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August 31, 2012

The Quarterly Report - Q2 2012

Seafood Chowder @ The Maine Lobster Lady Dominic Armato

It's the Quarterly Report, almost a quarter late edition! I happened to drop into my PHXfoodnerds.com hiatus right at the start of the summer and... well... enough explanation. On with some second quarter eats, in order determined by random.org as always:

Lobster Roll, Traditional StyleDominic Armato

The Maine Lobster Lady

At first, I thought it might be awkward that the delay in writing about The Maine Lobster Lady meant that she'd have gone home to Maine for the summer by the time I posted this. But hey, good news! It took me SO long to get this up that she'll be back in just a couple of months! The Maine Lobster Lady drives her food truck back and forth between the Southwest and Maine, where her husband is a bona fide lobsterman, and while she's in town, she slings a mighty fine, if small, lobster roll. I went on a lobster roll binge shortly before we left Boston a few years back, and it resulted in a great respect for the minimal school of lobster roll preparation (not to mention an awkward conversation with my doctor when I consumed more than a dozen of them in the two weeks leading up to my physical). Though she bills her cold mayo and hot butter version as "Maine Lobster Roll, Traditional Style" and "Maine Lobster Roll, Hot Butter," they're what everybody I know would refer to as Maine Style and Connecticut Style, respectively. And both are mighty tasty, with fresh claw and knuckle meat, dressed with a touch of lemon mayonnaise or garlicky hot butter, on a crisply toasted split roll. As a matter of personal preference, I actually like a little bit of tougher tail meat mixed in, but I suspect the majority opinion that claw and knuckle only is a feature, not a bug. The one thing that's a little tough to swallow is that these lobster rolls are awfully scrawny by East Coast standards, and not exactly budget priced at $17. But as I've said before, you can get great seafood in the desert, you just have to pay for it. I also nabbed the seafood chowder, a true East Coast style, thin and light, not overly rich or goopy, but flavor-packed with lobster, shrimp and fish, plus tender potatoes and fresh corn kernels with great pop. I'll be seeking both when she returns to town.

Bún Thịt Nướng Tàu Hũ Ky Chả GiòDominic Armato

Com Tam Thuan Kieu

The problem with getting way too into a place like Hue Gourmet is that I've been to Mekong Plaza dozens of times, but have only eaten at perhaps half of the restaurants therein. One I only just managed to get to was Com Tam Thuan Kieu, but I think I can now scratch it off the list. Com Tam Thuan Kieu specializes, as its name would suggest, in broken rice dishes, but it also serves bun (rice noodles) and banh hoi (sheets of woven rice noodles), which means that it's one of those massive hund, red item menus that's mostly composed of every combination and permutation of topping that can do on three basic dishes. I went with a friend and introduced him to banh beo, the round, steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, peanuts and fried shallots, and immediately had to assure him that they get a whole lot better. CTTK's were prefab and pasty with a kind of chalky aftertaste, and were even more disappointing in comparison to Hue Gourmet's, just 50 paces away. The com tam was okay if a little lackluster, and my bun came up short -- dry noodles, tough spring roll, leathery pork and nuoc cham so watered down it barely imparted any flavor. It was cheap, but the appeal pretty much ended there.

ReubenDominic Armato

Miracle Mile Deli

I'm frustrated that I like Miracle Mile Deli, not because I think I shouldn't -- they make some good sandwiches -- but because pegging this as the best place in town for corned beef and pastrami feels like surrender. It's a cafeteria-style deli with two locations, and most of the menu is completely forgettable. I've tried underseasoned soups, potato pancakes that were greasy, tough and pasty, and burgers that underachieved. But what's solid are the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, moist and reasonably flavorful meat sliced and kept warm in a steam table, then worked into any number of sandwiches adjusted to order with sauerkraut, cheese, cole slaw, etc. It's not bad. I'm not sure why a steam box filled with whole briskets sliced to order is a practice foreign to the valley -- Miracle Mile Deli certainly has the traffic necessary to make it worthwhile -- but these sandwiches satisfy, even if I greatly look forward to a time when somebody decides to raise the bar.

Sai Krok IsaanDominic Armato

Pete's Thai Cuisine

This one is endlessly puzzling to me. Thai, despite its ubiquity, is not one of Phoenix's strengths. But the gulf between Pete's reputation, even in comparison to its local peers, and my experience with the place is massive. Satay skewers bear what must be half a pound of chicken breast EACH in one massive hunk, such that 90% of it is plain, unseasoned meat. Papaya salad brings fiery heat but little else in terms of balance. Green curry is a salty mess and all of the herbs therein taste brown and muddled. Isaan sausage appears deep-fried, almost as tough as beef jerky, and tastes more of salt than the gentle, fermented sweetness it should. I've been twice, tried quite a few dishes, and have yet to taste anything redeemable. And the fact that Pete's offers some Northern Thai specialties that you don't see elsewhere in the valley makes it a painful tease. But even if taken simply as a casual stop for lunchtime Americanized Thai, it's just not good. The search continues.

