|Grilled Spicy Broccoli||Dominic Armato|
And now, a couple of unqualified raves.
We've been in town for five months now, and though I never get around as much as I'd like -- not a tenth as much as I'd like -- I feel like I'm starting to get the lay of the land a little bit. And in those five months, I've been to three places that I can plainly state I adore without reservation. The first, I wrote about a few months ago. The second, I hope to write about later this week. And the third, even if I'm late to the party, should really come as no surprise.
|Fresh Mozzarella||Dominic Armato|
The first time I stepped into FnB, I suffered a twinge of melancholy. Even with a successor on the horizon, I miss Sea Saw, and it's more than a little weird to see that sleek, modern space all cozied up. Though it sports a comforting menu with a strong farm-to-table aesthetic, FnB is no dive. Even if it's one of the anomalies that puts the cuisine before the scene, it's still situated in Old Town Scottsdale, which means the dim lighting, playful yet meticulous tile work and white tablecloths might be considered a concession to those who (to their discredit) might reflexively write off anything more rustic. I wouldn't have thought it possible to see a place like FnB described as "too casual," but since I have, to those who might have turned up their noses at such a place before the raves started rolling in -- and there are plenty of you out there -- stick around and you might learn something about restaurants with heart.
|Fried Rock Shrimp||Dominic Armato|
The thing is, though FnB's execution is, in every aspect, careful and meticulous, the place is all heart. It starts with Pavle Milic who, along with his wife Emily, runs the front of house and does so with the kind of energy and panache usually reserved for fictional characters. But this endlessly entertaining song and dance is coming from a fellow who's incredibly passionate about what he's doing, and genuinely wants to make people feel happy and at home. The restaurant's heart also radiates from its kitchen, still smack-dab in the middle of the room and surrounded by a counter on three sides. But this is no show kitchen. These ladies are working it, and watching them work it just adds another connection between diner and dish. And most importantly, chef Charleen Badman's menu is packed full of heart. Gastropub, farm-to-table, refined comfort food -- call it what you will, but it's food that's simultaneously approachable and deep, and whether you're inclined to favor or eschew the culinary zeitgeist (and whether or not you feel FnB captures the same) is and should be irrelevant. This is some hands-down great food, and that's all that matters.
|Smoked Trout Salad||Dominic Armato|
As I walked into FnB for the first time, late one Friday night, Badman was hand-pulling the mozzarella that would, moments later, be set in front of me along with some bread. That pretty much set the tone right there. The menu starts off with a few noshes, like marinated olives and roasted nuts, and "a piece of cheese, a little fruit & grilled nut bread" which is exactly as it reads. One dish that almost seems out of place is one I had to try, if only for that reason. Crispy rock shrimp and jalapeno tartar are ubiquitous these days, but never this good. Perfectly tender, perfectly crisp, perfectly balanced sauce... it's a reminder that this was always a delicious dish, long before it was butchered by every other sports bar. And yet, it was the low-water mark of my trips to FnB, almost a little tease that said, "Yeah, we can do that. Now here's what else we can do."
|Braised Leeks||Dominic Armato|
The middle of the menu is absolutely dominated by vegetables, which outnumber the entrees two to one. I'd say this is simply playing to the kitchen's strengths, but that would imply the kitchen has weaknesses, which I have yet to discover. It also probably has much to do with the fact that FnB has a pretty strong commitment to sourcing as much local produce as possible. The smoked trout salad is more salad than trout, with fennel, arugula, orange, onion and ginger, and wouldn't be so notable if the vegetables weren't so pristine or the trout so fresh and delicate. Fried green tomatoes are killer, tart, hot and crispy and perfectly punctuated with a creamy, fresh green goddess dressing, crumbled feta and a bushel of greens. Again, it's all about ingredient selection and execution. There's no rocket science, here. Just killer produce perfectly prepared.
|Fried Green Tomatoes||Dominic Armato|
Other vegetable dishes are a little more inventive. The local food nerds tweeted themselves blue, declared April 30th "Leekapalooza"... heck, did everything shy of staging a mock funeral procession down Scottsdale Road when the braised leeks were taken off the menu for the season. It wasn't entirely unwarranted. Succulent braised leeks are served up under cover of melted fresh mozzarella, smothered with a pile of coarse, crisp mustard-laced breadcrumbs and topped off with a fried egg. It's a running gag in kitchens nowadays that putting a fried egg on top of anything makes it a bestseller, but there are places where it's gratuitous and places where it isn't, and FnB's braised leeks are firmly in the latter camp. It's the kind of dish that builds reputations, all gooey and oozey with those toasted breadcrumbs to keep it from becoming umami soup.
