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March 28, 2011

Nee House

Sticky Rice with Asparagus and Lap Cheong Dominic Armato

Chinese in Phoenix has been a bit of a frustrating experience thus far.

It isn't that I haven't had some great dishes. I have. And it isn't that there aren't places that serve authentic Chinese. There are. It's just that I've yet to find a place that's consistently very good, less so from visit to visit and more so from dish to dish. It makes what's already a difficult search ten times so. I feel like I have to try a dozen dishes anywhere I go to suss out the strengths and weaknesses. So it is with Nee House. But the good news is that there are some significant strengths.

Hot Sour SoupDominic Armato

Falling squarely into the category of family-run strip mall ethnic joint, Nee House is right up my alley. A no-frills interior with pictures of house specials on the walls and a decorative fish tank up front, it nonetheless throws some odd mixed signals. The promotional materials classify the restaurant as featuring Cantonese, Mandarin and Sichuan, which is rarely a good sign. In my experience, rare is the Chinese restaurant that can truly do a good job with two regions, much less three. Such billing is often the sign of catchall Americanized Chinese, but in another example of Nee House's split personality, the menu features such pseudo-Chinese dishes as Crab Rangoon and Moo Goo Gai Pan, and a wide selection of Americanized standards that have authentic counterparts even if not prepared that way here, while still featuring a hefty catalog of rather authentic fresh seafood, including items like shark fin, jellyfish, abalone and sea cucumber. In fact, the seafood dishes comprise nearly half the menu, so between this and the four large tanks in a rear wall of the restaurant holding live lobsters, crabs and fish, it seemed safe to conclude that I'd do best to stick with Cantonese. So between that and a few Americanized standards for the little fella, who was my companion for most of these scouting trips, that what I ordered.

PotstickersDominic Armato

Soups have been passable, if unremarkable. I shouldn't be so happy that their hot sour soup derives its namesake from white pepper and black vinegar rather than sambal, but I'm so often disappointed by the appearance of the latter that it's refreshing to get one that's done right. Still, Nee House's is more functional than exceptional, scratching the itch for a time. The appetizers section is one that looks particularly Americanized, and the pan-fried potstickers are disappointing. The filling is nice, a delicately seasoned mix of finely shredded cabbage and chicken that's juicy and lightly sweet, a very homey mix that's still quite delicious. The wrapper is another matter entirely, almost certainly store-bought, thin, tough and dry. Too bad, as they might have been nice otherwise.

Snow Pea LeavesDominic Armato

A happy surprise is the mere presence of snow pea leaves, which are a particularly delectable little Chinese green. Dark green but sweet leaves spring from hollow and crisp shoots, here barely wilted with broth and garlic and perhaps a touch of ginger. Though their preparation doesn't get much simpler, the picking and sorting is a little labor-intensive, which may partially account for the surprising $14 price. But it's a rather large helping -- almost too much -- and they're difficult to resist. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I've yet to explore the rest of the vegetable section, though they're mostly pretty conventional offerings like Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce and eggplant with garlic. Still, here's at least one indication that the kitchen knows how to handle them.

Mu Shu PorkDominic Armato

Mu Shu Pork kind of screams fun food for four-year-olds, so I introduced the little fella to the pancake-wrapped standard, which was a fully Americanized version, roughly chopped with bought-in though perfectly functional pancakes. Thin and a little clumsy, I see no reason to order it again, particularly since it missed its intended target. Sautéed Scallops with XO Sauce was somewhat less Americanized, simply by its nature, but was similarly disappointing. While the scallops were tender and sweet, there was no subtlety at all to the roughly-chopped vegetables. And the XO sauce, rather than being the potent blend of chiles and dried seafood that it can be when made well, seemed here to be a simple, flat brown sauce punched up with just a touch of XO. Unusual? Not really. But disappointing nonetheless.

Sallops in XO SauceDominic Armato

On the other hand, a strength of the menu seems to be fried rice, which is trickier to do well than commonly acknowledged. A version with flecks of salted fish and tender pieces of chicken hit on all points. The warm, light rice had the perfect texture with clearly defined grains, the flavors were balanced, particularly when it came to salt, and soy sauce was used with great restraint. Also, the oil was controlled perfectly, just present enough to carry the flavors and maintain the texture without getting slick and greasy. Across five visits, there's been a list of specials (in Chinese... I had to ask) only once, but included another fried rice, this time done with a larger grain sticky rice with asparagus and lap cheong, sweet Chinese sausage. It's a different beast to be sure, not the wet, steamed sticky rice that might arrive wrapped in lotus leaves, nor the light and tender type as featured the salty fish, but rather a larger grain with a denser, more toothsome texture, punctuated by the juicy sweetness of the sausage. Both lead me to believe that this kitchen knows what it's doing when tossing rice into a wok.

