I freely admit that I am not a fan of the reality shows on the Food Network. I miss the recipe-based shows and early Food TV celebrities like Sarah Molton and David Rosengarten. However, I still had a burst of pride when I saw that Mark Tarbell had beat Cat Cora during the Iron Chef America contest.
According to the press, Phoenix metro has produced two Iron Chef America winners and I pleased to hear that. Knowing that Tarbell had won, I planned to take J. to Tarbell’s at 32nd Street and Camelback for dinner. I made our reservations and we both put on our fancier duds for a night out.
Arriving at Tarbell’s, we were cheerfully greeted and escorted to a very nice window table for four. We made ourselves comfortable and began our survey of the menu. J. immediately noticed that Tarbell’s winning Iron Chef menu was prominently featured a the top of the first page but we ultimately decided to go al a carte.
Our server arrived and offered to take our drink order. We requested two Diet Cokes ($2.00 each). When he returned with the drinks, he also brought a basket of bread and a small ramekin of olive oil. I thought the bread was rather mundane. J. thought the bread was completely one-dimensional. It wasn’t horrible; it just seemed to lack any complex or complementary flavors like buttery or salty or sweet. I wasn’t sure what was up with the olive oil, but I had a strange medicinal taste to it.
When our server returned, we placed our order. J. started with the Fried Calamari ($12.00) which would be followed by the Halibut with Acorn Squash ($32.00). I selected the Caesar Salad ($11.00) for my appetizer and the Double Pork Chop ($33.00) for my entrée. We also decided to try a plate of the Pomme Frites ($7.00).
I mentioned to J. that I really liked the surroundings. The interior was dark with light reflecting off the bright, white table clothes. The decoration was minimal, but the atmosphere and the view of the kitchen gave the place a comfortable and clubby feel. I also liked our table next to the window.
We only waited about 10 minutes before our appetizers arrived. My Caesar Salad was plentiful and traditional with Romaine lettuce, Caesar dressing, croutons, Parmesan cheese and a hint of anchovy. It was a competent and straight-forward creation and presentation. I was also pleased the salad was very cold which kept the lettuce crunchy.
J.’s Fried Calamari was also quite large in the quantity department. A long, rectangular plate was filled with the crisp rings of squid and accompanied by two dipping sauces. J. found the presentation pleasing and thought the calamari was very good. However, J. wasn’t thrilled with the breading as it was literally falling off the calamari with the touch of a fork. Thankfully, the squid made up for the breading issue by not being chewy, but delicate and slightly sweet.
The plate of Pommes Frites was also a large serving and the golden color of the potatoes was appealing. We both liked the fact the fries were very crisp on the outside and yet tender on the inside. The amount of salt sprinkled on them was perfect, but we felt that they would have been enhanced by some sort of sauce or additional seasoning.
Between the appetizers and the entrees, we did encounter a problem in getting our water and drink glasses filled. I am not sure if our server was over-extended in his serving area, but on a couple of occasions, we had to bring it to his attention that our water glasses were sitting empty.
Our entrees arrived and I was pleased at the appearance of my Double Pork Chop. The exterior had dark grill marks on a canvas of dark amber. The chop was fairly large and rested on a bed of butternut squash stuffing and sautéed spinach. The meat on the chop was tender and moist, but slightly overcooked. Still it had a very pleasant smoky aftertaste that I enjoyed. The stuffing was an interesting mix of textures with the bread being soft and the cubes of squash providing a bit of roughness to the dish. I would have appreciated a bit more seasoning on the stuffing. The spinach was top notch and I loved the infusion of garlic. I was a bit confused by the reduction sauce. It really looked gorgeous on the plate, but the taste was non-existent. I dredged a bit of the stuffing through the sauce and all I got was a bit of additional saltiness. Overall, the chop was a solid choice with the spinach being the unqualified winner on the plate.
J.’s Halibut with Roasted Acorn Squash was quite pretty. The orange color of the squash and the green leaves from the Brussels sprouts made the white, flaky halibut pop out visually. J. liked the fish and the squash but found but felt the dish sounded much better in theory than it was in execution. There wasn’t any “wow factor” to the dish and J. said it “just came across as a nice piece of halibut.”
After our meals, we debated about dessert and decided to each get one. J. went for the Bread Pudding ($11.00) and I had the Spice Bread ($11.00). There was only a few minutes break between ordering and the desserts arriving. J.’s Bread Pudding was dense and looked appealing. J. had no complaints about the taste other than it needing a bit more sauce. The pudding was filled with plenty of raisins and a hint of cinnamon.
My Spice Bread was interesting in that it was served with a small dollop of Pumpkin Ice Cream. I thought the bread had far too much spice in the mix and that hid the rich, earthy pumpkin flavor as well as killing off the subtle flavors of the ice cream, which just came across on my palate as cold. Overall, I was disappointed with the dessert, and J. commented that the $11.00 price tag for each dessert was a bit excessive.
We requested our bill and the total was $131.04 including tax. The service was professional, but somewhat stoic and we did have to request refills a few times.
J. and I made the quick drive back home and we talked about our experience. The verdict was that Tarbell’s was a solid choice with some very good selections and an inviting atmosphere. However, we also realized that Tarbell’s didn’t cross over into the “outstanding” category for us. I am not sure exactly what it was that kept this restaurant on the cusp between very good and great, but we both expressed that we expected just a little bit more from Tarbell’s. Did we expect too much from Tarbell’s after a great showing on Iron Chef America? Or was Tarbell’s playing it safe in the kitchen?
I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from going to Tarbell’s. After all, it was a pleasant meal. I wish I could put my finger on what it was that was missing.
In the final analysis, I just wish there had been more Iron Chef America inspiration with the items we ordered.
3213 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Dress: Business casual on up.
Hours: Monday through Saturday - 5 PM to 10 PM; Sunday - 5 PM to 9 PM.
Notes: Next to Sportsman’s Wine Shop on the southeast corner of 32nd Street and Camelback.
Alcohol: Full bar service.
Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com
3213 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ 85018