desserts were small. A cube of dulce de leche bread pudding with crème anglaise and fresh whipped cream was a very dense and cakey iteration, which might insult some but didn't bother me one whit. More to my taste was a goat cheese cheesecake... or goat cheesecake, I guess... tangy and dense, rolled in crushed pecans, sitting in a pool of caramel and topped with a bing cherry. I love using goat cheese in cheesecake and I've always wondered why I never saw it until I did it (though it was undoubtedly done thousands and thousands of times before it struck me as a good idea). It has the tanginess of cream cheese, but a richness and complexity that cream cheese lacks. Good stuff.

Chocolate MousseDominic Armato

Chocolate mousse was a childhood favorite, even if it's more recently fallen out of favor. But this version, a mix of white and dark, was made atypically compelling by a lot of small crunchies I couldn't identify, taking that uniform texture and giving it a little life. Vanilla panna cotta with fresh strawberries, the dessert that by all rights should have stolen the show for me, had the misfortune of following a crème brûlée I'd had at FnB the night before. Of course crème brûlée and panna cotta aren't synonymous, but they're similar enough that with every bite I couldn't help but think that it wasn't nearly as flavorful or enjoyable as that fabulous crème brûlée I just had last night. The strawberries, however, were exceptional specimens.

Vanilla Panna Cotta with StrawberriesDominic Armato

One of the things we'll remember the most about our dinner at the Brick Oven Table at Quiessence is its length. Once we'd paid the check and staggered out of our seats, our meal had clocked in at over four hours. Thankfully, we had an absolutely wonderful time, mostly because it was, for us, a rare opportunity to really spend some time with each other, but also due in no small part to the exceptionally pleasant surroundings. Again, this is a blog that tries to keep the focus as much as possible on the food, but this is a situation where I really feel the need to point out that dining at Quiessence -- outdoors, at least -- is as much about what surrounds the table as what is placed upon it. Our dinner was very good, deftly executed but for a couple of lapses, very much ingredient-focused and quite enjoyable. That puts Quiessence in good company. But what sets it apart is, truly, the entire experience. I guess the best way I can put it is to say that our dinner was very good -- good enough that it didn't make us feel for a moment as though we were paying for the surroundings, even if we were a little surprised to discover that we wouldn't have completely minded doing so.

6106 S. 32nd Street
Phoenix, AZ 85042
Tue - Sat5:00 PM - Close


1 question, 1 comment.

I assume that outdoor seating isn't available year-round? Nothing against Phoenix, but it isn't exactly the kind of place where year-round al fresco dining seems like it would be enjoyable.

On the Cheese Board: You got, what appeared to be, a pretty standard Salumi Misto, i.e., very minimal plated elements, a fairly traditional antipasti. I see no complaints from you there. So why not just enjoy the cheese board for what it is: good cheese? Boring, sure, but there are certain traditional presentations where simplicity is the objective. I love the plated cheese course too, but I think you should note the inconsistency in your critique between the salumi and the cheese.

"I assume that outdoor seating isn't available year-round?"

Correct. They shut down for about a month and a half in the middle of the summer. Though only a small portion of the seating is outdoors.

"I think you should note the inconsistency in your critique between the salumi and the cheese."

Well, I hope it's clear that it's not a critique of the cheeses, it's a critique of me. That said, duly noted, and completely agreed. And when somebody serves me some excellent composed salumi courses, perhaps my feelings on the matter will once again be consistent.

(Though I'll note that the situations aren't entirely analogous... the chefs at Quiessence didn't produce the cheese. Except for the ricotta. Which WAS presented in composed fashion... sort of. Mostly, I'd just love to see more places doing composed cheese courses, that's all.)

Thanks. Maybe I'll put this on the list for the next trip out there which is in the fall. And, yes, I got that the cheese weren't the problem, it was your ennui. I have the same problem with chocolate desserts: dress it up however you want, it still tastes like chocolate Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

And, you raised the two responses I thought you might: that they didn't make the cheese and there's no trend of composed salumi. Which of course, immediately had me thinking: how would one do a composed salumi course? Mr. Keller?

"And, you raised the two responses I thought you might: that they didn't make the cheese and there's no trend of composed salumi."

Definitely. But I don't present those as excuses for my inconsistent feelings on the subject. Merely musing.

Great review. My wife and I enjoyed the Brick Oven Table a few weeks ago as well. It was a remarkable experience.

Nice review, Dominic. Loved the pics too. Quiessence is one of my favorite places in AZ. Love the food and the setting is unbeatable.

Yeah. Great review. At the risk of coming off as obsequious, allow me to say you are a great writer. I teach writing to teenagers and today we were talking about the value of a good last sentence in an essay or story. I am going to show them this review. That is a great last sentence.

Wonderful review and I share your sentiments regarding the cheese course. I want to see what a chef can do not their ability to shop wisely at a cheese shop. I know I'm being harsh.

Born in New Orleans and raised in Phoenix years ago it is amazing to know that there are such great culinary choices in the Valley of the Sun. I'd go there but after their recently enacted law I'm afraid I won't be spending any money in that state except for the reservations.

Out of curiousity, what did this meal cost? I know that this is a tiresome question but I think of the greatest meals I've had in my life and the prices I've paid for them (and some of the best were dirt cheap in Asian countries) so it just gives me a bit of perspective.

Just catching up after NOLA trip,your photos and writing are simply outstanding man.

Danny... $95/pp, if I recall correctly, for the Brick Oven Table menu.

I consider this blog to be my "food education". I love eating . . .nearly everything . . .but oftentimes, I must admit that I don't know what I'm eating - - or at least not the proper names.

So it is with embarrassment that I admit that I don't know what paccheri is . . . and the picture didn't help me all that much except for making me want to eat it.

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