Salty Fish Fried RiceDominic Armato

A clear indication that we've yet to cover the menu's biggest strength, however, is plainly evident on the back wall of the restaurant. There, four large tanks are filled with live seafood. Though I'm unsure how this might change seasonally (all of my visits have been in the past couple of months), three of the tanks have always contained lobsters, bass and Dungeness crabs, and the fourth has had overflow from one of the first three, or -- I've been told -- the occasional massive king crab, which are available by special order. Next to the tanks is a handwritten sign (featuring some rather cute illustrations) listing the prices per pound, usually $12-13 for lobster and crab and $14-15 for fish. In true Chinese seafood restaurant fashion, minutes after your order is in, a net's in the tank, fishing out your meal.

Kowloon Style CrabDominic Armato

And here's where Nee House shines. Of the live seafood preparations I've tried, my favorite by far has been the Baked Crab in "Kowloon" Style, which is an early contender for the deliciousness of 2011. "Baked" is a bit of a hitch in translation. Rather, the crab is chopped into pieces, battered and deep fried, and then dry-fried in a wok with some potent seasonings. A mound of crispy minced garlic tops the crab, while whole dried chiles and slices of fresh jalapeno bring the heat. It's always a wonder to me when delicate crab stands up to aggressive preparations like this, but boy howdy, does it work. The crisp, hot, salty and spicy coating yields to sweet, succulent crab within. This is Chinese style, so not only is there no shame in getting messy, but you'll need to. That's half the pleasure of the dish, though, burning chiles and pungent garlic getting all over your fingers and lips as you work to free the crabmeat from its armor. When dealing with the lattice of cartilage in the body, I say go the way they taught me in China. Forget trying to pick the meat. Bite off the whole thing, and with nimble tongue and lips, separate and spit out the cartilage. It's indelicate, but it gets the job done. Bonus? The crab innards have been removed, battered and fried in one lump, a tender morsel of crab offal, hidden beneath the pile of chitin, waiting to be discovered.

House Special LobsterDominic Armato

Not quite as strong but still quite respectable is the House Special Lobster. The prep is similar, roughly segmented and deep fried before being stir-fried, this time in a wetter sauce heavy on ginger and black pepper (and a touch too heavy on sugar) with an abundance of scallions. The batter, which gets a touch thick at times, does well with the dry-frying, but gets a little goopy in places with the wetter sauce. The sauce also, on the day I had it, was a little heavy on the corn starch, killing the lightness and making it heavier than it should have been. Still, this is a very tasty dish, a few minor tweaks away from being great, and it's tricky to find live lobsters at $12 per pound in a tank at the grocery store, much less chopped up, prepared and brought to your table. It's a surprisingly good deal.

Steamed FishDominic Armato

Steamed fish with scallions, cilantro, shaoxing, soy sauce, rock sugar and a touch of sesame oil is as basic and straightforward as it gets, but it's always nice to see it done well, and with a fish that was flapping around just minutes before is really the only way to do it. The bass they've had during my visits isn't the most succulent and flavorful option available, but they do right by it, steaming it to a perfect tender and juicy consistency before dressing it with the subtly sweet sauce and piling it with just barely wilted shredded scallions. My only complaint -- and it isn't an inconsequential one -- is that I really wish they'd taken a little bit more care with the scaler. Picking out one or two is understandable. Getting a mouthful is less than pleasant. But I haven't had it enough to say whether this was the exception or the rule. Hopefully they just missed a spot and it won't happen again.

So while I still want to do some more exploring of the menu, it seems fair to base some conclusions from five visits, and I've concluded that Nee House is two restaurants. It's a typical Americanized joint that serves sweet sour chicken with an egg roll and fried rice for six dollars at lunchtime to a crowd that probably doesn't know or want to know what something like abalone is. And it's also a respectable Cantonese restaurant that mostly does a good job with seafood dishes, an especially good job with any of the fresh seafood pulled out of the tanks on site, and will nail fried rice and Chinese vegetables to accompany. I sure wish it was the kind of place where I could order anything on the menu and be reasonably certain that I'd get something authentic and crisply prepared. But even if that's not what Nee House is, it has a couple of niches that it does well, and that definitely makes it worth visiting.

