For free monthly updates, event invitations and exclusive deals, sign-up for our newsletter!
Enter a keyword such as “Italian” or “Hamburgers” or type the name of the restaurant below.
Elin Jeffords and Carey Sweet
January, 2013, Page 106
The Salt Cellar
With the Valley’s food scene in full-bloom, it’s easy to overlook the evergreen eateries that have been feeding Phoenicians for decades. We take a fresh look at some fine-dining mainstays. Do they still have what it takes to impress today’s foodies?
The Salt Cellar
550 N. Hayden Rd., Scottsdale
Veteran restaurants change with the times or not at all. The Salt Cellar is solidly in the second category. An architectural oddity, the underground eatery was built in 1971 after the then-owner – who also had a two-story restaurant in Scottsdale – joked that all he was missing was a basement. Ta da! The subterranean theme didn’t seem so odd at the time. Remember, this was an era when folks dined in re-purposed railroad cars and clamored for cocktails served in rotating rooftops.
The name, by the way, is a pun on both the proximity of the newly dug cellar to the nearby Salt River, and its stock of pre-shaker-era salt servers (guess you had to be there).
Current owners Rich and Cindy Huie bought the pseudo-structure in 1981 and decided to keep the name because it had become so well-known in town. After 10 years working at one-time Valley hotspot Nantucket Lobster Trap, Huie had earned his piscine bona fides, building relationships with suppliers all over the world, so The Salt Cellar – which started as a steakhouse – became a seafood destination. To this day, he air-ships fresh product directly from the source and is acutely attuned to seasonality.
There is a core menu – lobsters are a Maine-stay – but it’s specialties like Nantucket scallops in November and soft-shelled crabs in the spring that keep aficionados checking the website or signing up for the mailing list.
Though more than 20 years have passed, my last visit feels like only yesterday as I descend the familiar wooden stairs into the dim, lodge-like environs. There is a clubby, narrow bar and two sedate dining areas with big booths and soothing seascapes on the wall. The staff is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Got questions? They have answers.
If Salt Cellar has a signature, it would be the über-rich Shrimp San Remo: tender, sweet crustaceans in a garlicky butter sauce with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and portobello mushrooms ($14; also available on pasta as an entrée, $31). Turtle soup fans will embrace the dark, dusky brew served with a shot of sherry ($8). For pure seafood simplicity, a shared bucket of steamed clams ($20) is definitely the ticket. I wish I loved the sponge-like skewered calamari steak strips ($10), but I’m a rings-and-tentacles kinda girl.
I was thrilled to have silky, succulent Alaskan halibut cheeks again; the down-east delicacy ($36) is soft and rich, perfectly paired with tart capers and lemon butter. (At $39, the halibut filet is more conventional and equally delicious.) Served with a spunky sweet chile sauce, the Florida grouper ($39) reminded me of monkfish; it was firm and meaty, but a little of that chile sauce brushed on during the cooking process would have amplified the flavor of the fish. Robust seared ahi ($38) is the filet mignon of the deep (and wow, that wasabi makes a statement).
The rest of the meal was pretty much the same as my previous visit, a direct blast from the ’80s past: cool and crunchy, old-fashioned iceberg salad dressed with a blue cheese-studded vinaigrette; bright green, optimally prepared broccoli; and choice of decent rice pilaf or loaded baked potato. (Desserts are outsourced and marginal; a couple satisfyingly gooey, all-American sundaes would be welcome.)
I suspect the next time I descend those stairs, everything will still be the same, and that’s just fine. -
• • • •
2728 E. Thomas Rd., Phoenix
I own a book titled 100 Best Restaurants in the Valley of the Sun – 1983. Avanti is listed at the highest rating of three stars, holding that distinction nearly a decade after its opening in 1974. When I was in my 20s, I loved Avanti’s glamorous black-and-white-and-chrome colors, mirrored walls and cave lighting. The striking decor has been toned down a bit, but not much else has changed about the Sinatra-era style and menu.
Translation: Avanti has long been off the radar for most younger diners. But there’s still a solid core of fans among baby boomers, and it’s worth a visit just for the fun of the piano bar.
Seeing the staff inspires a powerful sense of déjà vu – the restaurant manager who has been there 30-plus years, the kitchen staffer who’s handcrafted the pasta for 20 years, and, of course, the Italian-born owners, Angelo Livi and Benito Mellino. Decades ago, they showed us that pasta was much more than spaghetti, excited us with esoterica like octopus, and were some of the first restaurateurs to fly in fresh East Coast seafood daily.
Settling back now amid mustard walls, zebra fabrics and candlelight, with Livi greeting longtime customers around me, I get the sense of visiting an old friend more than embarking on an exciting culinary adventure. In the era of fast-paced, Iron Chef antics and molecular gastronomy, Avanti encourages diners to linger from aperitif to cappuccino, and there isn’t a single thing on the menu so cutting edge that servers need to explain it.
