Springtime Spreads – Phoenix, KC, Naples (FL), NYC, Martha’s Vineyard – part 1

Even though I missed submitting a food review in the end of April and now May, I did accomplish one very important task – getting my family and friends trained to not take a bite of food before I take photos of their delectable plated food whenever we head out to taste test a new restaurant. I do get a few curious looks from other patrons or wait-staff wondering why I am taking pics of every course of food – I’ll have to get better about dropping my business card on the table so restaurants can check out my reviews.

Because it’s been such a long time between food review posts and my daughter and I have eaten at several great restaurants in that time period, I am just going to get down to business and get right into the reviews and tantalizing pictures!

First off is my daughter’s review of several of her favorite sandwich haunts in NYC:

Despite the cultural cachet the deli sandwich has in New York, I’ve always had a hard time justifying $10 for two pieces of bread and various toppings when I could buy a whole loaf, a packet of prosciutto, and a block of cheese for not much more and eat for a week at home. Last week, Cheeky Sandwiches (35 Orchard St, between Canal and Hester) forever changed my mind on the matter of the sandwich. First off, their menu items are not $9 to $11–all too pervasively the norm–but $6.50 to $8.50, no tax added. Chicken, beef, pork, grass, veggie, sea (that last one a choice of po boy done with shrimp, oyster, or half and half). That’s all you get, and that’s all you need. I started from the top: an idyllic proportion of fried chicken breast, crunchy coleslaw, and thick gravy on a homemade flaky biscuit. The place has a thrown-together look: a narrow wooden bar painted the kind of white that’s dirty before it dries, one low communal table, and a few bright blue accents. But the service is casual-friendly, and that sandwich so good I dragged my finger across the paper wrapping to capture every last drop of rich-but-not-too-rich gravy. Though Cheeky is out of my way both from work and home, by the end of the summer I imagine I’ll have worked my way pretty far down that menu list.

Mouth-watering, finger licking chicken sandwich from Cheeky Sandwiches.

For all my slavering, Cheeky isn’t the only sandwich shop in New York that’s convinced me to return for round two. My college favorite was a classic, if more upscale, Italian deli in Morningside Heights called Milano Market (2892 Braodway, between 112th and 113th streets), which, horrifyingly, garnered a small amount of internet fame after an employee followed Forest Whitaker around the store [LINK:TK]. The real draw here is the variety of gourmet bread: rosemary and sea salt focaccia, caramelized onion, a crackling ciabatta. In terms of unusual fillings, I steer towards Num Pang’s (various locations, including Chelsea Market and 28 East 12th Street) Cambodian take on the bánh mi. With an orange chalk-drawn rooster for a logo, this lunch spot serves up coconut tiger shrimp, ginger barbecue brisket, or five-spice glazed pork belly with cucumber, pickled carrots, and sheaves of fresh cilantro on a fat baguette. It’s messy desk eating, almost always worth it.

A delectable sandwich from Num Pang's in lower Manhattan.

A delectable sandwich from Num Pang’s in lower Manhattan.

If you are visiting any of the locations listed in the title, you won’t go wrong checking out any of the following restaurants:

Phoenix:

The Herb Box – simple. fresh. unique. is how they market themselves – and I’d say that is right on. Their lunches are great, but my favorite dishes are served for brunch/breakfast. Sit outside and take in the ambience and people watching at DC Ranch Marketplace. Scottsdale.

Baby kale, green apple and brie omelet served with coffee-molases glazed bacon, served at the Herb Box in DC Ranch.

Baby kale, green apple and brie omelet served with coffee-molases glazed bacon, served at the Herb Box.

Que Bueno – authentic Mexican food in a casual setting. Since 2003, it has been my families tradition to go to the local Fountain Hills Mexican restaurant on the night we arrive. The food is decent, but their two-fisted margaritas are tasty and their award-winning salsa is bursting with flavor. Fountain Hills.

Since 2003, it has been my families tradition to go to the local Fountain Hills Mexican restaurant on the night we arrive. The food is decent, but their two fisted margaritas are tasty and their award winning salsa is bursting with flavor.

Tilapia tacos in soft shells served with rice and beans.

The Vu – light of day or dark of night, the Vu Bistro offers one of the valley’s most spectacular views of the Phoenix valley. Sip a glass of wine from their minimal but strong wine list, while nibbling on their loaded cheese plate and watch the sun go down over Eagle Mountain, in this casual setting. Fountain Hills.

Sip a glass of wine while taking in the breathtaking views from the Vu Bistro.

Sip a glass of wine while taking in the breathtaking views from the Vu Bistro.

Kansas City:

Fritz’s Meat Market – they have ‘smoking’ meat perfected. How often have you bought pork chops that become dry before you get them from the oven or grill to the table? Fritz’s double thick cut smoked pork chop only needs to be warmed through – all that’s left to do is savor the flavor and texture.