Nee House
13843 N. Tatum Boulevard #15
Phoenix, AZ 85032
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sun11:00 AM - 9:30 PM

March 24, 2011

Citizen Public House

Moe'scow Mule Dominic Armato

Okay, it's time to officially write the death certificate for the gastropub.

Not the institution, but the term. The patient was already terminal when it hit our shores, and the word is now stone dead, having been rendered completely meaningless by way of overuse. I'm sorry, I need to get this out of the way. Because the fact is that I like Citizen Public House. Quite a bit, actually. And I don't want this annoyance running through my head while writing about the food. Yes, some (some) of the dishes are rooted in bar food. But that aside, as far as I can tell, the only thing Citizen Public House has in common with London's gastropubs is that it serves food and drinks. It isn't warm, it isn't cozy, and it isn't the kind of place where you'd sit at a table with your pals drinking all night and maybe getting a bite to eat. It's cavernous, stark, dim and modern with white tablecloths and wine glasses on every table, and a stainless steel bar. And while its drinks are excellent, it isn't a drinking establishment at heart. Cover up the sign, talk to 100 patrons, ask them to describe the place as best they can and I doubt a single one utters the word "pub." It's a restaurant. A stylish Scottsdale restaurant with a strong beverage program. And there's nothing wrong with that! In their defense, the word "gastropub" never appears in any of their literature (at least not that I've seen), even if the implication behind the name and the description is clear. But what's important to take away here, aside from the fact that I really need to take a few deep breaths, is that Citizen Public House doesn't need to pretend it's something else to piggyback on the culinary zeitgeist. It doesn't have to be a concept. It can just be a restaurant. And it's a really good one.

Mirliton Chopped SaladDominic Armato

Bernie Kantak, having left clan Kasperski, has partnered up with Richie Moe and Andrew Fritz to open Citizen Public House, and he's brought a menu that uses casual American fare and bar food as touchstones. There are "bar snacks" like popcorn and mac and cheese, starters that apply atypical ingredients to typical forms, a handful of sandwiches, entrees that will look very familiar even if they aren't entirely, and lots and lots of bacon. Seriously, for better or worse, about a third of the items on the menu feature bacon. Over a few visits, I never quite got to the bar snacks, but I got a pretty good sampling of the rest of the menu, including an extremely smooth pisco sour and the Moe'scow Mule, mostly traditional but for a couple thick slabs of cucumber that turned into a cool and crisp booze-cured snack by the time I'd finished the drink. Kantak's brought along his chopped salad from Cowboy Ciao, but when seeking something vegetal, I went with the Mirliton Chopped Salad, with the eponymous mirliton (chayote), grape tomatoes, grilled halloumi, snow pea greens and popcorn. It's done with a creamy but very thin and light garlic dressing, and it's a very nice mix, even if it doesn't transcend the genre.
UPDATE : The original chopped salad does, in fact, transcend the genre... outstanding dish.

Greenlip Mussel ChowderDominic Armato

More notable, I thought, was the Greenlip Mussel Chowder, served in a huge bowl piled with a cool dozen of the little aquatic beasts. I've always thought black mussels a tastier specimen than the monstrous, meaty greenlips, but I can find little else wrong with a dish that's making me miss our brief stint on the east coast. Though creamy, the chowder escapes the viscosity trap, staying thin and light enough that the richness doesn't become overpowering. Where countless bad chowders are glue, this remains soup. It's purposefully rough around the edges, with big chunks of vegetable and bacon strewn throughout. It's got the natural sweetness of good dairy, and though it isn't overpowering, enough of the bivalves' briny essence is worked into the soup to ensure that they remain the star. Downside? The plate was hot enough to cauterize flesh. But that's really just an excuse to use the word cauterize. It's a great dish.

