Desert Botanical Garden’s new eatery blossoms with strong seasonal offerings and stellar service.
It’s fitting that the restaurant at Desert Botanical Garden is named after Gertrude Divine Webster, and not just because Gertrude’s is divine. After all, it was the late society matron who ponied up $10,000 to open the garden in 1939, forever seeding its succulent-strewn pathways with her presence and vision. Still, Gertrude’s almost wasn’t Gertrude’s. If Arizona Culinary Institute grad Stephen K. Eldridge hadn’t replaced Payton Curry as the founding chef, “Bounty” might instead be written in bold red lettering on the eatery’s stone facade.
Call it serendipity, but the new name works. Prickly pear wall reliefs from artist Larry Kornegay above the U-shaped bar evoke an Art Deco feel, mitigating the modernity of polished concrete floors and massive glass windows. The staff at Gertrude’s provides the kind of service Ms. Webster would’ve expected; Eldridge regularly visits tables, and servers offer heat lamps or umbrellas whenever guests bristle at the fickle temperatures outside. On one visit, I unexpectedly scored free dessert when a kitchen staffer accidentally knocked my clunky purse off a bar stool.
Eldridge’s menus emphasize the farm-to-table concept, with seasonal guest stars such as sweet potato, orange and peas. Salads are given their proper due, a wise move considering the rows of fragrant thyme and foot-wide lettuce on display in the nearby Steele Herb Garden. The staid beet salad with goat cheese ($6 half/$12 whole) – a snoozer on paper – gets a colorful twist with three varieties of the taproot, while a modified Niçoise goes incognito as salmon salad ($17). In the latter, salted fingerlings and crunchy vegetables contrast with the delicate texture of the flaky fish.
Pea and mint salad ($7 half/$12 whole) is a perfect summertime refresher, boasting a bright, clean flavor grounded by nutty parmesan. The legume and its mint sidekick also elevate the gently charred exterior of plump diver scallops ($14). Delectable sea critters aside, the emerald ocean of pea puree with its rafts of curled mushrooms is a plate-licker. Ditto for the bed of celery root puree accompanying the shrimp appetizer ($10). The poor crustaceans are relegated to second chair by the starchy mass studded with thick, sticky-sweet lardons of house-cured bacon.
Other notable appetizers include creamy burrata with berries ($11), a sweet starter tamed by fatty duck prosciutto, and the transcendent Brussels + Breakfast ($9). An oozy egg coddled in cored brioche and smothered with sprouts, Chef Eldridge’s take on “eggy in a basket” showcases his mastery of opposing notes. What little bitterness remains in the greens is foiled by the addition of Banyuls, a fortified French wine. Eldridge is a master ingredient manipulator. Order the dish sans onion jam or fail to mix flavors on your fork, and you’ll miss what his cuisine is all about.
At the head of a meaty main dish lineup is Swine ($21), a trio of grilled pork loin, smoked hock and house-made sausage. While the sausage lacked zest, the moist, herb-encrusted loin and flavorful hock inspired my companions to squeal its praises all the way home. The dull-sounding Natural Chicken ($21) is unexpectedly succulent, with a tasty herb-crusted skin. Similarly, vinegary milk stout marinade boosted the juiciness of Niman Strip Loin ($30) accompanied by addictive basil fregola (a couscous-like Sardinian pasta).
Even the Sonoran Dog ($11), a Southwest staple typically relegated to taco shacks and food trucks, satisfies with ample bites of grassy avocado and starchy tepary beans atop a succulent Schreiner’s wiener. Only red chile short ribs ($20) come up short, diminished by pungent sauce and a tough texture that had me gnawing the meat like a pooch with a bone.
Garden visitors can nab a quick muffin or pastry on weekday mornings at Gertrude’s, but it’s worth a Sunday visit for full-service brunch. The humble garden frittata ($10) makes excellent use of Gertrude’s veggie stash. Loaded with savory mushrooms, seasonal sweet potato and tomatoes, and crowned with crisp spinach, the egg-white omelet is airy yet satisfying.
The unfortunately named Hot Mess ($12) surprises with tender, piquant pork neatly sandwiched between crisp tortilla layers and topped with a sturdy fried egg. The real hot mess is the Arizona Benedict ($12), which bombs with dry, too-spicy chorizo and sticky poblano hollandaise. Thankfully, the breakfast traitor is forgotten as soon as banana bread French toast ($12) hits the table. Forks audibly screeched against plates as my companions savored the last bites of dense, pan-seared bread moistened with tart prickly pear jam. Unfortunately, the rogue woodland creatures that traipsed through Gertrude’s scenic half-circle patio seeking crumbs were left wanting.
Speaking of crumbs, there’s no wrong choice for dessert. Strawberry farmers’ tart ($9) boasts a thick, square crust that smacks of mom’s homemade snickerdoodles. No complaints about the dense chocolate lava cake ($12) other than the resulting sugar coma. In contrast, citrus berry cheesecake ($7) practically floats off the plate. The sturdy mesquite flour crust – a nod to the garden exhibit where kids grind mesquite pods – is the perfect complement to the dessert’s bright, lemony filling.
Much has changed at Desert Botanical Garden since Gertrude Webster’s day. Trails meander. New plantings bloom. And inside a renovated former greenhouse, Chef Eldridge’s garden-fresh gastronomics and old-fashioned service do the original Gertrude proud.
Gertrude’s at Desert Botanical Garden
Address: 1201 N. Galvin Pkwy., Phoenix
Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Highlights: Pea and mint salad ($7 half/$12 whole); diver scallops ($14); Brussels + Breakfast ($9); Niman Strip Loin ($30); Sonoran Dog ($11); Natural Chicken ($21); Hot Mess ($12); banana bread French toast ($12); citrus berry cheesecake ($7)