Kansas City's oldest smokehouse does pork chops up right.

Kansas City’s oldest smokehouse does pork chops up right.

Strouds’s – the name is synonymous with ‘pan-fried chicken’ – the ultimate flavor in down home comfort food. Come hungry! All portions are large and to be shared. Start with a half order of fried liver and gizzards. Dinners come with a mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and a basket of cinnamon rolls.

Fried chicken dinner served family style at Stroud's in KC.

Fried chicken dinner served family style at Stroud’s in KC.

Gram & Dun – sophisticated. soulful. unique – is how they market themselves. In a prime Plaza location, with a large outdoor patio area, be prepared to sip on fun libation concoctions and dine on flavors ranging from uniquely paired salads to savory southern comfort plates.

Double pork chop, breaded, served over creamed brussel sprouts with house-smoked bacon.

Double pork chop, breaded, served over creamed brussel sprouts with house-smoked bacon.

Naples:

Edgewater Beach Resort – if staying at one of the few oceanside hotels, you won’t go hungry or thirsty. Fresh seafood is an obvious choice – whether it’s a thick cut of grouper or blackened fish taco’s, be sure to check out their unique beverage menus – refreshing fruity poolside choices or bourbon based bar choices.

It doesn't get much fresher than pan seared grouper, from Edgewater Beach Resort, Naples, FL

It doesn’t get much fresher than pan seared grouper, from Edgewater Beach Resort.

Cafe Lurcat – ‘…old world style with a nouveau twist.’ A hip, expansive restaurant with patio seating and more upstairs seating, the focus is on high-end American comfort food. The Fifth Avenue location is a great pairing to enjoy a before or after dinner stroll and take in all the high-end shopping found in Naples.

Crispy Pollo Loco with Achiote-Chili Rub, Avocado Crema, Roasted Tomato from the 'Voyage' part of the menu.

Crispy Pollo Loco with Achiote-Chili Rub, Avocado Crema, Roasted Tomato from the ‘Voyage’ part of the menu.

Campiello – this is place to be seen in Naples. The large square bar – half inside/half outside – is always packed, and is flanked on each side by indoor dining and patio dining. Italian fare featuring a traditional Tuscan flavor using dry and fresh pastas paired with great sauces, meats and seafood and specialty items.

Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse Cake, Campiello Ristorante & Bar, Naples

Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse Cake, Campiello Ristorante & Bar, Naples

Next week I will finish off with food reviews from NYC and Martha’s Vineyards! I know it’s hard to overload on good food, but didn’t want you to overload on good food reviews! I will also create a food review gallery to see more pics of the yummy dishes we’ve been indulging in!

Winter – a bountiful banquet of food and beverages – part 2: Phoenix Valley and NYC

Living in a popular destination spot like Phoenix, I receive a lot of requests from out-of-town guests as to where to eat when they come to the valley. My family and I have vacationed or lived in the valley for many years and during that time we have compiled a list of several restaurants that have filtered out to be some of our favorites.

Although ambience is a nice asset to any dining experience, it is generally the food that brings us back again and again. Our restaurant list varies from the family owned Los Dos Molinos – a trio of authentic Mexican restaurants known for spicy food and Kick-Ass margaritas; to the fine dining experiences at any one of the Mastro’s Steakhouses in the valley – both of which I have blogged about in the past.

If you’re looking for a romantic evening out, it does not get much better than Lon’s, at the Hermosa Inn, tucked back into a residential area in Paradise Valley, just east of the Biltmore area. A soft glow eminates from lights hung from the low overhanging branches of the many trees that pepper the front outside eating area. Or you can dine closer to the bee hive fireplace on cooler evenings.

Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn for a romantic dinner. (copyright Jill Richards)

The food is garden-to-table fine dining American cuisine – the garden being a one acre plot right outside the kitchen, inclusive of fruit trees to kick up both food and cocktails. With to share dishes such as ‘Truffle Mac’ or ‘Blistered Peppers;’ or main dishes such as ‘Dry-Aged Strip with Chimchurri sauce’ or the ‘Pork Chop served with polenta and poached baby apples’ – the whole dining experience is one not to be missed.

If Italian is what you’re craving, I’d recommend checking out Casa Mia. An understated, but newly renovated, small restaurant run by an Italian family, tucked in a mostly empty line of retail spaces just off of Shea on 136th Street. The fact this place is hard to get into without a little forethought, goes to its reputation as being a destination eatery that has earned it’s business through word of mouth. And those are happy mouths sated  by homemade pastas like the melt in your mouth pillows of gnocchi with basil and fresh tomato sauce, or any of their veal or fish dishes. And mama’s homemade bread to sop of all the delectable sauces.