Pork Belly PastramiDominic Armato

Even better was the killer Pork Belly Pastrami. The pastrami connection, as far as I can tell, is limited to the spice that crusts the meat. This isn't pastrami with pork belly subbed in for brisket. But making a killer dish will always earn you a bit of latitude with the terminology, and this is no exception. It's some seriously lush pork, blackened and a little crisp on the edges, fatty bliss in the middle, and it's paired with a brussels sprout "sauerkraut" that, again, is kind of a misnomer because though potent it's rather clean and fresh and a crisp sweet-sour foil to the rich pork. Mustard seed plays a prominent role without getting belligerent, and fried spaetzle with rye seed adds a little chewy texture and an aromatic note that evokes the rye bread of your pastrami sandwich and ties the dish together. I really enjoyed this one a lot.

Crispy SquidDominic Armato

The lone miss among the starters was one where my hopes got ahead of what my expectations probably should have been. Fried calamari broke its ethnic bonds a while ago and has become universal bar food, but with very rare exception it fails to capture the crisp succulence of Italy's fritti misti, instead presenting as nondescript fried nuggets to be dipped in lousy tomato sauce. I'd done well enough with some of the other starters that I hoped CPH's version would be a little more. And it was, but not enough. The lightly sweet and creamy lemon-anise tartar sauce and fennel pickles were very much appreciated as creative touches, but the squid was still lost in the batter, chewy and dry and barely recognizable as seafood. Which still makes it better than many plates of the same, but it was a disappointment, compared either to my hopes or to the rest of the menu.

Lamb BurgerDominic Armato

Though the sandwich selections include a BLT, Wagyu burger (THANK YOU for not calling it Kobe, guys) and an interesting-sounding grilled halloumi, I couldn't get away from the lamb burger, and I'm glad I didn't try. Gussied up with tomato, pickled cucumber and onion and a light tzatziki, what made it was an absolutely beautiful patty, medium rare, moist, dripping with juice and screaming fresh lamb. Big, intense lamb flavor, accented by the condiments rather than dominated by them, and rivulets of lamb fat streaming down to your elbows is a recipe for success, as far as I'm concerned. Sitting on a bun with body and paired up with some pretty decent fresh fries and a house made ketchup, it's one of the best burgers I've had of any stripe in quite a while.

Coffee Charred Short RibsDominic Armato

The two entrees I tried were flawed, but close enough that it wouldn't stop me from getting them again. the Coffee Charred Short Ribs, flanken cut, put up a bit of a fight, and I mean that as a compliment. They were tender, to be sure, but they hadn't been stewed to death, possessing not only just a little bit of satisfying chew, but a crisp, smoky bark that gave it even more textural interest. Plated with a simple but tasty roasted parsnip puree and an assortment of sautéed green vegetables, the problem was with the sauce. Billed as a "dried cherry BBQ sauce," the flavor was on, but there was much, much, much too much of it. It was absurdly sweet, almost candylike, and the only thing that kept it from being completely unpalatable was a certain amount of balancing sourness which took it from inedibly sweet to way too sweet and sour. "I was tasting it an hour later" is a tired piece of critical hyperbole, but here it wasn't hyperbole. An hour later, I couldn't get that sticky sweetness out of my mouth. Its most redeeming quality was that it was wisely served on the side, to allow for careful application. And it's a shame, because the quality of the flavor was right on. It was just way too intense. But everything else on the plate was delicious, and just a little reworking of that sauce would make it a great dish.

Pan Seared ScallopDominic Armato

The pan seared scallops suffered the opposite fate. Served atop grits with "lardons," snow pea greens and a red rock cola gastrique, it could be more aptly described as scallops with butter. If there was less than three ounces of butter on the plate, I'll turn in my (non-existent) credentials. But I have no issue with an abundance of butter. This was not the problem. Nor were the grits, which were creamy and studded with kernels of fresh corn, nor the greens which were wilted but retained their fresh flavor, nor the lardons which... well, they ended up coming across less like lardons and more like bacon bits, but even this wasn't a problem since they added a little bit of crisp texture. The problem was simply in the cola gastrique. Or, more accurately, the problem was in the absence thereof. The scallops were so incredibly rich, saturated with butter and bacon, that they needed the gastrique's acidity to keep them from crushing you under their weight. The few bites I had with the gastrique were fabulous. But there was only enough gastrique for a few bites. It either needed to tone down the richness, or bring on the gastrique. I vote the latter. But again, I still rather enjoyed the dish despite this issue, and those few fully-composed bites were dynamite.

