Modern twists give classic Italian desserts a kick in the posteriore.
6106 S. 32nd St., Phoenix, 602-276-0601, qatthefarm.com
Classic Italian desserts aren’t always the most fetching. Tiramisu is generally a drab slab of cake, and panna cotta is nothing more than an ordinary cup of custard. However, turn one of these homespun standards over to a gourmet chef, and it goes from “ho hum” to “holy cow.” Exhibit A: the honey panna cotta from Quiessence. Inspired by McClendon Farms’ blood oranges, Chef Dustin Christofolo collaborated with pastry chef Kelly Prine to incorporate the striking maroon citrus into a light, seasonal dessert that takes advantage of the edible flower garden outside Quiessence’s door. Cooking the honey- and vanilla bean-infused custard in a pretty fluted mold is the first step to this visually stunning dessert. Tableside, the server slowly pours a rosy “broth” of blood orange juice sweetened with edible flower simple syrup into a shallow bowl holding the milky white panna cotta and a scoop of blood orange sorbet. A scattering of miniature flowers gently floats to the surface. It’s bella and delizioso all at once.
The notoriously tough mollusk turns tender in these elite Valley kitchens.
Nobuo at Teeter House
622 E. Adams St., Phoenix, 602-254-0600, nobuofukuda.com
If your only experience eating octopus was akin to chewing on a hockey puck, it’s time to tame the tendril. Long a favorite staple in Mediterranean countries and Japan, the eight-arm sea creature is suddenly the Valley’s trendiest dish, but it takes patience and know-how to keep the cephalopod from turning into semi-edible rubber. James Beard award-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda starts with octopus from Hokkaido, where “the water is cold and the meat is sweet.” He prepares it the traditional Japanese way, massaging salt into the skin for at least 30 minutes. Sliced thin, the meat is treated to a quick dance on the grill, barely enough time to get acquainted. Paired with Spanish olive oil, a slice of ripe tomato, house-made mozzarella, a paper-thin slice of shallot and a single pink peppercorn, these tender, spoon-size bites ($16) aren’t for suckers.
Slurp-worthy bowls of soul bring Valley ramen science to a full boil.
Ramen mania has arrived. Long considered Japanese comfort food akin to a bowl of chicken noodle soup, the dish has migrated out of dorm rooms and onto fine-dining menus. What's not to like? At improvisational-dining trailblazer Posh, chef Josh Hebert starts with a piping-hot bowl of umami-rich broth, which he fills with bouncy noodles and a cornucopia of garnishes.
Ring in the new year with a delicious dose of this South American "superfood."
True Food Kitchen
Two Valley locations, foxrc.com
If "eat healthier" tops your list of New Year's resolutions, you'd do well to get acquainted with quinoa, the seed of a spinach-like South American plant that packs a whopping punch of nutrition for its pinhead size. Considered a "complete protein" for its full boat of essential amino acids, nutty-flavored quinoa isn't just good for your health – it tastes fantastic. Exhibit A: the "inside- out" quinoa burger at True Food Kitchen. Creating the dish was something of a riddle for Executive Chef Michael Stebner. Too many carbs are a True Foods no-no, and with a carb-laden patty (quinoa needs filler to hold it together), things could get out of control pretty quickly. Thinking outside the box, Stebner crafted the bun itself out of quinoa. Stebner loves the flavors of gyros, so the red quinoa "bun" tastes of cumin, mint and lemon, filled with a smear of hummus, sliced avocado, tomato, tzatziki-dressed cucumbers and red onion, and crumbled feta. Here's to your health.
Valley chefs elevate a humble comfort classic. Hint: Lobster helps.
If the last pot pie you ate came in a flimsy tin from the freezer, it’s time to get reacquainted with this timeless staple. Every cuisine has some variant of a steaming, savory stew wrapped in warm pastry dough. Most are modest dishes, but every once in a while a chef will fuss with the humble pie, elevating it from pauper to princely fare. Michael Mina’s signature lobster pot pie is one such regal feast – market priced at $75 on our visit. Why so pricey? Because of the pristine two-pound lobster and elaborate presentation. The hefty crustacean is shelled and nestled into a copper pot with pearl onions, potatoes, wild mushrooms and carrots. Smothered in a creamy, brandy-infused lobster sauce, the pot’s prized contents are sealed with buttery pie dough. After baking, the pot is rushed tableside. A server ceremoniously cuts the golden crust off and places it on a plate before mounding the sea-scented bounty on top, finishing with a ladle of luscious lobster cream. 7575 E. Princess Dr., Scottsdale, 480-513-6002, scottsdaleprincess.com/dining/bourbon-steak
Duck – dubbed the “new pork” by foodies – gets top billing at Valley restaurants.
7133 E. Stetson Dr., Scottsdale
You’ve got to love a person who bills herself as the “sweet tooth seductress.” That would be Country Velador, who invents the recipes and handcrafts all the desserts at this eclectic Old Town Scottsdale restaurant. We bow to her for everything, but especially for her wondrous Warm Apple Cobbler on Quack, a fruity delight drizzled with Brie crema and partnered with a big scoop of insanely rich duck-fat ice cream. The dessert doesn’t look so unusual when it hits the table – just a long-handled bowl of hot apple goodness, topped with buttery sugar crumbs. But one bite, and it’s a fowl ball. The duck fat lends decadent delight and lovely richness without going over the top. Other Ciao duck dishes that elevate the humble bird include an entrée of savory Tuscan duck sausage stew (the sausage is house-made, of course) stocked with white beans and juicy black kale, plus a chile relleno to beat all chiles rellenos. This version comes stuffed with velvety duck confit, queso Oaxaca, cheddar and roasted shallots, all smothered in roasted guajillo chile-tomatillo salsa.
Tracy Dempsey Originals
Pastry chef goddess Tracy Dempsey hardly needs help making her magical desserts taste better. Her Tempe-based boutique kitchen didn’t become the sweets-supplier of choice for Citizen Public House, Stockyards, Crudo, Alchemy at the Copperwynd Resort, and NOCA by accident. Still, finding select desserts in little Ball canning jars is a welcome touch of whimsy, sort of like gourmet pudding cups for grown ups. Her recipes tend to change with the seasons, but one reliable treasure is the Dream Pudding Jar of dark chocolate pudding, peanut butter caramel, and salted chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies dolloped in whipped cream. The Black and Tan is another stellar sweet, made with a rich, billowy and crunchy layering of dark chocolate pot de crème, caramel pudding, whipped cream, pretzel brittle and brown sugar shortbreads. The brittle sticks out of the cloud of cream like a sturdy spoon, while the shortbreads beg to be nibbled between each pudding bite. No one will judge you for that telltale squeak of metal against glass as you scrape up every last bit with a real spoon, either, since they’re all doing it, too.