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Southwest Food Sojourn--Part 1 (long)

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Restaurants & Bars

Southwest Food Sojourn--Part 1 (long)

anewton | May 25, 2008 08:52 AM

Good morning everyone.

My wife and I just returned from an exciting 2 week trip to the southwestern US. We started the journey in Phoenix, then to Tucson, the Gila wilderness, Socorro, Taos, Santa Fe, Flagstaff (where it snowed on May 23rd!) and back to Phoenix.

One of the highlights of the trip was the food, specifically the many great restaurants we discovered. We would not have discovered many of these restaurants without the help of chowhounders. Truthfully, it was the advice of this internet community that proved to be most helpful; when we were steered awry, it was usually on a recommendation from a magazine or travel book.

So allow me to work through my impressions of the meals we had, before these impressions become obscured and muddled by the fog of my memory.

Saturday May 10, Phoenix.

We flew in from our home in Victoria, BC and arrived at Sky Harbour at around 3 pm. After taking a complementary shuttlebus to the WRONG hotel (the airport Doubletree as opposed to the Scottsdale Paradise Valley Doubletree), we were a bit frazzled. We needed a good dinner to calm us down. We were also starving by the time we arrived for our 7 pm dinner reservation at Rancho Pinot Grill.

Rancho Pinot Grill: Service was overstretched and a bit awkward; food was delicious and well-priced. Overall experience was a B+/A-. Not the best meal on the trip, but pretty tasty.

Lornna (my wife) had read about the restaurant's grilled squid salad and was determined to order that as she loves any well-prepared dish with squid. The squid was non-battered (always a good thing), tender as far as squid goes, and nicely complemented by frisee, preserved lemon, and thinly sliced celery. It was a success.

For my appetizer, I enjoyed a salad of roasted beets (both yellow and red), toasted almonds, sheep milk feta, and a citrus vinaigrette; the salad also had small pieces of grapefruit and orange. It too was a success (I love all of the above ingredients, so the restaurant would have had to mess up badly to make me displeased).

Mains: Lornna had a tender, "heritage" pork short rib (braised) served with hominy, cotija cheese, and a radish-cabbage-lime salad. The meat was tender and flavourful, ever-so-slightly sweet but not particularly spicy (as in hot-spicy). The salad was fresh-tasting and colourful, and its lime-y acidity was a nice counterpart to the much heavier pork.

Adam: Ordered "Nonni's" Sunday Chicken...braised thigh meat with white wine, mushrooms, and herbs served over toasted polenta and topped with "grated Italian cheeses" (the restaurant menu's quote, not mine). This dish was a knock-out. I love chicken thigh-meat anyway, but to braise it in white wine, herbs, and mushrooms and to serve it over polenta that was toasted (I presume in a cast iron frying pan?) was heavenly. I would love to know how the restaurant cooked the polenta (other than the toasting part, which I can figure out) because it was some of the best I have had and had none of the snotty, gummy texture that polenta can take on if not prepared properly.

Now to the most important part, the drinks! Lornna started with a limoncello cooler--gin, soda, limoncello, and lemon juice. It was a boozy cocktail, but she liked it as she has a soft spot for limoncello. She had this on its own, before any food arrived.

The wine service was the one sore spot during the evening. The wine list was very promising, with many, many offerings (I couldn't tell you how many, but let's just say that it was in the hundreds if not thousands). We decided, based on the food we were ordering, that we would stick to white wine. I wanted to try something I had not previously tasted.

I asked the server about the Alban Viognier 2006. I had read good reviews of Alban wines, and I almost always love viognier, both old world and new. The server shot a blank look and said, "that would be fine." A completely inscrutable response. And so I asked him if there was a white wine that he would recommend that would complement the food we had ordered. He paused, and then said, "No, if you are going to stick with white wine during your meal, that would be a fine choice." I could be reaching, but I detected from his tone of voice that either: a) he did not like white wine or b) he did not know much about white wine. Either way, I could tell that I was not going to get much help in choosing the appropriate wine for the meal.

Now, of course I could have asked to speak to the sommelier, but: 1) we were tired from traveling 2) the restaurant was packed and there were clearly not enough servers on the floor to deal effectively with all of the tables 3) The server did not indicate that the Alban Viognier was a bad choice, so I assumed that it was worth trying.

The wine was not bad, per se, but it was not the greatest FOOD wine. For starters, it had the overwhelming vanilla oak taste that all-too-often typify California whites (not just California chardonnays). Secondly, it was quite hot-tasting, and at 15.8% Alc/Vol was an absolute alcohol-monster by white-wine standards. It did have some discernable minerality, and the acidity was there, but it did not shine with the pure apricot flavours that are prevalent in many wines made from viognier. Not a great choice for the pairing. I wish our server had acknowledged his lack of expertise with regards to this wine (or with regards to white wine in general) and had sent the sommelier to provide further assistance.

Anyway, dessert was delicious and sure to please: moist chocolate cake served with espresso ice cream, chocolate sauce, and caramel. No misteps there!

A final note: the house olive oil at Rancho Pinot is delicious! I asked about it and was told it was from a local (to greater Phoenix) producer called Queen Creek. For all you Phoenicians reading this, I heartily recommend tracking down a bottle of Queen Creek olive oil.

Sunday, May 11 (Phoenix)

Overeasy (breakfast). Food: B Service: A- Overall experience: B+

We had a fun, satisfying breakfast here. We sat at the counter watching the action in the open kitchen; I did not envy those poor cooks flying around in that small, hot space. Made me realize why I would never wish to work in the restaurant industry.

Drinks: We shared a delicious ginger-mint lemonade. So refreshing on a hot day! (I could have ordered 2!)

Food: The restaurant's name-sake dish, "the Over-Easy." Toasted brioche with spinach, a fried egg (over-easy, of course), bacon, and bacon pan jus. Lornna and I both ordered this dish, and while greasy, it was good hearty fare to carry us through a long, hot Mother's Day morning at the Desert Botanical Gardens.

Have to go for now, will post more later!!!

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