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June 30, 2010

Bento Box

Bento Box Dominic Armato

So is this embracing the culture, or a cry for help? I'm honestly not sure.

June 18, 2010


Albacore with Apples, Truffle and Black Garlic Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Crudo has closed

I have mused before, and I'll try not to make it a tired theme, about what strikes this particular newcomer as Phoenix's odd relationship with seafood. "It's tough to get fresh fish in the desert," I've heard, on more than one occasion. But surely, no sushi bar exists this side of the Pacific that obtains even half of its fish locally. Le Bernardin isn't exactly pulling its kanpachi, sea urchin, langoustine and hiramasa out of the Hudson. Heck, even when it comes to crab in Maryland, a state so devoted to the crustacean that the little blue buggers are on their driver's licenses, it's a challenge to find the locally fished variety. Most of Maryland's pride is shipped in from the Gulf of Mexico, Venezuela or Southeast Asia these days (perhaps less so the Gulf now, but... ugh... best not to think about that). Of course, there's nothing like day boat seafood, but the point is that whether or not they should be (a question I'll leave for the more ecologically-minded), seafood restaurants are largely location irrelevant. And yet, it's almost as though there's a lack of seafood culture here. So as odd as I may find the complete absence of independent fishmongers, it's refreshing to know that there are places -- quirky, independent ones, even -- that are devoted to a variety of lovely, fresh fish. It is, after all, Crudo's namesake.

Butterfish with Crispy LardoDominic Armato

"Quirky" may be one of the most important thoughts to hold onto, here. Crudo is a truly odd little beast, serving breakfast in the morning and fairly straightforward panini and flatbreads in the afternoon, only to morph into a creative, Italian-inspired seafood restaurant by night. This daily transmogrification is a function, it would seem, of the restaurant's location in the front of a hair salon. This isn't quite as odd as it sounds, but it's pretty close. The Steven Paul Salon once housed a more conventional cafe before Crudo took it over, and the room isn't shared with styling chairs and hairdryers, but rather a small jewelry and clothing boutique. And though I'm firmly in the food before ambiance camp, the better place to park, I think, is out on the patio, which is where we found ourselves on an unseasonably cool June evening.

Tuna with Orange, Basil and OlivesDominic Armato

Chefs Cullen Campbell and Brandon Crouser have tag-teamed a menu that's about fifteen items long, split right down the middle between hot and cold. But the more compelling option, for me at least, is the ability to do three, four or five courses -- your pick -- at $10 apiece, making it possible to bring a companion with whom you don't mind trading plates and sample two-thirds of the menu on one pass. The top half is mostly comprised of the namesake crudi, thinly-sliced raw fish doused in olive oil and seasonings that challenge tradition but are firmly rooted, for the most part, in Mediterranean flavors. Further encouraging sharing is the fact that the crudi plates are of a fair size. Splitting a dish will still yield you 4-5 slices of fish. Seafood options are mostly absent from the bottom, cooked half of the menu, but the meats and vegetables found there are similarly Italian-inspired, again with plenty of creative twists to keep things lively.

Hiramasa with Espelette and BottargaDominic Armato

The first dish to come our way was a firm and light butterfish, topped with crispy fried lardo and oven-dried tomatoes. Consisting of nothing but cured pork fat, the lardo first crunches and then melts into the fish when you take a bite, and the oven-dried tomatoes provide a cleaner, sweeter flavor than a typical sun-dried, which always seems to completely take over any dish it's added to. Good call there. Meanwhile, my ladylove started on tuna, awash in olive oil and topped generously with orange segments, diced olives and basil. The olives -- again, a very clean-tasting variety -- gave a little salty punch without giving too much, and while the dish could have benefitted from a better piece of fish, I don't mean to cast aspersions on the quality of crudo's seafood, which was generally quite good and no less than I'd expect without getting into, no doubt, pricier territory.

Madai with Meyer Lemon and Sea BeansDominic Armato

The second wave was even a little stronger, my dish being hiramasa, a type of amberjack, done with iitois (a local allium with which I'm not yet familiar, but it could have passed for a chive), a dash of spicy espelette and a hint of grated bottarga. It's about this time that I noticed each of these crudi was introducing an element that was a little rough around the edges -- fried pork fat, briny olive, fishy bottarga -- which I rather enjoyed as a departure from the clean/tart/sweet profiles that typify most creative Asian sashimi these days. After trading dishes, I had another that followed the same pattern: generous squares of albacore with crisp green apple matchsticks, black garlic and a touch of earthy truffle. Clean, sweet and tart balanced by earthy and pungent. Another refreshing taste with a little character.