Cookies & MilkDominic Armato

Desserts, done by Tracy Dempsey, are pretty straightforward, and the first I tried was the most straightforward of all, the milk and cookies. What you see here was my artful arrangement to allow you to actually see the cookies. In reality, they arrived at the table like this, a sealed bag unceremoniously set on the plate next to a glass of milk. Sporting such specimens as spicy chocolate fudge and an oatmeal variant involving fruit and bacon, I enjoyed the cookies, but was a little put off by the presentation. Not because I thought it indelicate. I actually kind of liked the humor of it. But gosh, it sure would have been nice if the cookies had been warmed, maybe... anything to separate it from something you might just pick up off the store shelf.

"Pig in the Orchard"Dominic Armato

Bread pudding was much more successful, titled "Pig in the Orchard" for the combination of apples and bacon therein. So yes, both of my desserts featured bacon. And while bacon works great in a dessert context, I really hope we're getting past the "Ooooh, bacon dessert!" phase of the bacon craze so we can enjoy it with just a little less ubiquity. In any case, it was a nice bread pudding, a little cakey and not quite as moist as I'd like, but very tasty, with cinnamon ice cream, an intensely sweet bourbon brown sugar sauce, chunks of tender apples and the aforementioned bacon, crusted on top, which was subtle enough that it could almost slip by unnoticed. It hit a nice balance of sweet and savory, nailed a la mode's always successful warm and cold contrast, and made me happy, if a little overstuffed. But there, I can only blame myself.

So pub pedantry aside, I hope it's clear that I think this is a very good restaurant. And to reiterate, my annoyance with the misnomer that the American gastropub has become doesn't extend to the restaurant itself for a moment. I've enjoyed almost every plate I've had at Citizen Public House, and some of them I've loved. And I like the restaurant for what it is. It doesn't have to be warm and chummy and smelling of stale beer. The food doesn't have to be limited to slightly elevated classics. You don't have to risk catching a dart in the neck when you get up to use the restroom. Don't misunderstand, Kantak is trying to walk a fine line between familiar and contemporary here, and he does so with aplomb. But Citizen Public House doesn't have to be sold as a public house to succeed. It'll do that because it's a great place to eat and drink. And it'll be that no matter what they call it.

Citizen Public House
7111 E. 5th Avenue, Suite E
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun5:00 PM - 11:00 PM

March 14, 2011


The Menu Dominic Armato

Phoenix isn't a fine dining town. This isn't a value judgment, but rather a simple statement of fact. While plenty of valley restaurants produce innovative, upscale (and exceptionally delicious) food, the kind of no-holds-barred, go ahead and gild that lily approach to menu, room and waitstaff is pretty much limited to Binkley's and Kai. And even Binkley's is a little more relaxed off the plate than convention would dictate. The argument has been made with even more frequency in these recessionary times that traditional fine dining is a dinosaur; that it's a lumbering, outmoded culinary beast, on the verge of extinction as it gives way to the more nimble, adaptable mammals that scurry around its feet. And while I agree that this hardly seems the time to be sinking millions of dollars into such ventures, as I mused when we visited Chicago's L2O a couple of years back (which has since earned three Michelin stars and lost its head chef, in the same week no less), the spare no expense approach to upscale dining generates a unique kind of experience that I hope never goes away, even if it yields somewhat to the pop-ups, gastropubs and casual fine dining options that dominate the discussion these days. And so it was with high hopes that I approached Kai, which is as far as I can muster, Phoenix' only traditional fine dining restaurant.

Bread Service with "Lazy Bread"Dominic Armato

By traditional, of course, I mean the format, not the food. While the room is the kind of appropriately quiet, crisply and well-appointed space that exudes confident luxury, and the staff is both attentive and abundant, the cuisine is an amalgam of European and Mexican traditions applied to flavors and ingredients native to the Southwest. If Kai is to be the standard-bearer for fine dining in Phoenix, it will do so with a strong sense of local identity. At its best, this identity expresses itself as beautiful sunset vistas just outside the window, and striking original watercolors that adorn the front of every menu. At its worst, it involves some rather lengthy lectures on the foods and their provenance, threatening to turn the dining experience into a classroom experience. But of course, what constitutes the right amount of information is very much a personal preference. Your mileage may vary.