The WestsideDominic Armato

Phoenix Cheesesteak Co.

While I sampled a few cheesesteaks in their native home while living on the East Coast, I'm by no means a cheesesteak authority. This, for better or worse, means I'm unlikely to accuse someplace of blasphemy if they take some minor liberties with tradition so long as it results in a good sandwich. And that's the case with Phoenix Cheesesteak Co. Though they offer a few unusual variations, I made a beeline for The Westside, and though it's the closest they make to the genuine article, they're careful to identify it as "not from Philly," instead calling it a "reinvention." And this is probably a good call, heading off pedantic criticisms at the pass. Thing is, it's a great sandwich. They're not slinging junk, here. Tasty choice ribeye is cut into small chunks rather than sliced, the onions are nicely seasoned and cut large enough to have some body, and while the cheese isn't whiz, it's some other kind of processed spread that maintains that goopy, junk food feel but, frankly, has better flavor. They're cooked together with care to merge the flavors and create a kind of beefy, cheesy sauce, then added to a lightly griddled roll and sent out with serviceable fries. The result is a sandwich that, while non-canonical, has a Philly cheesesteak's soul. Aside from the fact that a request for hots netted me raw sliced jalapenos rather than pickled cherry peppers, I couldn't have been much happer with these guys. They turn out a great sandwich.

Chicken Fried SteakDominic Armato

Ranch House Grille

Upon landing in Arcadia two and a half years ago, I'd intended to get to Ranch House Grille for a chicken fried steak. But it burned before I got a chance, it was only just recently that I was finally able to visit this reopened local landmark to satisfy that craving. Ranch House Grill is just a humble little corner breakfast and sandwich joint, slinging eggs and pancakes for breakfast, and burgers, sandwiches and other homey, comforting plates in the afternoon (though both breakfast and lunch, I believe, are available at all hours). Breakfast standards are simple, tasty and deftly prepared. When it comes to lunch, I had a pretty mean patty melt, though the Green Pork Chili Verde for which they're famed was, to my taste, a little on the thin and underdeveloped side. But there's no knocking their famous chicken fried steak, hot and juicy with a crisp, salty crust and slathered with thick, peppery country gravy. Though the "side" of chicken fried steak is pictured, I've since concluded that it just isn't at its peak if it isn't the full plate, served alongside some hash browns and a couple of eggs. (Over easy -- runny yolk and country gravy? Yes.) And for those who are watching their diet, fear not! The chicken fried steak also comes in a "light" version... served with one egg instead of two.

August 29, 2012

Lon's at the Hermosa

Prosciutto e Melone Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: I drafted this post back in early June, and though I didn't know him then, I've since spent some time hanging out with Mr. Travis Nass, mentioned therein.  

Date night! Something classy. Something relaxing. Something refined. Well, heck, Lon's has been languishing on the to-do list for the better part of two and a half years. Perhaps it's time to see what Mr. Megargee's old ranch has to offer.

The Hermosa is a charming little place, to be sure. Though I doubt much of the current structure predates the renovation, it's nice to be somewhere that feels old, and when approaching the host stand means making your way through a tree-strewn courtyard complete with fountain and lanterns on a warm-but-not-too-warm evening, it's hard to conclude that sitting inside makes any damn sense.

Duck Confit CrepeDominic Armato

The patio is one of those locations that makes you briefly feel as though you're on vacation when you're not, where I expect even the chronically uptight would be quickly pacified by a cocktail from The Last Drop. Presiding over the bar at The Hermosa is Mr. Travis Nass, liquor legend and self-proclaimed "spirit guide" who takes a decidedly culinary approach to mixed drinks, creating complex and shockingly distinctive cocktails by casting a wide net in search of unconventional juices, atypical aromatics and obscure spirits, to which he applies the instincts of a liquor savant, a boozy Rain Man in waistcoat and handlebar mustache. The day's punch, cognac and pineapple made smooth and aromatic with earl grey tea and freshly grated nutmeg, was good enough to drink all night. And one of his many respectfully reprised classics, the Mesquite Sour, tamed smoky whiskey with mesquite syrup, lemon, egg whites and an intoxicating touch of AZ Bitters Lab's mas mole bitters. I'm always astounded by the alchemy at work in a perfect cocktail, where all elements are present and spoken for, but it's hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. I'll be returning to The Last Drop, and soon. (Note: Since drafting this nearly three months ago, I've had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Travis and his concoctions, and my estimation of his talents has only grown.)