Anchovy with Roasted Baby BellsDominic Armato

Our final pass at the crudi contained what was, for me, the peak and valley of the top half of the menu. I started with the peak, the "Japanese auction" selection for the week, which was madai, a type of red snapper, dressed in a lightly sweet Meyer lemon oil, Meyer lemon rind and a scattering of sea beans, confusingly named as they aren't beans and don't grow in the sea, even if they rather taste like it. I found this to be the most delightful crudo of the evening, due in no small part to the fish which seemed a notch above the rest of the pack, even before I realized that was our "special." And though I enjoyed some more than others, the only crudo I'd be perfectly content to scratch off my list was the white anchovy with roasted bell peppers, housemade pickles and shiso. But that may be attributable to the fact that I find it hard to get excited about marinated white anchovies, which always strike me as way too heavy on the vinegar, and these were no exception.

Fegato Grasso with Polenta and DatesDominic Armato

Having shaded more heavily towards the crudi in our selections, we were forced to pass on some rather delightful-looking hot dishes, like a rolled veal breast, gnocchi with prosciutto broth and fingerling potatoes with more lardo. But I suppose you need something to go back for. I found the latter half of the menu a little more uneven, actually, including one dish that didn't quite sit well with me at all. The fegato grasso (exactly what you think it is) was served surrounded by a loose polenta and topped with honey and dates. The combination of honey and dates I found just a little too powerful for the fegato, which was lost unless I got a big chunk of it and a touch of the accompaniments, quickly leaving me with a big plate of polenta, dates and honey. But more importantly, something in the polenta clashed with the fegato... butter, I think? To my palate, they just fought each other. This dish didn't come together for me.

Mushrooms Au GratinDominic Armato

More successful was the menu's requisite umami bomb, which I'd chide as a culinary trend except for the fact that I kind of like it. "Au Gratin" is a terribly misleading way to label the mushrooms, which are, I believe, roasted with mozzarella, Grana Padano, fingerling potatoes, and a little truffle before being topped with a very loose egg. This one's not rocket science, and it may be a slave to fashion, but really, what's not to like? Slightly less trendy was a beet-stained risotto, and while "stained" might give the impression that this was a surface application, in reality it was a full-on BEET dish. A small tower of risotto was wrapped with grilled zucchini and capped with a thick slab of roasted beet and a lone basil leaf. The balsamic drizzled around struck me as unnecessary. It's easy sweetness and overused, particularly in a dish that featured enough natural sweetness to make it redundant. The risotto was done with bacon and Grana Padano, and the flavor was wonderful, even if the texture struck me as slightly off. The risotto had bite -- most important -- but it struck me as a little too loose. These are, however, minor complaints. This was a very nice dish.

Beet-Stained RisottoDominic Armato

The winner of the hot dishes for me was a brodetto alla Triestina, which bucked convention in a way that made me rather happy. Brodetto, in its origins, was a humble seafood stew, made with whatever was abundant, most often done with tomato and wine and tarted up with vinegar (I've always wanted to say that in a food context). This is usually a rustic dish, but here it's cleaned up for a night on the town. A very light interpretation, this brodetto comes across more like a pile of fish and vegetables sitting in a broth, which has its upsides and downsides. The downside is that the yellowtail, potatoes and oven-dried tomatoes, while bright, tender and delicious, somehow didn't feel fully infused with the broth's character. But then again, maybe that would have been too much. The broth carries a punch, sweet and tart and so powerful that it almost feels like an agrodolce, and yet is light and clean and doesn't leave you feeling sticky sweet. I'm a little torn. I'm not convinced the body of the "stew" couldn't be better married to the broth, but I dig that broth so much I'm pretty content with it the way it is.

Yellowtail BrodettoDominic Armato

We weren't feeling dessert that evening, though the choices sounded mostly conventional. Of course, that can fool you sometimes (I love that no matter how many people rip it off and give it flashy names, Jean-Georges still refers to it simply as "warm chocolate cake"). But we left quite satisfied. Crudo is a charming, if unconventional, little place. In general, I think the crudi are stronger than the piatti, but it's mostly a very solid menu, and I wouldn't hesitate to return. Another thing I'm trying to adjust to here is the summer lull. It's one thing to hear about how restaurants get rather quiet this time of year, and it's another thing to go to a place the Saturday after a glowing writeup from the New Times, sit for three hours and only see two other tables. But looking around the neighborhood, the quiet certainly didn't seem limited to Crudo. Frustrating as that might be, I suppose it's better that it's the season rather than the digs. But if the summer kills off as many restaurants as I've heard, Crudo deserves to be on the list of places to help through the heat. And with cool, light, raw fish dishes as their specialty, doing so certainly won't be a chore.