|Asparagus with Pureed Cauliflower||Dominic Armato|
That said, the vegetable that haunts my dreams is actually the grilled spicy broccoli, served with Meyer lemon aioli and little bits of crispy onion. The char takes one of the most milquetoast of vegetables and makes it sing, with a little acid from the aioli, a little zip from the crushed red pepper and a little crunch from the onions, it comes at you from every direction and they all work. Since the vegetable portion of the menu is rounded out with swiss chard and spaghetti squash, the asparagus is practically hoity-toity in comparison, swimming in a cauliflower puree and topped with a handful of crisp and paper-thin fried beets. On first taste, I thought it needed some acid. But a couple more bites, and I realized that Badman was right -- it absolutely didn't. We're programmed to expect lemon or balsamic or a nice, tart Hollandaise. It's practically convention. But this is a less aggressive approach that brings something else out of the asparagus. Something good.
|Lamb Tenderloin with Snap Peas||Dominic Armato|
I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I've only sampled a single entree at FnB. What can I say? I keep eating vegetables. But the one big dish I tried was a knockout. Grilled lamb tenderloin was billed alongside snap peas, potatoes, olives and mint. It's a very rustic plate, tender, intensely-flavored meat in a puddle of natural jus with a heavy dose of fresh mint and just a occasional stray bit of tart, salty olive for punch. My favorite touch, however, was that the snap peas were mixed with haricot verts. It seemed so odd not to simply choose one or the other, but damned if they didn't work together, one crisp and sweet, one tender and vegetal... ditching convention in a subtle way that yielded compelling results. And compelling the dish is, as pure and beautiful an expression of lamb as I've tasted in a long time.
|Crème Brûlée||Dominic Armato|
Desserts follow the same formula, simple on the surface, done just so. A dense chocolate cake with ice cream and rhubarb compote and a lemon cake with strawberries and fresh whipped cream were bordering on conventional, but excellent. It was a crème brûlée, however, that stole my heart. Chamomile, I think? Rich and custardy with a blast of fragrance, the crust was absolutely killer and decidedly old-school. A circular branding iron sits in the grill's coals, and you know exactly how many people are ordering the crème brûlée because the restaurant fills with the smell of burnt sugar every time it hits the ramekin. It's a perfect crust, crisp and caramelized with a certain smokiness that I've never had elsewhere. Who decided that a butane torch was progress? I say bring back the branding iron. It makes a killer brûlée. Should you forego dessert, you still get a little something sweet, in the form of light and crispy peanut brittle. I'm sure Pavle would be all too happy to honor a request for an extra piece, but frankly, I wish they'd just put a whole plate of it on the menu so I could get my fill without feeling like a noodge.
|Peanut Brittle||Dominic Armato|
I really can't shower enough compliments on the place. The food is so unpretentious and approachable, but those who really know their food will appreciate just how carefully it's done, and how significant its subtle little twists are. I can't come up with any reason not to love FnB, but by god, some people are trying. I've heard it called "too casual." I've seen the presentation referred to as "sloppy." And I'm just flabbergasted by this. I mean, really, so f-ing what? Phoenix -- Scottsdale, particularly -- has a certain reputation as a place that values style over substance when it comes to restaurants, and comments like this betray the nugget of truth at the heart of every stereotype. Thankfully, this seems to be the minority opinion, and the restaurant's well-deserved success is very, very encouraging. FnB is bridging the gap, making soulful food in a stylish neighborhood, dressing up its homey tendencies just enough so as not to scare those with narrow expectations for what constitutes an acceptable restaurant atmosphere. Make the room a little more downscale and move it a mile or two west, and I'm betting the food doesn't get a fraction of the attention, even though it wouldn't deserve it one iota less. But if a slightly polished atmosphere and prime location is what it takes to make the point that great food need not be flashy, I'm okay with that. More of this, please.
|7133 E. Stetson Drive|
|Scottsdale, AZ 85252|
|Tue - Thu||5:00 PM - 10:00 PM|
|Fri - Sat||5:00 PM - 12:00 AM|
|Sun||5:00 PM - 10:00 PM|