Foie GrasDominic Armato

Thus properly loosened, we turned our attention to the menu, where surrendering myself to Jeremy Pacheco's kitchen seemed the best course of action. Notably, I wasn't asked at what temperature I'd prefer my lamb. This would later prove to be the best thing that didn't happen all evening. Our server's revelation that Lon's prosciutto is cured in-house inspired both intrigue and suspicion. Bacon, soppressata, mortadella, okay... but prosciutto? With such a delicate product, any mistakes will be right out in the open. But the tasting menu started with the prosciutto e melone, I opted to trust in the chef, and my trust was well-rewarded. Fresh honeydew and cantaloupe bracketed a beautiful tangle of prosciutto, sliced to an unusual thickness that, again, inspired doubt but was shockingly appropriate. It was clean and sweet, possessing a fantastic texture with just enough give so that the thickness provided a delightful chew and forced you to linger even longer on the cured fat. This was some really, really good prosciutto. So much so, in fact, that I wish they'd just ditched the balsamic. It was completely unnecessary and, thankfully, easy to work around.

Corn and Shrimp RisottoDominic Armato

For me, this was followed by a griddled crepe with a sweet and tender duck confit filling. A little bit of brightness from fresh citrus and a small puddle of complex, smoky mole livened it right up, and the almost crisp texture on the crepe gave the dish some body and kept it from devolving into what would have been admittedly tasty mush. Nice balance, well-executed, a great start. My ladylove, who passed on the chef's tasting menu and opted instead to design her own, selected a winner in the foie, a rather generous slab beautifully browned with apricot jam, pistachio butter and some manner of gastrique for acidic punch. Fruit, acid, a nutty counterpoint... the structure of the dish is on the first page of the foie gras playbook, but prepared here with a compelling selection of ingredients and tack-sharp execution, it stood out as an unusually good foie/fruit/acid preparation.

Hermosa Arizona GreensDominic Armato

My third course was the swing and a miss of the evening, a corn and shrimp risotto that came close but didn't quite sit right with me. To say that opinions vary on proper risotto texture would be a putting it diplomatically. But these grains felt a touch underdone as opposed to al dente, with an odd texture reminiscent of Vietnamese broken rice, and a shortage of the natural creaminess that I associate with good risotto. But the flavor was excellent, a burst of fresh corn with sweet, delicate rock shrimp and crab, and I enjoyed that much despite my textural misgivings. My ladylove hsa a hard time resisting a good salad, and if they were all this well done, I'd have a harder time. I believe it involved apple, pecans and a very mild, creamy goat cheese, but beyond that all I recall is that the bite I swiped was mighty tasty.

Pan Seared HalibutPecan-Roasted LambDominic Armato

I snagged just a fleeting taste of her halibut as well, just enough to determine that it was a beautifully cooked piece of fish, tender and moist with a crisp crust, with a light, desperately trying to hold onto spring mix of pea puree, mushrooms and ramp fumet. My lamb, however, was absolutely fabulous. A pair of chops arrived, carved from a full rack and set atop salty tepary beans and a touch of cured pork. What struck me most, however, was that deep, deep red color. They'd served it to me in a state of rareness that defied any wiggle room when it came to classification. It was rare. Which, though I'll generally target the medium side of medium rare when it comes to lamb, suited me just fine. I dig rare lamb too, but I was surprised to see it come out as such, since I suspect most folks wouldn't be quite so open. I asked our server if this was how it was typically served, and she explained that they solicit a temperature request when it's ordered a la carte, but for the chef's menu, it's served quite rare. When she then hastily offered to take it back and bring one that had spent more time on the grill, I said, "Don't you dare," explaining that I was perfectly happy with it exactly as-is, just impressed that the kitchen had the courage to send it out like that. And it was dynamite. Grilled over pecan wood, it had a wonderfully smoky character balanced by earthy, salty beans, and its almost natural state tripped every lusty, carnivorous receptor I have in my head. Beautifully done.

Goat CheesecakeDominic Armato

Desserts did the job. I got a little taste of the "Candy Bar," salted caramel coated with chocolate and spiced up with some ancho and cayenne, the former of which added a touch of warm fruitiness and the latter of which added a little tickle to the back of the throat. My cheesecake -- made with goat cheese -- was smooth and creamy and accompanied by Grand Marnier macerated berries. Neither were anything I'll remember for long, but both were delicious finishes to the evening. Though certainly not flawless, my first experience with Lon's was an excellent one, providing a couple of dishes that will stick with me for some time, and a brief respite in calming surroundings. What's more, I have a great deal of respect for some of the choices made by the kitchen, and the cocktails are not merely a bonus but an attraction all their own. Not only wouldn't I hesitate to return, but I intend to make a point of it.