Lamb AmuseDominic Armato

Once the platitudes had yielded to the plates, we got to the meat of Kai's Southwestern identity, both literally and figuratively. Wishing to try more than a dish or two, and lacking the endurance for the 13-course "Journey," we opted for the abbreviated "Short Story" tasting menu. Bread service combined a pair of more conventional options, a cheddar and jalapeno loaf and another heavily scented with roasted garlic, with a traditional Pima item described as "Lazy Bread." Puck-shaped and laced with chiles, it immediately brought to mind the bread of Tuscany. Traditional or no, I really wish it contained some salt. Our amuse was far more successful, a moist and tender slice of seared lamb with a pineapple, fennel and piquillo pepper salsa and miniscule but potent touches of raspberry-chipotle and stevia sauces. The pineapple was almost too much for the meat, but the chiles kept it in check and it was a delectable and palate-awakening bite.

Kurobuta Pork TortaDominic Armato

The one item from the "Journey" that I couldn't let escape was the Kurobuta Pork Torta, and the staff graciously honored my request to work it into our dinner. It arrived up front, some assembly required. A small piece of bread, scented I believe with a native seed of some nature, was served with sandwich components for you to prepare as you saw fit. The centerpiece, a juicy and succulent nest of chimayo-spiced pulled pork, subtly sweet and quite delicious. The "condiments" included a fine date puree, crisp apple chip, saffron-infused Greek yogurt and cucumber, and the result when combined was both sophisticated and satisfying, upscale finger food nestled inside a steamy, warm and moist bun. I'm glad I didn't miss it.

Tomato TartDominic Armato

The tomato tart, I could have done without, and for very frustrating reasons. Conceptually, it was a beautiful dish. The base was a light buckwheat and saguaro seed crisp, smeared with a measure of creamy tart local goat cheese and mascarpone. On top, a light basil foam (I support foam when used with restraint) and "black ice," a granita made with balsamic vinegar and saguaro blossom syrup. Though the combination of flavors was mostly conventional, it was a beautiful contrast of textures and temperatures, both striking and delicious, with the exception of one component... the tomatoes. Macerated with olive oil, they were mealy and underflavored. While local sourcing is an honorable pursuit, I think it's important -- particularly at a fine dining establishment -- to recognize the limits of the practice. Though the menu trumpeted the dish's centerpiece as "local vine ripened heirloom tomatoes," from the moment I took my first bite, all I could think to myself was, "If these are the best tomatoes you can find locally, either get them from somewhere else or don't serve the dish." Or at the very least, take them off the tasting menu so their appearance in front of me is my mistake and not yours (I'm still adjusting to Arizona's wonky growing seasons, but tomatoes in mid-March isn't something I'd choose). The accoutrements, though delicious, completely overshadowed the star. A perfect tomato, I suspect, would have stood up just fine. But the thought never should have had the opportunity to enter my mind.

Spanish Sea Bass StewDominic Armato

Thankfully, I was ready to let bygones be bygones by the time I was midway through the next dish. Described as "Spanish Sea Bass swimming in a native stew," I'm unsure whether "swimming" or "native" is more deserving of scare quotes. I've no doubt that octopus, clams and black sausage are native to somewhere, but I'm pretty sure it isn't the Arizona desert. In fact, though it incorporated such Southwestern ingredients as tepary beans, iitois onions and more of the previous course's tomatoes (put to much better use here), this dish was Spanish through and through, and thoroughly delicious. After the intoxicating broth had been spooned over the rest, and our server had disappeared into the bowels of the kitchen, I briefly panicked when I realized I had no spoon. It took all of 2.2 seconds for me to realize that this was the express purpose of the (literally!) foot long grilled crouton that extended well beyond the confines of the bowl. This was the fine dining equivalent of dunking your bread into your soup, cutting off seafood-soaked chunks of crusty bread and eating it along with the rest. There were nits to pick. The sear on the fish should have been crisper, and less would have been more with the beans, but downing that soupy crouton along with the flavorful fish, the sweet clams and octopus, the earthy, toothsome body of the beans, the dusky funk of the sausage... yes, I rather enjoyed this dish.