A new Scottsdale favorite to check out is Soi 4 Bangkok eatery. An authentic Thai restaurant with fresh and flavorful dishes like the ‘Neur pad tua’ – stir-fried Angus steak cubes with snap peas and onion rings in mild roasted chili jam, washed down with unique cocktails like cilantro infused vodka with lime juice served in a salty spiced rimmed martini glass. Very friendly service in a sleek contemporary setting.

One of the delectable small plates at Soi 4 Thai restaurant in Scottsdale.

If you head into Fountain Hills, you can again hit the gammet of dining experiences. From your basic Mexican food at Que Bueno: I recommend their patron silver margarita on the rocks with salt that comes in a large thick glass that requires two hands to drink from served with their award-winning salsa and warm chips; to the newly opened Italian restaurant Arrivederci (there are more in the valley) that has a great view of the world-famous fountain; to one of our favorite restaurants in the valley, Alchemy at Copperwynd, offering up one of the finest views in all of Fountain Hills and the valley.

Alchemy restaurant at Copperwynd in Fountain Hills. One of the best views in the valley.

Alchemy has been through several changes over the years, but these days you are assured of a tantalizing menu, fresh and flavorful dishes served by professional waitstaff. For the ‘Crispy Brussel Sprouts’ the chef peels the leaves off of each sprout and lightly crisps them with flavors of Worcestershire gastrique, truffle oil and cojita. Absolutely to die for! The ‘Burrata Panzella’ salad with pumpernickel croutons, figs, butternut squash and roasted tomato vinaigrette bursts with flavor. The ‘Sea Scallops’ – served with a grilled mushroom puree, snap peas, brown butter breadcrumbs and hibiscus syrup are so flavorful they have a hard time keeping up to the evenings demand for them.

If you need a quick pick me up or a late night snack, Senor Taco is our family go to fast food joint. An expansive menu with some creative Mexican dishes to rival a much higher end restaurant. Known for their shrimp burritos, they also go bold with such feasts as the California burrito – filled with carne asada or pollo asado, french fries, sour cream, salsa fresca & cheese.

A carne asada soft shell taco from Senor Taco, Fountain Hills.

A carne asada soft shell taco from Senor Taco, Fountain Hills.

My daughter, Allison, hit a few new hot spots in NYC:

Knowing the chef helps

Though I love consuming their artistry in every shape, size, and color, I’ve never managed to befriend any chefs. Luckily, I have two friends with sous-chefs for brothers. In the first two months of 2015, I ate for the first time at both of their restaurants: Txikito, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and Charlie Bird, in the western reaches of SoHo, also called the South Village.

Knowing the (sous) chef doesn’t mean you get a meal for free, but it does mean that every plate you order comes hand-in-hand with an even better one you didn’t; that everyone treats you with an extra dose of kindness; and that you’ll still pay less than the listed price.

Txikito is an upscale Basque tapas restaurant, and the friend whose brother works there is Chilean. Translation: small plates, major flair. It’s been a month, and I can still easily conjure up the languid texture of the “txipiron encebollado” ($16)–a lavish pile of squid ribbons tossed with sweet onions and pine nuts. Plated in the shape of a flattened rose, the octopus carpaccio ($15) was at once rich and delicate, oil-soaked and airy. The kroketas of the day, filled with cheese and salty cod, tasted like warmth itself. But the crowned prince of the night was the Spanish version of French toast, stolen off the brunch menu of Txikito’s sister restaurant La Vara and served up as dessert. Pillowed dough, caramelized syrup, and a whiff of citrus. The evening was blustery, a Monday, but the restaurant was still filled with a happy murmur. Just slow enough though for our chef to bring out one of his dishes himself and pull out the empty chair at our table for a humble hello.

Txikito restaurant in NYC. (picture by gourmet.com)

In contrast, I saw Charlie Bird at prime time. Late on a Thursday night. The restaurant bills itself as a little bit hip hop, influenced by downtown culture and the history of street art and jazz (the name is a fusion of Charlie Parker and his nickname “Bird”). So I was surprised to find the space awash in light, subdued colors: cream tables, bourbon-hued bucket chairs, walls the color of book pages. To our left, lined up above a bank of mustard-colored booth seating, was the bit of pizzazz I’d been expecting: a framed series of hyper-realistic boombox photographs. The only fault critics seem to have found with Charlie Bird’s food is its saltiness. If it’s too salty for them, they can leave the eating to me. Burrata toast ($12), farro salad ($16), gnocchi rosa ($18), crispy smoked eggplant ($10), pappardelle with rabbit ($20), and the rice krispie-laced chocolate budino ($12)–we ate it all and somehow heaved ourselves out of our chairs after. I’ve also read they have an excellent barolo on the menu, but even with the chef hook-up, that was a little too fancy for our wallets.

Charlie Bird eatery in NYC.

Charlie Bird eatery in NYC.