Lon's at the Hermosa
5532 N. Palo Cristi Road
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
602 955-8614

August 27, 2012

War of the Rosés

The Field Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: While my love for their restaurant predates our friendship, I'm lucky to have spent a good amount of time hanging out and chowing with Pavle, Charleen and much of the FnB crew.  

This past Friday night, I drank a lot of wine. This is notable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I don't typically drink a lot of wine. It's also notable because for the fellows seated on either side of me, tasting wines numbering into triple digits in the span of just a few hours is another day at the office. But mostly it's because I was the only food nerd on a panel of wine professionals at a highly publicized tasting intended to defend the honor of Arizona's wine scene.

Pavle Milic, you see, is one of Arizona wine's most enthusiastic and visible advocates. So the fact that Wine Spectator's ranking of rosés has netted Arizona's producers nothing higher than an 84 is something he takes a little personally. Here's where I need to insert myself: not to imply that he feels differently, but scores and stars are stupid. I hate that we feel the need to take the totality of wine or of food and cram it all into a continuum so that we can declare a winner. I like to think that every bottle, every place has its charms. And while that certainly doesn't mean I embrace some kind of "everything is equally good" philosophy, it does mean that I'm a whole lot more interested in qualitative than quantitative. Still, it's galling when the numbers say that something you love isn't getting a fair shake. And while Wine Spectator's tasters don't know which specific wine they're tasting, they do know its provenance. So Pavle set out to prove that their prejudices about Arizona as a wine producing region have influenced their impressions of the product. And he needed help to do that.

"Pavle... you know I'm not a wine geek, right?"

It didn't matter, he assured me. Aroma is aroma. Flavor is flavor. Balance is balance. I write about this stuff all the time (um... guilty). He put on the sell. And I was flattered, and terrified, and excited by the prospect, in ascending order of intensity. So I signed on, and next thing I knew I was an official judge, sitting on a six-person panel populated by wine sommeliers, buyers and distributors, surrounded by a cadre of food and wine enthusiasts, gathered at the "little gin joint in the desert" that is FnB, along with more stemware than I think I've ever seen crammed into a location so small. If I was nervous before, the introductions threatened to put me over the edge.

RosyDominic Armato

"Good to meet you! I'm Dominic."
"Who are you with, Dominic?"
"Oh, I'm not in the industry. I'm an enthusiastic hanger-on. I write a food blog called Skillet Doux."
"Well, you're judging, so you must have some knowledge, right?"

Self-deprecation and embracing my role as the wildcard would become my strategy for the evening. And as the panel got to talking shop, the only thing I could think was that this is what every poor soul who has gone out to eat with me and the food nerds has felt like. It's extreme geekery expressed in word -- I know this genre of music! -- but the song was completely unfamiliar to me. Still, incredibly friendly folks all, they tried to put me at ease. When it came time to judge, I was ready.

Eight rosés... four from Arizona, four benchmark wines from regions around the world... and a byzantine scorecard that I would've loved to ditch in favor of simply ranking them. But it was game time, I would perform the duties of my office to the best of my abilities, and diving in I was relieved to discover that it felt like second nature. It's true. Aroma is aroma. Flavor is flavor. Balance is balance. The hardest thing to overcome was figuring out how to position the scoring. Without a broad base of rosé experience, I had little frame of reference other than that which was right in front of me. And since half of the field was ostensibly some of the world's best rosés, it was even harder to find daylight between them. But as I swirled and sniffed and sipped, the unique beauty of the wines started to emerge... a nice, crisp balance of fruit and acidity on number six... a really complex depth on number eight... a lovely, smooth fruitiness from number two... wow, the intoxicating aroma on number five... I scored every aspect, I totaled my results, I went back to taste everything again, ensuring that my composite scores accurately represented my general impressions (they did), and I signed off on the final tally, took a deep breath, and turned them in.