7045 East 3rd Avenue
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Tue8:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Wed - Sat8:00 AM - 10:00 PM

June 16, 2010

Late Night Behind the Orange Curtain

Ice Beer and Vietnamese Karaoke Elvis @ Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon Dominic Armato

Spending a weekend in Orange County is not what one would commonly refer to as a cultural experience. Particularly when the goal of such a visit is to take a three-year-old on his inaugural trip to Disney. Lest I lend the wrong impression, I'm a fan of Disney. Always have been. If you accept that you're cattle, hand in your wallet and check your cynicism at the front gate, you can have a pretty great time. Even if your kid mostly seems interested in spending time in your hotel room. But let's not delude ourselves, here. While debatably the happiest place on earth, Disneyland is not a food-friendly environment. So when the house of the mouse has shut down for the evening and the rest of the family is fast asleep, it's time to find some Vietnamese.

Duck Soup with NoodlesDominic Armato

Orange County, for those unawares, is one of the nation's hotbeds for Vietnamese restaurants. I'm unfamiliar with the specific demographics of the area, but let's just say there are an awful lot of people of Vietnamese descent living there, and they like to eat an awful lot of Vietnamese food. Thankfully, many of them like to eat it very late at night, which is when I had the opportunity to sneak away. Both times, the late hour did much to dictate my options, and I ended up at one of the few joints still open at 2:30 in the morning, the southern location of Luc Dinh Ky (only two blocks away from the northern location), where the Friday night party crowd was well into the post-booze munchy phase of the evening. It's small, sparse, bright and lively bordering on raucous at that hour on a weekend, and I parked and gave the menu a quick glance for whatever sounded right that evening.

CatfishDominic Armato

What grabbed me was a duck soup with noodles, bún vịt xáo măng, I believe, to those whose grasp of menu Vietnamese is less tenuous than mine (I really need to work on that). And though I briefly questioned whether I should have gone with something I was less likely to find back home, when it arrived and I took a few sips, all I could think was that I wish home had 2:30 AM options like this. It was a beautiful, clean bowl of broth, crystal clear and full of duck flavor... not to mention a sizeable portion of the beast itself, noodles and some greens. Frankly, I was pleased that the stock didn't taste of chicken, and the fact that my bar has been reset so low is nothing short of a tragedy. Is there anything more comforting than this? A simple stock with a little meat and noodles? The thought of this would get me through day two of amusement park food.

The next night, I snuck out again, this time with a food nerd friend from the Chicago days, Tony, who knows a thing or two about the local scene. He'd heard good things about another late-night joint not far from where I was staying, so we converged on Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon for what turned out to be as much a cultural experience as a meal.

Birthday CakeDominic Armato

I define "cultural" a little broadly, here, but the point is that this was the full package, not just the food. Upon entering, we were asked whether we'd like to be seated with or without music. "Music," we responded. Hey, why not? This landed us in a ballroom with a huge dance floor, colored lights of every kind, crumpled aluminum foil covering the ceiling, a crowd of thirty drunken birthday revelers, and Vietnamese Elvis, in full regalia, on stage performing karaoke. Tony boldly predicted that we'd be eating birthday cake before the night was out. We started out by putting down a little beer, poured into a frosty sub-zero mug that made it all too easy to drink. I let Tony take the lead and he had a hankering for catfish, so that's what we had, and it was a fine specimen, right down to the maraschino cherries. The fish really was nice, moist and tender with a very crisp -- almost crunchy -- lacquered shell that added both texture and depth of flavor to the rolls. It's Vietnamese. You know the drill. Wet a rice wrapper in a bowl of scalding hot water, add some noodles, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables along with your fish before rolling up. And we even received a trio of sauces for dipping... a standard nuoc cham, a spicier variant, and a concoction derived from fermented fish that dominated my attention. It didn't plumb the funky depths of the fermentation barrel, so to speak (not that I wouldn't have welcomed that), but rather it was a very sweet, tart and light version that I could've eaten with a spoon.

Two late nights in this area is really just a tease, but I'll take what I can get. Tony and I shut the place down, catching up and talking about all things food and non as Vietnamese Elvis disappeared and the drunken revelers stumbled out one by one. The fellow running the joint even gave us a couple pieces of leftover birthday cake with our check. Score one for Tony.

