caffe boa on mill
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Caffe Boa on Mill
February, 2010, Page 155
Photos by David Moore
Washington mussels in curried coconut milk
Some of its classics are gone, but Caffe Boa’s new menu and approach to wine are well worth the change.
Caffe Boa on Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe
has edged up a couple of notches in the Valley’s fine dining echelon, thanks to a new chef and a new approach. Gone are most of the classic pasta dishes, and Payton Curry – formerly of Digestif – has brought a more imaginative edge and a shift toward local ingredients.
Owners Jay and Christine Wisniewski upped the ante first in the beverage department, announcing that all servers will go through sommelier training and winning a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence – a step up from the basic honor – for the first time in 2009. The wine list offers surprises for even the most jaded of drinkers, thanks to their insider savvy on lesser-known wine regions such as Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia (they have a home in Dubrovnik and visit the wineries directly).
Then they brought in Curry in October to overhaul the somewhat dated menu. They were wise to catch this rising star. The sophisticated creations and Slow Food philosophy would be worthless in less capable hands, but Curry pulls it off the majority of the time.
That’s not to say there aren’t stumbles. The kitchen’s timing was off on all of my visits, leaving us for long stretches with an empty table. Salt is apparently one of the major food groups for at least one of the cooks. And while servers are knowledgeable and well-trained on the wine and food menus, they occasionally fail to do basic things such as recite the daily fish special, bring the bread basket, clear dishes in a timely manner or check on tables frequently enough.
But the Wisniewskis are ironing out the kinks, and I applaud them and Curry for taking such a bold step to phase out most of the comfort food and serve up interesting cuisine when most establishments are heading the other way.
spezzatini of pork
The menu is arranged as first, second and third courses. First courses, or appetizers, include organic field greens salad ($9) with beautiful leaves, tangy-sweet tawny port vinaigrette and just enough blue cheese, pears and candied walnuts to add oomph. Daily pulled mozzarella was well worth $12, especially because the sweet house-roasted pepperonata jazzes it up far and beyond the boring Caprese. Shrimp Adriatico ($9), a mainstay from the old menu, still made me want to soak my bread in it to sop up every drop of the garlicky sauce.
Mild, local McClendon radishes ($7), dressed with hints of vinegar, Slovenian pumpkin seed oil, shallots and parsley, were simple and simply wonderful. And tiny, tender Washington mussels in curried coconut milk ($13) offered a welcome twist from the usual garlic-wine broth.
Curry’s charcuterie made the move with him from the old place, but his duck, rabbit and pork pâté was tough, chunky and chewy. Artisan cheeses such as Wisconsin blue and Black Mesa Ranch goat, though, were divine. You can make a plate of meats and cheeses for two for $12, three for $17 or four for $20.
The only true letdowns were the veal marrow bones – I was hard pressed to scrape up $10 worth of marrow – and the fall panzanella ($10). Luscious lettuce and crisp croutons were clobbered with chewy, whole marinated mushrooms.
Second courses, or pastas, showed flashes of brilliance. Why go back to holdovers like voodoo penne and mushroom agnolotti when you can try spezzatini of pork ($18) with cauliflower ravioli, organic carrots, roasted heirloom potato and fresh grated horseradish? Or creamy sweet pea ravioli ($16) with braised artichoke hearts and Italian mint cream?
Toasted herb gnocchi with sweetbreads
Best of all, it takes a mad genius to try to sell toasted herb gnocchi ($18) with milk-braised Dutch Valley sweetbreads, tiny diced apples and carrots and calvados (apple brandy) in this economy, but I’m crazy about it.
Unfortunately, someone turned my Fernet Branca short ribs tortelloni ($18) into a salt lick one night. I asked for a re-do and it came out well-seasoned, though the too-heavy Pecorino fondue sauce was still so rich I probably wouldn’t order it again.
Third courses yielded moments of joy and pain. Fresh day boat fish on one visit was striped bass ($28), which the server pointed out was filleted just three hours earlier. That sealed the deal. Crispy outside, flaky inside, on a bed of aromatic black Forbidden rice and fava beans – pure bliss.
Then there was Sonoma lamb loin ($28), sliced thin, cooked to the perfect pinkness and paired with braised tepary beans, local carrots and bee pollen, mint breadcrumbs, escarole and game jus. Heavenly. And farm strip steak ($29) was tender, cooked just right, and gently complemented by mushrooms, pancetta and sides of fingerling potatoes and fresh arugula.
Desserts ($9) were mostly forgettable. The chocolate and raspberry Napoleon was the only one worth the calories.
The sweetest morsel of all, though, was learning that Caffe Boa on Mill (not affiliated with the Caffe Boa in Ahwatukee; the proprietor there and Wisniewski went their separate ways years ago) was opening a new location around the holidays near Las Sendas in Mesa. Bumping up the foodie factor and expanding it to the far East Valley? That’s something we can all swallow.
Caffe Boa on Mill
: 398 S. Mill Ave., Tempe
: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday to Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday and Friday (bar open longer); 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday; 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday brunch
: McClendon radishes ($7); organic field greens salad ($9); Washington mussels in curried coconut milk ($13); daily pulled mozzarella ($12); spezzatini of pork ($18); sweet pea ravioli ($16); toasted herb gnocchi ($18); Sonoma lamb loin ($28); chocolate and raspberry Napoleon ($9)
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