The results? My favorite by the slimmest of margins -- of my two tied top scores, the one to which I'd give the nod if forced to choose -- number five, Arizona's Caduceus Lei Li Rosé, was the winner. Second place? The other one I'd given the same score... number eight, the famed Domaine Tempier, Bandol from France. When it came to sussing out quality wines, I was relieved to have managed to hang with the big boys. And far more importantly, the Arizona wines had managed to do the same. And if the panel's 1-2 and my 1-2 matching up hadn't gone far enough towards ensuring my relief, hearing the other panelists discuss their surprises in the aftermath -- the ones they loved that caught them off-guard, the ones they would have previously called favorites that brought up the rear in their rankings -- and talking about how blind tastings are a humbling experience no matter how much you know about wine... well, it was educational to say the least.

And then Charleen cooked us dinner.

Fried Green Tomatoes, Goddess, FetaDominic Armato

Now we're on MY turf, wine geeks. Could there be a more perfect foil, a better philosophical contrast to the mathematical precision and fussy tasting notes of the wine scoring world than the honest, soulful cuisine of Charleen Badman? If blindly tasting and carefully scoring these fabulous wines was a fascinating intellectual exercise, joyfully swigging them while devouring food like this was the emotional counterpoint. I love tasting a good wine. I love tasting it more when it's alongside a piping hot, crisply fried green tomato crusted with cornmeal and bathed in a vibrant, herbal goddess dressing with an abundance of tart feta to finish. The crisp, cool rosés needed something to cut, and Charleen provided them just the rich, lusty menu they needed. In wine terms, Charleen's food isn't for sipping, it's for swigging.

Roasted Squash SaladDominic Armato

Case in point, a salad so anti-fussy in flavor and composition that it's almost comical. As I said to one of the fellows next to me, "You know, sometimes Charleen's food is done with a sneaky amount of precision, looking a little chaotic but actually very, very carefully crafted. And then other times, she just throws big chunks of fabulously delicious things at you." I mean, what qualifies this as a salad, precisely? The arugula? There were huge chunks of roasted squash, cut into all manner of shapes. There were massive wedges of crisp, sweet Asian pear. Full slices of crisp, salty bacon gave the dish some serious gravity, and those intoxicating, sensual fresh figs lurked beneath, sneaking in their complex, almost earthy sweetness from time to time. And the lynchpin? A coy dressing just assertive enough to pull everything together without actually setting foot on the stage.

Spider PigDominic Armato

The evening's official title was "The War of the Rosés and a Hog," in reference to Spider Pig, who was raised and named by Parker Bostock, the son of one of the evening's winemakers, and roasted by Charleen just for the event. With 45 minutes to go before the doors opened, a surprise cancellation spurred Pavle to offer the empty seat on Facebook for free to whomever could name the person who raised Spider Pig. Though no submission was made owing to the last-minute offer, a spirited discussion of whether or not "Homer Simpson" constituted an acceptable answer ensued. My position? If somebody says Homer, you've gotta give it to 'em. Spider Pig arrived, a tangle of rich, succulent meat -- a mix of light and dark -- gently bathed in a salty pork jus that, beyond taking the juiciness over the top, doubled down on the stunning, intense pork flavor. Truly, no beast could hope for more noble an end.

Dominic Armato

And yet, vegetables are Charleen's trademark, and Spider Pig was flanked by a cadre of less meaty accompaniments, including spaghetti squash with a smoky chile puree, sweet and slightly sour peperonata spiked with salty capers, fresh okra with cooling yogurt and toasted hazelnuts, and stunning mesquite-grilled corn slathered in butter and sprinkled with crisply fried "corn nuts" for a fabulous textural finish. I'd promised my dessert to my ladylove, holding down the fort back home, and it was just as well. This was a helluva meal, and just a bite of the yuzu panna cotta with macerated fresh peaches was all I required.

It was a fun and fabulous evening, both delicious and educational. And I look back at my trepidation with regret, first because it was ill-founded. Pavle had more faith in me than I had in myself, and for that, I thank him. Second, because I was that guy. I was the person who drives me nuts... the one who's afraid to talk about food with me for fear of embarrassing himself, who serves up every opinion with an apology, who is lacking the confidence to simply say what he likes and why. That was me. And if I'd realized it sooner, I'm sure it would have made the evening a whole lot more pleasant, not just for myself but for my fellow judges as well (sorry, guys!). Which leads into the most important thing of all: Aroma is aroma. Taste is taste. Balance is balance. And on a gut level, we all know when these things work and when they don't. When you're eating a fabulous dinner and chasing it with amazing wines, none of the bullshit that we geeks geek out about on a daily basis matters. Experiences like this are not for the food and wine elite. They're for everybody. Pavle knew this. My fellow judges knew this. I needed a reminder. We need to never lose sight of that, and I hope that I never cause anybody to feel the trepidation I felt, because there's absolutely no reason for it. This is good food, and this is good wine, and this is for everybody... even when it's coming from Arizona. Believe it.