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.

 

Fall is for Feasting, Part 3 – November: KS, Regina, SK

For many across the country, fall has long been over and many have been forced to succumb to being plunged into winter earlier than the calendar says – yet again. But luckily the warm comfort foods for the fall bode well for the winter like conditions that have blanketed a good part of the U.S. in the last month. If there hasn’t been snow and ice, there has certainly been cold temps.

Here in Kansas, we have seen several weeks of below normal temps with a smattering of warm days thrown in just to tease us into thinking that winter is still a ways away. But the homes lit up for the holidays alert me to the fact that indeed it tis’ the season to stoke the fireplace, decorate for the winter season, and enjoy all the hearty foods that come along with ‘falling into winter.’

A couple of weeks ago I was in Regina, Saskatchewan, not generally a winter destination or known as a food mecca, but the local eateries have earned the right to have a mention in this blog post. Flip Eatery & Drink has a menu that is as creative as their website. One section is called, “comfort plates.” How can you not like a place like this? The top item in this section of the menu is “Spinach Spaetzle” – a bed of house-made potato spaetzle loaded with hunks of beets and yams and tomatoes, a smattering of spinach and mushrooms, topped off with a dollop of goat cheese. Washed down with a “Bourbon Wallbanger” and I was ready to battle the below zero temps that awaited me out on the streets or Regina.

Spinach Spaetzle at Flip Eatery in Regina, SK, Canada is listed as one of their ‘comfort plates’

Other places to check out in Regina are:

The Keg: for great steaks at a reasonable price. Ask for a table by the fireplace.

Original Joes: check our their ‘Winter Warm-up’ menu and indulge in a ‘Bacon-Tomato Soup’ or a ‘French Onion Boar Burger.’

Hotel Saskatchewan – The Dining Roomone of the best and most expansive Sunday brunch in the city to keep you going all the day long.

Back to the states, and back to Kansas, to continue my search for restaurants worthy enough to venture out of the comfort of my own home to be served a delectable meal or try a fun new drink. Enter 801 Fish – one of several restaurants specializing in seafood in the Kansas City metro area, but I think this white tablecloth eatery has the freshest and most appealing dishes of any I have visited. Start out with a plate of fresh oysters or as I prefer cooked “Oysters Rockefeller,” followed by a “Pan Seared Florida Grouper” served over sweet potato puree and sided with parmesan gnocchi and sautéed rainbow chard and you will realize eating fish doesn’t necessarily mean eating light.

Grouper served on sweet potato puree with sides of parmesan gnocchi and swiss chard at 801 Fish, Leawood, KS

Grouper served on sweet potato puree with sides of parmesan gnocchi and rainbow chard at 801 Fish, Leawood, KS

Another great eatery in Kansas worth checking out is the very quaint Cafe’ Provence – located in Prairie Village, it is a traditional French restaurant that has earned the respect for a need to call ahead reservation to be able to get a table. The ‘Crumble de Foie Gras aux Pommes’ is a pan-seared foie gras that truly does melt in your mouth. Followed by a plate of French cheeses served with fresh French Bread and I could’ve stopped right there. But no – I continued on with a ‘Roasted Duck Breast served with a parsnip puree, chestnut bread pudding, fig and honey gastrique.’ My meal should’ve been complete, but I could not say no to a ‘Salted Caramel Creme’ Brûlée’ to polish off the evening.

Roasted Duck Breast served with potato puree, chestnut break putting topped with a fig gastrique at Cafe' Provence, Prairie Village, KS

Roasted Duck Breast served with potato puree, chestnut break putting topped with a fig gastrique at Cafe’ Provence, Prairie Village, KS

Other great KC restaurants worthy of the effort:

Story: their sleek modern decor is in direct contrast to the traditional ambience of Cafe’ Provence which sits right across the street. The food is creative America with European influences.

801 Chophouse (upscale steakhouse) and Pig & Finch (innovative pub): are sister restaurants to 801 Fish and are in the same Town Centre Leawood neighborhood.

I would be remiss to finish off ‘Fall is for Feasting’ without making mention of the feast of all American feasts – Thanksgiving. As with many families I know, this is our favorite holiday – no pressure of gift giving or any other expectations other than to create a banquet of food to tantalize all the senses. It has become tradition in our family for my daughter and husband to fix the meal. I choose the menu, and then sit back with a mug of mulled cider and watch the two of them have at it!

This year we tried a new way to cook the turkey called ‘spatchcocking.’ This only works with a smaller bird, which was fine as it was just three of us this year. You remove the breast-bone and then splay the bird into a butterfly fashion. The bird cooks quicker, the skin gets crispier and the meat more tender. For sides: green beans with sautéed mushrooms, gruyere cheese and bacon and topped with bread crumbs; butter mashed potatoes; sour dough stuffing with Italian sausage, sautéed onions, filberts; cranberry sauce infused with rosemary; mushroom creamed gravy; and for dessert homemade pumpkin pie with a caramel pecan sauce and a salted butter apple tart.

Spatchcocked Turkey is apparently the new way to cook a turkey to get the crispiest skin and the most tender meat in a lot less cooking time

Spatchcocked Turkey is apparently the new way to cook a turkey to get the crispiest skin and the most tender meat in a lot less cooking time

From my family to yours, I wish you all a Happy Holiday Season!!

Our son was not able to join us for Thanksgiving dinner as he had college basketball commitments.

(Our son was not able to join us for Thanksgiving dinner as he had college basketball commitments.)