Stuffed shrimp is a retro, heavy appetizer with crabmeat scallops, spinach and mozzarella in brandy sauce ($14.50), but I prefer the lighter involtini of eggplant rolled with mozzarella and fontina, then moistened with tomato basil sauce ($11.50).
I adore the old-fashioned deliciousness of chicken parmigiana alongside a mound of spaghetti marinara ($24.50). It makes me feel like a kid, pulling the gooey strings of cheese with my fork, and winding slippery pasta around the tines. Orecchiette is pure comfort, too: The ear-shaped pasta is tumbled with an uncomplicated but oh-so-pleasing mix of sausage, rapini, olive oil and garlic ($19.50).
Years ago, odes were written to Avanti’s filet alla Benito. Compared to today’s more complex recipe standards, there’s not much to it – just a slab of tender beef smothered with mushrooms and a dark wine sauce ($33.95) – but diners who loved it then will appreciate it just as much now.
Will Avanti make its way back into my regular dining rotation? I don’t think so, since there are just too many other worthy, more stirring Italian experiences to be had around town these days. But for a superb chicken parm, or for a soothing dip into nostalgia, you bet I’d stop in again. -
• • • •
The Persian Room
The Persian Room
17040 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale
My husband fell in love with Iranian cuisine while stationed in Tehran as a U.S. Army serviceman. Back in the States, he rhapsodized about Persian delicacies like turmeric-kissed koresh bademjan stew and tah dig, the wicked-addictive crust that forms at the bottom of a pot of traditional basmati rice. His tah dig-filled dreams were finally answered when we discovered Shish Kebab House in Glendale, which opened in 1985 as the Valley’s first Persian restaurant. This launched my own love affair with the exotic yet deeply homey food. In 2001, when owner Nasser Nikkhahmanesh packed up and opened the Persian Room in Scottsdale, we followed.
The decor is exuberantly over-the-top. From the Gone With the Wind-esque staircase to the elaborate bead-trimmed draperies, the tinkling fountain and fairy lights festooning the walls, the restaurant is grandiose yet not really upscale. The carpet is a bit threadbare, the tables lack napery and the plastic menus featuring color photos of the various dishes are well-worn. But service is comfortable and efficient.
Iranian cuisine is hearty and healthful, similar to Mediterranean but amped up with a rainbow of complex seasonings. Meals begin with either pita bread or flatbread, accompanied by butter, fresh basil and raw onions. The eggplant hummus appetizer is a winner, melding pureed garbanzos and sesame paste with silky, roasted eggplant ($7.95). Torshi ($4.95), an aggressive pickled vegetable mix, is probably an acquired taste, but the yogurt and cucumber dip flecked with mint ($5.95) goes down like cool heaven. Shirazi salad ($4.95), composed of minute cubes of tomato, cuke and onion in a spunky lime dressing, resembles a salsa with a Persian palate.
That much-coveted tah dig is subject to availability, so cross your fingers. Fans of food porn could call it an X-rated rice cake – sturdy, seriously crunchy, buttery and altogether wonderful. There’s a choice of toppings: gheimeh, a beef and lentil stew goosed with smoky, citric dried lime, or ghormeh, beef with kidney beans ($8.95).
Fragrant, nutty-flavored and dappled with golden saffron, basmati rice is an artful canvas for the succulent grilled meats anchoring the menu. You’ll find various rice combos with sour cherries, barberries, fava beans, raisins and dates, or garlic and green herbs ($3.95 to $6.99 à la carte; substitutions with entrées, $3).
By some magical combination of marinades and artful broiling, the poultry and meats are uniformly magnificent. Moist, flavorful kabobs include ground chicken or beef ($13.95 each) and lamb ($16.95). Morsels of Cornish game ($17.95) melt off the bone. Barg, a juicy filet mignon kabob ($21.95), can be cut with a fork. But lamb, from the stewed shanks ($18.95) to the loin chunks skewered with bell peppers, onions and tomatoes ($19.95), reigns. Mild-spice marinades and a smoky, savory scent enrich the umami mouthfeel and meaty flavor.
Portions are extremely generous, but save a little room because the rich, custard-like Persian ice cream ($5.95) – made with saffron, rose water and pistachio – is unforgettable.
According to Nikkhahmanesh, at least 75 percent of his clientele are regulars. Not surprising. After all, it’s the best place to get a tah dig fix without being deployed. -
• • • •
For more of
magazine’s 'Restaurant Re-Reviews', check back soon, find us at newsstands Valleywide or call 480-664-3960.
today so you don’t miss another issue!
© 2007 Copyright Phoenix Magazine 15169 N. Scottsdale Road Suite C310 Scottsdale Arizona 85254
Travel & Outdoors
Best of The Valley
Phoenix Home & Garden Magazine
Advertise With Us
Web Site Design