Luc Dinh Ky Restaurant Tap 2
9600 Bolsa Avenue
Westminster, CA 92683
Sun - Wed10:00 AM - 2:00 AM
Fri - Sat10:00 AM - 3:00 AM
Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon
10830 Warner Avenue
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Mon - Thu12:00 PM - 1:00 AM
Fri - Sun10:30 AM - 1:00 AM

June 11, 2010

Tadich Grill

Tadich Grill Dominic Armato

You're on your own in San Francisco.

It's been a long day, your stomach's gnawing, and anyplace honest with a counter is sounding like a good idea. A restaurant that's been around for over 150 years can't have survived that long by playing to culinary trends -- were there culinary trends in 1849? -- so you brush past the fellows having a smoke on the sidewalk out front, open the door and step out of the rain-drenched night and into the bustle within.

The Long CounterDominic Armato

It isn't 1849, but it might as well be 1949. If you block out the less conservatively dressed patrons and the servers' terminals, you could pretend that Truman was still president, Don Newcombe was the NL rookie of the year and Tony Bennett was still Joe Bari. So you wait for a spell until a stool opens up at the satiny smooth wooden bar that starts at the front door and goes on forever, maybe all the way into the kitchen in back, maybe all the way into the bay. You take a sip of water and, under yellow light cast by ancient brass fixtures, start to look over a menu filled with the kind of simple seafood and steaks that meant the good life to your grandparents. Your waiter steps up, white jacket, black tie, slick hair, a face with experience, and though he works a busy counter he moves with economy and carries himself like a foreign dignitary. "Can I get you something to drink?", he says, sounding like he arrived here from Western Europe, but decades ago. You ask for a Diet Coke, to which he responds, "I said something to drink," with just enough of a wry tone and a twitch of the lip to keep it friendly. He glides off to retrieve your Coke. You're the boss, but it's his turf.

Seafood CocktailDominic Armato

You start to regret the selection. Something with bourbon somehow seems more appropriate as you soak in the scene. Folks who got off late unwind with an old-school cocktail. The walls are lined with trench coats and the counter lined with briefcases. A septuagenarian with earlobes like dried apricots -- a regular -- sits down to your left, orders and eats a minute steak with potatoes, pays his tab and hobbles off before your seafood cocktail even hits the counter. The seafood cocktail decided to dress for the occasion, wearing a perfectly trimmed lettuce leaf, purely for show, that frames a chaotic mix of bay shrimp, prawns and crab claws, cool and tender, still smelling of the sea. It's touched with just the right amount of cocktail sauce, a house blend that eschews ketchupy sweetness in favor of texture and fire, the tomato pulp still detectable, the horseradish wafting up into your nose before the fork passes your lips. It's simple and perfect and you sigh when you reach the bottom all too quickly. Your waiter raises an eyebrow and cracks the faintest smile as he whisks away the empty vessel. He won't ask what you thought of it. He already knows.

CioppinoDominic Armato

When he returns, he bears a wide, shallow bowl filled with a stew whose acquaintance you're anxious to make. The cioppino's a house special, and if you doubt the house's authority, the plate helpfully reminds you that the house was built, figuratively at least, in 1849. The seafood stew is bold and decidedly not of this era, made with heavily reduced tomatoes, dried herbs, what must have been every sea creature at the market and enough oil to carry their flavor. The first spoonful of wine-fortified soup hits your lips, and you're transfixed. It's deep and developed, almost bordering on dirty, with the essence -- no, the bold, unmitigated totality -- of the bounty of seafood that adorns the bowl. Clams, mussels, shrimp, crab, scallops, fish... they're all here, all with their own distinct flavors, all sweet and luscious and tender. You have bread to dunk. It isn't crusty, artisan bread, but rather thick slices of something light and moist, toasted to a faint crisp, basted with butter and garlic and absorbent like a sponge. You have to resist the urge to tear through the cioppino like a madman, but you manage to linger with it for a spell, making every spoonful count and using the bread to mop up afterwards. You couldn't have gotten anything more out of the bowl if you licked it. The dishwasher will pause for a moment, wondering how a clean bowl got mixed in with the dirty.