Strawberry SorbetDominic Armato

Sorbet as a palate cleanser is, admittedly, a little trite. But heck, I'll take a nice sorbet as it comes, made here of strawberries with a syrup made of smoky plums (salty, too... umeboshi, in a lone Asian touch, perhaps?). And then it was on to the final savory course, buffalo tenderloin atop a smoked corn puree, chorizo and poblano chili and mushrooms, adorned with slivered runner beans, more chiles, cholla buds and a lone squash blossom leaf. As tasting menu finales go, it's a choice that's both safe and expressive, satisfying the filet set (who would most likely mistake it for beef if not told otherwise) while bringing some interest for the more adventurous among us. This dinner marked my first experience with cholla buds, tender, vegetal little morsels that brought artichokes to mind, though asparagus seems to be a more popularly referenced analogue. It was a perfect piece of meat, and though meltingly tender isn't generally my cup of tea (give me toothsome and flavorful any day), it was skillfully handled and stunningly presented. My only complaint would be that the "chili" beneath shared enough characteristics with, shall we say, lesser chilis that I found it difficult at times to shove thoughts of things like hot dogs and french fries out of my mind. It wasn't that the flavors weren't delicious, they just had... baggage. For me, anyway.

Buffalo TenderloinDominic Armato

I have, on many occasions, mentioned my traditional cheese course disability, and here's no exception. Plated with a pedestrian balsamic syrup, a toasted pecan, thin crackers and a rather delicious bit of honeycomb, we received a pair of cheeses. On the left, a gouda still wet behind the ears at only one year of age, dense and almost creamy and very easy to enjoy. On the right, a more "challenging" French bleu, lightly veined, pungent and spicy, though child's play for enthusiasts of the breed. Fine specimens both, and my issue with them is entirely personal and philosophical. With classical French cuisine? Certainly. But after a complex and creative meal, two slabs of cheese with three completely predictable accompaniments always strikes me as a letdown. I have friends who will give me the evil eye for speaking such blasphemy, but respectable and traditional though it may be, there's nothing on the menu I wouldn't have rather had than a simple cheese course.

Cheese CourseDominic Armato

Dessert was a perfect finish, both in terms of taste and theme. Corn works extremely well in a sweet context, it's a cornerstone of the cuisine, and it's flexible enough to work into a dessert in all sorts of interesting ways. Here, it gave a delicious savory quality to a dense and smooth piece of cheesecake. Popped and crushed, it provided a nice textural crust. The crisp that sat atop the cheesecake had an extremely intense corn flavor, and even the grassy shoots worked as more than a garnish. My only surprise was that the dollops of sweet, black sauce were made with truffle rather than huitlacoche, which would seem the obvious choice for a corn-themed dessert. But no matter. The truffle provided a nice, earthy contrast and perhaps the kitchen was following the rule they should have followed for the tomatoes, above. With sweet date puree adding a fruity element, it was a very nice dessert.

Maize CheesecakeDominic Armato

Some simple chocolate truffles, alternately flavored with vanilla and coffee, ensured that no chocoholic would do without, and we were off. Though I would have liked to have gotten an even larger slice of the menu -- tomato tarts and buffalo tenderloin seem like "safer" items selected to ensure broad appeal -- I was reasonably impressed by Kai and would actually like to get back and make some selections of my own. It wasn't an issue-free meal, which it really should be at this level, but there's enough creativity and compelling flavor going on that I find myself perfectly willing to endure a few hiccups to try a little more. If ours was a representative sample, the entire experience isn't tight or polished enough to stand out among the nation's giants. But it isn't worth visiting simply because it has a category all to itself in Phoenix. Kai does a very respectable job of holding down Phoenix' fine dining scene, and I look forward to returning.

5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Boulevard
Phoenix, AZ 85048
Tue - Thu5:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sun5:30 PM - 9:30 PM

March 08, 2011

Happy Mardi Gras!

Shrimp Gumbo Dominic Armato

Hey, this is great. Any other good food holidays we can cram into this week?

Not as dark as I would have liked, but I also wanted to feed the kids before 9:30. And FYI, oven roux is a gumbo gamechanger. Throw a dutch oven with your oil and flour in the oven at 350, give it a whisk every 20-30 minutes until it's as dark as you like, and spend the time prepping everything else rather than stirring.

March 07, 2011

Happy Casimir Pulaski Day!

Beet Borscht Dominic Armato

Can't think of a better reason to make pierogi and beet borscht!

The holiday, for all of you non-Chicagoans. And a killer beet borscht recipe (not mine) that I will, henceforth, need no excuse to make.