The culinary kingpin behind La Grande Orange wades into Asian-inspired seafood – and doesn’t flounder.
Bob Lynn doesn’t have quite the name recognition of Sam Fox or Peter Kasperski, but his LGO Hospitality brand – led by flagship restaurant La Grande Orange Grocery – has achieved A-list status in the Valley. The funky Arcadia pizzeria and market is a longtime, always-packed favorite of the brunch-and-lunch crowd, and its two-year-old sister property across the street, Ingo’s Tasty Food, is beloved by the Valley’s culinary intelligentsia.
LGO seemed stuck in neutral for a few years following its initial success, but no more – the brand clearly has its “What will they do next?” juice back.
LGO’s latest venture is Lynn’s riskiest to date – an upscale surf-and-turf joint in an ever-deepening pond of seafood startups in the Valley. Named Buck & Rider after a fisherman’s term for mating crabs, the newly constructed eatery at 44th Street and Camelback Road – located in the old Havana Cafe location – marries the old-school charm of such leather-stitched Valley eateries as Durant’s and the departed Beef Eater’s with modern, industrial décor. We’re talking burgundy booths and crystal chandeliers nestled alongside metal girders, abstract art prints and exposed ductwork. Sliding glass doors on the back wall allow the cozy, dimly-lit eatery to become one with the large patio.
Executive Chef Shay Gau is an LGO regular, having headed up kitchens at the original pizzeria and the now-defunct radioMILANO. So it’s no surprise he knows how to construct an approachable menu of Americanized norimaki (sushi rolls), chilled shellfish, expressive salads and eclectic entrees. Thanks to daily fish deliveries, Buck & Rider’s seafood tastes like it was plucked straight from the Pacific. But it’s Gau’s magic with exotic herbs and condiments that makes every dish a punch to the palate.
A light application of fiery harissa chile spread to Buck & Rider’s shrimp and chorizo skewers ($13), for example, highlights the pork sausage’s pungent flavor without completely obliterating the sweetness of plump, jumbo shrimp. The peppery African condiment adds notes of coriander and garlic that make even the garnish veggies worth gnawing. Likewise, Gau’s use of the Middle Eastern herb blend za’atar imparts a subtle, reassuring bass note to an earthy avocado salad ($14) jazzed up with feta and vinegary niçoise olives. The dish is a textural delight, smooth avocado contrasting with crumbly feta and firm chickpeas for a satisfying mouthful.
The chef’s use of fermented bean paste adds a welcome tang to the lobster Tobanjan roll with jicama, avocado and mango ($17), but the soy paper wrap is an unappealing vehicle for the otherwise tasty dish. Instead, opt for the crab and macadamia nut version ($14) with a crisp asparagus crunch and briny seaweed wrap. Or try Gau’s lobster roll “Nik Niks,” a buttery take on the Cape Cod classic served on house slider rolls ($18).
On the topic of yummy starch, Buck & Rider’s cornbread ($8) is a winner. Baked and served in a mini cast-iron skillet, it’s delectably moist yet crumbly, with fresh corn kernels for bite. Pair the crusty loaf with grass-fed steak tartare that smacks of lemon and egg ($18), or use it in lieu of the tasteless gluten-free crackers served with the deviled crab dip ($12). Made with red potatoes and thin-sliced watermelon radishes, the popular dip is creamy but suffers from an overpowering seaside scent.
Luckily, crab fans can delight in the pillowy texture of stone crab claws served by the piece (market price), or blue crab cakes ($38) that deliciously do justice to the eatery’s cheeky nomenclature (it feels like Gau stuffed two whole crabs into these puppies). Chipotle-spiced and served with zingy mustard sauce, they lead an eclectic lineup of nine entrees that includes a fresh and simple take on blackened snapper with stewed tomatoes and rice ($27), a shrimp and trofie pasta dish called Radio Milano ($23), and a thick Strauss filet mignon served over mouthwatering celery root purée that mimics mashed potatoes ($38).
Almond pesto lends the al dente Radio Milano pasta a nutty, forest-like base that lurks beneath brighter tomato notes. If hearty is what you’re after, the lean and well-seasoned Strauss tenderloin is a better bet, the crisp haricots vert lessening its caloric burden. Though most entrees arrive with greens, Gau’s crispy Brussels sprouts ($10) is an always-advisable add-on. Showered in sharp apple gastrique and served with a decadent goat cheese dipping sauce, the lightly blackened sprouts are almost sugary enough to move from “pantry” to “dessert.”
My favorite bites on the menu are Gau’s beautifully seared yuzu-marinated scallops. Though offered in the “provisions” (i.e. appetizers) section, the citrusy mollusks could easily qualify for main status if dished with a suitable starch and some greens.
There’s no in-house pastry chef at Buck & Rider, but thanks to sister bakery LGO Bake Shop, diners can finish on a sweet note. Four-layer chocolate cake is so dense and rich that our table of four couldn’t even finish a slice, while the airy topping of lemon meringue pie resembles homemade marshmallow fluff ($10 each). The latter’s tart filling is stellar, sweet and pucker-inducing without the blubbery gelatin mouthfeel that too often ruins diner pies.
Lynn isn’t the first local restaurateur to ride the wave of “upscale casual” coastal fare, but with its novel Asian inflections and crisp presentations, Buck & Rider keeps up with the Joneses (or in this case, the Foxes): I’d put it about on par with the trendy Pacific fare at Little Cleo’s. And it certainly outsails the nautical-décor overload and anchor-weight grub at Yacht Club down the street.
Though Buck & Rider is a tad late to the party, consistent quality and Gau’s use of exotic flavor profiles should keep exacting diners occupied – along with the question: “What do two mating crabs look like?”
Buck & Rider
Contact: 4225 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-346-0110, buckandrider.com
Hours: Dinner 4-11 p.m. M-Th, 4 p.m.-midnight F-Sa, 4-10 p.m. Su; happy hour 4-6 p.m daily
Highlights: Harissa shrimp and chorizo skewers ($13); avocado salad ($14); crab and macadamia nut roll ($14); lobster roll “Nik Niks” ($18); Buck & Rider green chile cornbread ($8); crispy Brussels sprouts ($10); blue crab cakes ($38); Radio Milano trofie pasta ($23); grass-fed filet mignon ($38); LGO Bake Shop lemon meringue pie ($10)
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