Bourbon Bread PuddingDominic Armato

You don't have room for dessert, but you're going to eat one anyway. Bourbon makes an appearance, allowing you to right an earlier wrong, steeped with caramel and basting a bread pudding that comes out of the kitchen without its cap. Your waiter walks it over to a free patch of countertop, reaches into a refrigerator below for a bottle of fresh whipped cream, lays a huge dollop on top of your dessert and, by accident, a small one on his fingertips. He glances over his shoulder, and in a flash, the misplaced cream disappears into his mouth before he turns and sets the dish before you. "Pudding" seems like even more of a misnomer than usual, with cubes of spongy bread and tender, cooked apple nearly unsullied by binder, held together, it would seem, by sheer force of will and the occasional raisin. It's sweet and delicious and you need coffee, so you order an espresso. But the machine behind the counter spits and belches and emits a few disconcerting noises, and after fiddling with it for a few minutes, your waiter declares it dead and sullenly informs you that drip coffee will have to do. "That's okay," you say, realizing that a plain old cup is more appropriate, and this was probably providence. An old mug is set before you, the coffee within is smooth, warm and easy to drink, and with three deep gulps, it's gone.

You pay the check, and as you struggle to stand, your waiter thanks you with a warm smile. He genuinely seems to mean it. Or he's a master at making you think so, which is really all the same to you. You work your way to the front of the narrow building, another lone body falling in to take your place. You step back into the cool night, stand in the neon light and take a deep breath. A cab pulls up and asks if you need a ride. And even though you get in, you think to yourself that he arrived too soon. You really would have liked a few more minutes.

Tadich Grill
240 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
Mon - Fri11:00 AM - 9:30 PM
Sat11:30 AM - 9:30 PM

June 09, 2010

I Need Help

Italian Beef @ Chicago Hamburger Co. Dominic Armato

I... uh... get a little riled up about Italian Beef sometimes.

Let me be the first to state that this is my problem. At the risk of repeating myself, the Italian Beef is a noble foodstuff, pure of form yet deep in its subtle complexities. It languishes in the shadow of pizza and hot dogs in Chicago, where I've encountered lifelong natives who have never tried one. Italian Beef sandwiches bring me joy. It's a joy I wish to share. Which I suppose makes me something of an Italian Beef evangelist.

So last week, a review of the new-ish Scottsdale Al's, which I hit myself a couple of months ago, graced the New Times. It was not well-received. I can buy that. While I thought Al's Scottsdale was entirely worthy, it's not up to the original Al's on Taylor in Chicago. And even Al's in Chicago, though a venerated city institution, is something of a lightning rod among Chicago beef enthusiasts. Most good beef places put their own little spin on the sandwich... a subtle shift in seasoning, an atypical giardiniera, an unconventional roll... you have to make your mark somehow. But Al's stretches some of the conventions awfully far, and their Italian Beef is known as a love it or hate it thing.

So I'm thinking, okay, it didn't go over with the author, who apparently spent some indeterminate amount of time living in Chicago, and that's all fine and good, even if I thought a couple of the criticisms were a little odd. But the piece closed by recommending Chicago Hamburger Co. as an alternative. The same Chicago Hamburger Co. that I completely wrote off for Italian Beef on -- quite literally -- my fourth day here in Phoenix, before we'd even moved into the house. So let me start this off by saying, Laura Hahnefeld, if you're reading this, I owe you an apology. I tried to send it via e-mail, but it's getting bounced for some reason. Floored by a piece that put CHC above Al's -- way above Al's -- I posted a rather lengthy comment that I'd intended to be feisty but friendly, and I think it was... right up until the sentence fourth from the end, which was really uncalled for. And in all seriousness, I'm sorry for that. It wasn't a very nice thing to say.

Cup of Juice?Dominic Armato

And partially by means of apology, I went back to give them a second shot. It's true that even the best Italian Beef joints sometimes have consistency issues, and I figured that in light of a strong buy from somebody who calls herself "fry girl," I'd better give it one more go. And I'm upgrading my assessment! But not much. The beef I had today was, indeed, leagues better than the one I had the first week of January. But it's still a pretty lousy beef sandwich. The strongest point on this pass was the beef itself which, though not roasted on-site, was perfectly edible. Far from the peak of beefiness, tender if a little dry, but of decent run-of-the-mill quality. (As a side note, there are some pretty good beef stands in Chicago that don't roast their own, but it's a steeper hill to climb, and the best do it in-house.) But really, the rest was so very, very wrong.

You need look no further than the photo above for the first major problem. I ordered my beef sweet, hot and wet, and both times, my wet arrived in a cup on the side. This is not a French Dip, people! Pouring or dipping bite by bite is not a substitute for dunking the entire sandwich in a vat of juice that's been simmering for hours! But it was immediately evident why it was done this way, because the roll is a weak piece of fluff by Italian Beef standards. You say Al's bread went gummy when saturated with juice? Actually, I consider that a good thing. But even presuming that you don't, gummy beats liquid, which is what happens with CHC's roll. It completely falls apart with the introduction of even a modest amount of juice. If the sandwich were held with a pair of tongs and dunked in a tray of juice as is the convention, I'm betting half the sandwich would be left behind in the tray. And it's a roll with two ends, which is wrong. This, incidentally, is one of the things that Al's in Scottsdale gets wrong as well, though at least their roll has body. An Italian Beef has to soak up the juice, and when it's made from a single roll, the sandwich resists the moisture rather than wicking it right up. Again, in the case of CHC, this might actually be a good thing, because I don't think the bread could take it. It couldn't take half of that little plastic tub of juice without completely going to pieces, much less go for a swim like its Chicago brethren. And the juice. Better than I remember it, but still weak, and absolutely overpowered by black pepper. The complaint was levied that Al's juice cloaked the traditional Italian seasonings. But they aren't cloaked at Al's. It's that Al's doesn't do the "traditional" seasoning. Never did. Not even at the Al's on Taylor in Chicago. The exact blend of what's in there is a closely-guarded secret that I imagine is guarded even more closely now that they're franchising, but while cloves are generally accepted as one of the wonky spices you'll find only on an Al's Italian Beef, cinnamon has been floated, cardamom, and a horde of others. Yeah, it's a weird, atypical sandwich that isn't garlic and oregano heavy. That's what Al's is and always has been. But for what it is, I think it's very good... it mostly depends on how much of a purist you are. And the fact that Al's is one of the pioneers of Italian Beef makes it difficult to say they're somehow doing it wrong, even if they march to their own beat, so to speak. Back at CHC, however, my sandwich was supposed to have sweet peppers, and I suppose it did, but they were teeny tiny little specimens and total mush. And the giardiniera that you seem to love, Laura... well... I just don't get it. It's made in-house, and that's great, except it's bad. It's crudely chopped (and I don't equate coarsely with crudely) with very little oil and waaaaaay too much vinegar. Giardiniera is, admittedly, one of the primary ways for an Italian Beef stand to make their mark with something distinctive, but if you ask me, going the heavy vinegar route is just a bad, bad call. It kills the flavor of the beef. It dominates the flavor of the beef rather than complementing it. An oily giardiniera carries the heat, carries the beefy flavor and add succulence to the sandwich. This was like taking my Italian Beef with a vinegar chaser.

Now, lest I give the impression that I think poor Bob Pappanduros, CHC's proprietor, should be dragged out in the street and shot, I really like Chicago Hamburger Co.! They make a pretty darn good dog and the sliders, even if I'm not sure how they're a Chicago thing, are great. It's tough to do Italian Beef well unless you're doing a lot of it. And it's hard to do a lot of it unless that's really your thing. And at CHC, it's one of many, many things. With Italian Beef, it's almost impossible to do it halfway. I'm sympathetic to Mr. Pappanduros' plight, even if it doesn't change my opinion about the sandwich.

So what's a beef evangelist to do? Resurrect the Beef-Off, that's what. I'd hoped to spend at least a year exploring the local foodstuffs before seeking out the comforts of home, but as with places I encountered in Baltimore and Boston, it hurts me to know that for many, this is the local standard-bearer for the Italian Beef sandwich. So after I clear my plate of a couple of other grub-related projects I'm trying to work my way through, a-beefing we will go.

To that end, I'm taking requests. I've found five or six places just driving around, but I need at least ten. Better to have a dozen. And I know there are more out there. Good, bad... doesn't matter. If a place serves an Italian Beef sandwich, I want to know about it, and I'd greatly appreciate any help folks would care to provide in making a comprehensive hit list.

I'll check back in a couple of months. And if you'd care to join me, Fry Girl, drop me a line... really! :-)

Chicago Hamburger Co.
3749 E. Indian School Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Mon - Sat10:30 AM - 8:00 PM

June 07, 2010


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 MozzarellaDominic 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 ShrimpDominic 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 SaladDominic 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 LeeksDominic 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 TomatoesDominic 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 CauliflowerDominic 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 PeasDominic 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 BrûléeDominic 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 BrittleDominic 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 - Thu5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 12:00 AM
Sun5:00 PM - 10:00 PM